Build That Carrier, Quick!
The Duke of Wellington’s description of the Battle of Waterloo – “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, by God!” also describes the Sino-Indian stand-off at Doklam that ended last month in a mutual pullback. But we must also consider what might have happened had it come to hostilities, and the frank answer would be: Besides China’s infrastructure and equipment advantages on the land border, India would have been caught short even in the theatre where it enjoys strategic advantage over China – the maritime domain in the Indian Ocean.
All of this year, the navy’s proposal for building a second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, has gone back and forth between the defence secretary and the navy. The ministry lets it be known that a hurried decision would be unwise, since an aircraft carrier is such a high-value platform that it would block badly needed procurements for the army and air force. Meanwhile, on March 31, underlining how much concern it really has for equipment procurement, the ministry surrendered Rs 7,000 crore of unspent capital funds – more than what it would have paid out last year had a contract been signed for building the carrier.
INS Vishal is set to be one of the military’s most long-drawn procurements, with the navy itself having taken years to identify its precise requirements. After extensive consultations with the US Navy, India’s admirals concluded they required a nuclear powered aircraft carrier of at least 65,000 tonnes, embarking at least 50-55 aircraft and a high-tech electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft quicker and with greater payloads than the ski-jump that currently equips Indian carriers. At the heart of a carrier battle group, which would include multi-role destroyers and frigates, the Vishal would be able to control swathes of the Indian Ocean or project power across the Indo-Pacific.
While the defence ministry goes back-and-forth over the Vishal, the navy makes do with a single carrier, INS Vikramaditya, which carries just 26 unreliable MiG-29 fighters and 10 helicopters – an insufficient capability to battle a serious foe. The first indigenous carrier, INS Vikrant, which Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) is building with agonizing slowness, will be ready for displays and galas by 2019, but for battle only by 2022-23. Given the eight-year time overrun in building the Vikrant, CSL would surely take more than a decade to build INS Vishal, once the order is placed. And that seems nowhere in sight.
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