Power projection

Indian Navy’s growing maritime capabilities

The much awaited commissioning of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and its handing over to the Indian Navy as an Indian warship is all set to boost the Indian Navy’s endeavours to position itself as a robust blue water maritime force capable of taking care of Indian interests across the global oceanic waters while ensuring the maritime security of Indian mainland in all its manifestations.

This 44,500 tonne Kiev class battle ship, formerly called Admiral Gorshkov, was inducted into the Indian Navy by Defence Minister A K Antony.
“Carriers have been part of the Indian Navy since independence and have effectively served the country for over five decades. The induction of Vikramaditya with its integral MiG-29K fighters and Kamov-31 helicopters, not only reinforces this central policy but adds a dimension to the navy’s operational capability,” observed Antony while speaking at the commissioning ceremony.

He also described INS Vikramaditya as the true symbol of the time tested special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia. On the other hand, Indian Navy chief Admiral D K Joshi drove home the point that  Vikramaditya  would bridge the  time gap  between the retirement of the ageing INS Viraat now in service with the Indian Navy and the under construction of the home grown carrier INS Vikrant. Joshi also noted that Vikramaditya would provide the Indian Navy a two carrier capability in the medium term. India has ordered 45 of Russian origin MiG-29K deck based fighters and 20 of them have already been stationed at Indian Navy’s Hansa air station in Goa.

Vikramaditya has been described as flexible and robust enough to support the operations of Sea Harrier jump sets, home-grown Chetak search and rescue choppers, anti submarine warfare helicopters and the home grown ALH (Advanced Light Helicopter) Dhruv equipped to carry out night flying operations.


Indeed, the transformation of this decommissioned aircraft carrier cruiser into a well equipped short take off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) air defence platform was as complex as it was challenging. As it is, Sevmash shipyard had carried out painstaking ground work to turn this one time “modest warship” into a formidable ocean moving carrier well equipped to support a range of aviation assets.

One of the major components of this radical transformation was the fitting of a 2500 tonne ski jump and arrester gear in addition to drastic modifications in 1750 of the ship’s 2500 compartments. Supported by eight high performance steam boilers, Vikramaditya can cruise up a top speed of 29.5 knots. The aviation assets of this aircraft carrier are effectively controlled by the Resistor E radar complex. Capable of supporting more than 1600 personnel, Vikramaditya is considered a “veritable floating city”

Though marked by acrimonious haggling over the price and marred by delays and hiccups, the aircraft carrier engineered around the decommissioned Russian warship Admiral Gorshkov, will help fulfil the Indian Navy’s plan to operate two carrier battle groups covering both the eastern and western flanks of the oceanic expanse around the country.

Along with the Indian Navy’s currently operational flagship 24,000 tonne INS Viraat and the home grown aircraft carrier INS Vikrant (IAC-1) expected to be inducted by around 2018, Indian Navy will have the distinction of operating multiple aircraft carriers.

Indeed, in the backdrop of  India’s ascending international  profile, strategic location with the Indian Ocean in its immediate vicinity, growing  requirement for energy security  as well as  to ensure the safety of shipping traffic in the Indian Ocean Region, the need to operate a dynamic and strong navy with a forward looking vision has become all the more pronounced.

IOR focus

With the current resources and planned future accretion of assets, Indian Navy is looking at positioning itself as a three dimensional; network enabled and satellite augmented maritime force with a global reach.

Moreover, in the wake of the rapid expansion of piracy in the IOR posing a serious threat to the shipping industry and the use of sea channels by terrorists as exemplified by the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, ensuring the safety and security of the oceanic expanse around India without further loss of time has become a pressing need. And with two aircraft carriers at its disposal in the immediate future, Indian Navy can confidently tackle the misuse of the oceanic channels by “undesirable and dangerous elements.”

All said and done, for now, the major focus of the Indian Navy would be on the Indian Ocean region, which covering an area of 68 million sq kms, stands out as the busiest sea channel, vital for  international trade and commerce.  

In particular, the strategic importance of Indian Ocean stems from the fact that it accounts for nearly half of the global energy trade. With eight choke points and a number of regional hotspots, it is a highly militarised and unstable region of the world. Stability and safety in the Indian Ocean region is crucial for the global economy. The region faces a host of security problems ranging from terrorism, piracy, WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) proliferation, to human trafficking and organised crime.

And it is not for nothing that quite recently Antony highlighted the need for a “power packed action plan” aimed at regulating armed guards and armouries aboard commercial ships.

This has assumed more than usual significance in the context of the recent seizure of arms laden US owned cargo ship off the Tamil Nadu coast preceded by the killing of two Keralite fishermen by Italian marines. A fully seamless and integrated approach by all the stake holders is imperative for achieving a gap free coastal environment in the country.

Meanwhile, there have been disturbing reports to suggest that INS Vikramaditya may have been snooped on by the American origin P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft in service with the NATO command. The warship now sailing towards India has excited lot of interest in the global navies that are keen on getting a peep into its “potentials and strengths”.

Not long back sources in the Indian Navy had expressed apprehension that many foreign nations including China could deploy surveillance aircraft, orbiting spacecraft and other sensitive devices to monitor the movement of the carrier. Vikramaditya will be berthed at India’s most sophisticated naval base INS Kadamba in Karwar overlooking the Arabian Sea. This naval base, whose second phase expansion program has been okayed by the Government of India, also boasts of a well equipped naval air station. In view of the congestion in the naval yard at Mumbai, the decision to station Vikramaditya at Karwar was a right move on the part of the Indian Navy.

The history of Vikramaditya is as complex as it is tortuous. Under a contract signed in 2004 India has agreed to pay US$974 for the retrofitting of the carrier along with another $536 million for 16 carrier borne fighter MiG-29 K jets. As per this contract, Russia was to deliver the fully refurbished aircraft carrier by 2008. However, Russia, citing reasons such as fluctuations in the global currency market and underestimation of the work involved in retrofitting as well as additional work India wanted to be done demanded a steep hike in payment. And in March 2010 the matter was settled with India agreeing to pay US$2.33-billion for retrofitting the aircraft carrier. All said and done right at the moment the carrier is without its air defence system. It will become fully functional only after the fighter aircraft are integrated within its overall architecture in a phased manner. Similarly, Barak air defence missile will take sometime for getting integrated into the carrier.

Strategic competition

There is no denying the fact that aircraft carrier is key to the power projection by a naval force. With India competing with China for the strategic space in IOR, INS Vikramaditya will be a major asset. Indian Navy has said that a suite of weapons and sensors on-board Vikramaditya makes it far more potent than earlier generation carriers that required protection. The Vikramaditya will dramatically increase the reach of the navy, creating a sanitised bubble of 300 nautical miles around the battle group, essential for conducting distant area operations in Indo Pacific region.

“The ship has been modernized and repaired. This allows us to say that it will be able to serve the Indian Navy for 40 years. Its life can be further enhanced if properly maintained,” observes Andrey Dyachkov, Director General of Russia’s Northern Shipbuilding Centre which controls Sevmash.  It is not for nothing that USA has been able to dominate the sea waves across the world while playing a key role  in the affairs of Middle East, South East and elsewhere. The immense force projection capabilities its navy has been able to command through eleven carrier battle groups is a single potent factor making for unchallenged US presence in the oceanic stretch of the world.

Clearly and apparently, aircraft carriers serve as vital platforms for long range power projection in support of national interests. Evacuating Indians from crisis prone, war torn countries in a fast track mode would need a platform strong enough to deal with threats from a long distance. Closer home, India’s search for a secure link from the sea to Afghanistan through Iran could possibly face a threat from the both China and Pakistan since China is now in administrative control of the vital Gwadar port in the restive Balochistan province.

Similarly, the peace time operations of the Indian Navy like evacuating the population faced with the threat of natural disasters like tsunamis and cyclones could be ably supported by an aircraft carrier.

The growing Chinese presence in IOR, which has been substantially strengthened by the  Chinese policy of  creating “string of pearls “ around India, has added urgency to India’s plan to boost the striking punch and area of influence of the Indian Navy through the effective deployment of the carrier battle groups.

The follow on Vishal aircraft carrier, which is still in conceptual stage, is planned to be more complex and advanced in comparison to INS Vikrant. In this context, Indian Navy Vice Chief Vice Admiral R K Dhowan says “detailed study was underway on the size, type of aircraft and  their launch and recovery systems, propulsion and the like for the IAC-2 project”.  Nuclear power is being projected as one of the options for IAC-2 in comparison to gas propulsion adopted for INS Vikrant.  However, the nuclear reactor technology for an aircraft carrier is an area where India has very little experience and as such it would need to seek foreign collaboration.  China on its part has unveiled an ambitious plan for its own nuclear powered carrier.

Undoubtedly, the nuclear powered carrier has a far higher advantage in terms of the indefinite endurance in comparison to 45 days endurance for a conventional carrier powered by non nuclear energy sources. Of course, the design experience that India has acquired during the course of designing, developing and building INS Vikrant would prove valuable while going ahead with the construction of the follow on aircraft carrier planned to be ready by early next century.  

INS Vikrant

By all means, the impressive launch of India’s home-grown aircraft carrier INS Vikrant-earlier known as IAC-1(Indian aircraft carrier) at the Cochin shipyard in August this year- was a development of great significance for the Indian Navy in its quest to become a major sea borne power in the world.  

China’s state controlled English language Tabloid has described INS Vikrant as a threat to China. And Chinese defence analysts have expressed the view that with INS Vikrant in place, Indian Navy would be able to operate in Pacific Ocean where China is strengthening  its naval presence to challenge American dominance.

Vikrant happens to be the largest warship built in India. The highpoint of Vikrant is that the military grade, high performance steel required for its construction was developed by the state owned Steel Authority of India (SAIL). Over the next three years, the entire superstructure of Vikrant, including the landing deck and arrester wire, will be put in place with a view to complete extensive sea trials. Vikrant will be inducted into the fleet of the Indian Navy by 2018 as the third aircraft carrier. It may be recalled that India’s first aircraft carrier  also named INS Vikrant, acquired from Great Britain way back in 1961 had played a stellar role in  wreaking havoc on occupying  Pakistani  naval forces in  Chittagong and Cox Bazar in Bangladesh during the 1971 liberation war.  

The aviation assets of 38,000-tonne class INS Vikrant would include Russian origin MiG-29K as well as the naval variant of the Indian made fourth generation fighter aircraft Tejas which is now under development. In addition, INS Vikrant will support Kamov-31 deck based helicopters and naval version of India’s Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv.  Further, it would be equipped with Indo-Israeli long range surface to air missile as well as close in weapons system.      

Space assets

Indian Navy’s long term plan of exploiting the space assets to expand its area of power projection crossed an important milestone with the flawless orbiting of India’s first exclusive military spacecraft GSAT-7 by means of an Ariane-5 vehicle of the European space transportation company Arianespace. Built by the Indian space agency known for its expertise in the area of engineering advanced communications space platforms, the multi band GSAT-7 will serve as Indian Navy’s versatile space platform to link up resources spread across the oceanic sprawl as well on the ground.

There is no denying the point that GSAT-7 also known INSAT-4F, which had a lift off mass of 2550-kg will facilitate the Indian Navy’s action plan to exploit its potentials in an effective and integrated manner. Specifically, this satellite with 1000-nautical miles footprint over IOR, will transform the entire maritime domain awareness of the Indian Navy. The high speed and safe communications network made available by GSAT-7 would make for vastly enhanced strategic operations and strengthen Indian navy’s network centric capability.

Further, GSAT-7 will help the Indian Navy get a digital tactical battlefield view of the dispersed fleet formations, aircraft locations and even submarines moving stealthily in the depths of the oceans. The synergy between combat platforms moving in the high seas of the world with the land based nodes through GSAT-7 capability would help bring about a radical shift in the operational strategy of the Indian Navy.  

Of course, the Indian Navy has left none in doubt that it would make all out efforts to acquire a range of satellites meant for a variety of end uses on a sustained and regular basis. For Indian Navy is conscious of the fact that ocean monitoring satellites snooping on the naval movements, electronic ferret satellites gathering data on radio frequencies, meteorological satellites predicting weather to facilitate an effective use of the weapons systems, navigation satellites guiding lethal weapons to designated locations with an unfailing accuracy, reconnaissance satellites providing vital data on the strength of the potential adversaries and the communications satellites ensuring a real time link up for the effective use of the resources are indispensable components of the modern day battlefield scenario.

As strategic experts drive home the point that with China rapidly expanding its presence in India’s neighbouring countries including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives through its “string of pearls” strategy, India should leave no stone unturned for realizing a robust satellite based surveillance network designed to enable Indian Navy step up its vigil in the Indian ocean region with a view to ward off any threat to the Indian mainland.        

ASW capability

Of course, right at the moment Indian Navy can refine its anti submarine warfare strategy through bathymetric studies and monitoring the movement of ships and vessels in the oceanic water, by accessing the Indian Oceansat-II satellite fully operational since 2009.

Further Indian Navy can use Oceansat-II data for forecasting wind velocity over the ocean surface as well as storms and hurricanes brewing in the oceanic depths. Indian Navy can very well stand to benefit from the advanced ocean monitoring satellite Oceansat-III that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning to launch during the second half of this decade.

Like two other wings of the services, Indian Navy has a limited access to the IRS earth observation and INSAT/GSAT communications spacecraft constellation being operated by ISRO. On another front, the access that the Indian Navy could have to the fully Indian built navigation satellite, IRNSS-1A, which was launched in July this year, stands out as a very positive development in its quest to expand its area of “operation and influence.”

Incidentally, IRNSS-1A, the first of the seven spacecraft that would constitute the space segment of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), would offer a reliable system for location identification and navigational support for the warships and fighting platforms in the sea. Access to the navigation potentials of a spacecraft system also holds the key to the use of precision weapons including long range missiles with a high degree of accuracy.

Meanwhile, in the context of then rapid expansion of maritime terrorism  in the Indian ocean region along with the use of sea channels by smugglers criminals  and arms traffickers, Avinash Chander, Director General of Defence Research and Development  Organisation (DRDO)  has  suggested the need for India to create a robust  mechanism to fully monitor  IOR in a  three dimensional manner. To accomplish this objective, he has projected the need for deploying about 80-100 satellites designed for covering the IOR.

In a major boost to the Indian Navy’s plan to enhance its surveillance in the oceanic waters, second of the eight P-81 long range maritime surveillance and anti submarine warfare aircraft it had ordered from Boeing was delivered recently. This aircraft has been located at INS Rajaji Naval base at Arkonam in Tamil Nadu with a view to improve surveillance in the sensitive Indian Ocean region- stretching from Gulf of Aden in the West to Malacca Strait in the east.

The first P-81 aircraft was received in May 2013.The remaining six P-81s are planned to be delivered in a phased manner over the next 30 months. Meanwhile, India would be pursuing the option of placing a repeat order for four more P-81 at an estimated cost of Rs 43, 810-million. India is said to be the first international customer of this combat aircraft ideally suited for sustained operations under marine environment.

Launch of Vikrant, attainment of criticality of Arihant’s nuclear reactor and its impending sea trials, induction of Shivalik class stealth frigates, ongoing trails of Kolkata, the lead ship of Project 15A stealth destroyers, have demonstrated the strength of Indian Navy’s R&D, Naval Design and Industry. The synergy between Navy, DRDO and Industry has enhanced the pace, quantum and quality of indigenisation. Globally very few select countries construct their own ships, aircraft carriers and submarines, including nuclear ones. And all these achievements by Indian Navy is a matter of national pride

In the ultimate analysis, along with aircraft carrier battle groups, Indian Navy would need to substantially strengthen its aviation assets, expand its access to space resources and computing power and  beef up its under sea fighting arm to realize its  transformation into a three dimensional, network centric enabled maritime time power with blue water capabilities.

The rapidly changing contours of the warfare strategy should nudge the Indian Navy to stay updated in so far as the acquisition of high tech tools is concerned.