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Ocean domination

Vikramaditya: Indian Navy enters a new era

The saga of much delayed and talked about controversial project of Indian Navy is going to be over now. Indian Navy is now in possession of a gigantic warship to boast of.  

The handing over of the INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), to Indian Defence Minister A K Antony at a gala ceremony attended by the Russian defence minister and top defence functionaries at the Russian Sevmash shipyard on 15th November 2013 marked a proud moment in the history of Indian Navy, which can rightly be said to have entered a new era.

To quote the Chief of Indian Navy Admiral D K Joshi , “given our vast maritime domain, far flung island territories, national interests and the extremely dynamic geostrategic environment, Vikramaditya’s recent commissioning has further bolstered our Carrier centric Blue Water capability.”

The project originally was proposed to India way back in 2000 when the Russian authorities offered to gift the Aircraft Carrier Admiral Gorshkov free of cost and India was asked to pay for its overhaul and modernization.

Initial delays

The US$ 970 million deal was finally signed in 2004 and the modernized Gorshkov was agreed to be handed over to India in 2008. But cost related issues delayed the project by five years, generating acrimonies in the security and political establishment of India and Russia.

Though ultimately India had to pay US$ 2.3 billion, naval officials are of the opinion that the deal was worth paying for. The Carrier has been entirely refurbished. Except the hull everything has been replaced. Indian naval officials contend that the Carrier is almost 80 percent new and will be able to project India as a maritime power in the Indian Ocean, which can establish total sea control over the entire Ocean.

Interestingly this was on the agenda of India ever since the days of Jawahar Lal Nehru, who, though was christened as greatest peacenik was the first to give the green signal to acquire an Aircraft Carrier and okayed the proposal to have three Carriers with Indian Navy.

Since, those were the Cold War era and Nehru rightly visualized the challenge India might face from the maritime domain in the coming decades and hence was right in deciding to mark India’s presence in the Indian Ocean. Nehru had realized the geostrategic significance of the maritime area around India in those days when India was focusing on nation building.

In accordance with this vision India acquired the 18,000 displacement capacity second hand British navy Carrier and inducted this in Indian Navy in 1961 as INS Vikrant. But India’s future leaders never executed his vision for possessing three Aircraft Carriers. India’s defence planners had then thought of deploying one Carrier on the Eastern Sea board and another on the Western Sea Board and the third will remain in the Shipyard for maintenance and refit.

This visionary maritime agenda has not yet been executed though ongoing plans do indicate that Indian Navy will be a real owner of fleet of three Carriers by the beginning of next decade.

The only present serving Carrier the 28,000 ton Viraat is scheduled to be retired when the Indian made 37,500 ton Carrier INS Vikrant will be inducted in the Indian Navy.

Since the INS Virkamaditya is now on its way to Indian naval base Karwar, the Indian Navy will have its second ACC along with INS Viraat.  Indian Navy is the only navy in the Indian Ocean which possesses the Aircraft Carrier.

Though the Thai Navy possesses a small 11,500 ton ACC, but it is mostly deployed in pacific and the South China Sea and cannot be considered as a challenge to Indian Navy. India and Thai Navy has a very cooperative maritime relationship and both complement each other’s maritime interests.  Also the Thai Navy has no great ambition to mark its deterrent presence in the Indian Ocean.

However, the latest acquisition of a resurrected Soviet Carrier by the Chinese Navy has reignited debate among the strategic circles over the race to dominate the Oceans and India’s plans to counter the enhanced maritime presence in Indian Ocean with long term plans to base its naval assets in the littoral states of Indian Ocean.  

Critical gap

With Indian economy increasingly getting dependent on the maritime trade, the need to provide safe passage to Indian merchant ships has become very much essential.

Though the Carriers will provide India the Sea Control capabilities but there is a very serious gap in the sea denial capability of Indian Navy and even if India fast tracks its plans to acquire more under water stealth  platforms, Indian Navy would not be able to compete with the Chinese navy till the middle of next decade.

This critical gap in Indian naval capabilities will be seriously felt by the naval planners. The Indo-Pacific region is getting volatile and India’s economic and strategic interests lie in ensuring a tension free maritime area under international domain. Hence India must have maritime capabilities to challenge its detractors in the Indo pacific region.

The Aircraft Carriers provide that capabilities but ultimately it all depends on the political will of its leadership, which has not shown the requisite eagerness to equip the Carrier with all required systems.

Since the key defence systems like surface to air missiles have not yet been deployed as no agreement has yet been concluded to acquire them, the naval observers are worried. Without this defensive mechanism, the Aircraft Carrier will be a sitting duck in the Oceans.

Hence the security managers of the country must fast track its acquisition process and operationalize the Carrier with full offensive and defensive systems on board.

The 44,500 tons Carrier with a fleet of 30 aircrafts including the most versatile MiG-29k maritime fighter, the Kamov- 31 helicopter, the Advanced Light Helicopters etc cannot be sent to the high seas without the defensive mechanism.

Even when the Carrier was about to be handed over to Indian Navy after completing its sea trials,  attempts were made to snoop on its communications and combat signatures.

On its way to the Indian naval base Karwar, the INS Vikramaditya was accompanied by the 183 member Russian guarantee team which will remain in Karwar for one year to make the Carrier operational and help the Indian crew operate the crew from the home base.

The Russian side is also negotiating the contract negotiations for the post guarantee period according to the Vice President of Russia’s United Ship building Corporation Mr Igor Ponomarev. The DG of Nevskoye Design Bureau Mr Sergey Vlasov asserted that Russia is committed to being involved through the 40 year life of the Vikramaditya and Russian team will provide the required design support.

While commissioning the Carrier at the Sevmash Shipyard in northern Arctic at a ceremony the Indian defence minister A K Antony rightly pointed out in front of the August gathering of top Russian defence elite that the successful culmination of the project truly symbolizes the time tested special and privileged partnership between our two nations.

Though he also pointed out that there was a time when we thought that we will never get the Carrier. Antony said that the INS Vikramaditya would significantly enhance the Indian     Navy’s reach and capability. He also reminded the strategic observers that the Carriers have been a part of Indian naval force structure for decades.