Indian Navy’s proposal, however, is yet to secure an ‘in principle’ approval from the ministry of defence.
Why has the Indian Navy been so eager to acquire a new 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier, putatively called INS Vishal, for north of $20 billion?
Many would perhaps find the Indian Navy’s enthusiasm a little strange at a time when the service is desperately short of submarines and ship-borne helicopters.
The answer to the above question lies in the fact that large aircraft carriers with an on-board launch system, especially of the kind the Indian Navy wants to build, offer unmatched utility for a variety of tasks including anti-submarine warfare (ASW), despite the aforementioned vulnerabilities.
However, the price tag for INS Vishal has made the ministry of defence (MoD) chary of giving it the go ahead. It has been almost a year since the proposal began circulating in the MoD’s decision chain, but is yet to secure even an ‘in principle’ approval.
Green lighting the project would mean redirecting capital outlay meant for the modernisation of Indian Army and the Indian Air Force toward the Navy, something that would be intensely resisted.
Indications are that this proposal is unlikely to see serious bureaucratic movement before 2022. This would mean that INS Vishal will be ready for commissioning only by around 2040, given the standard building time in India. The Indian Navy’s cherished dream of operating a three-carrier naval force by the 2030s, with one carrier each being available for either seaboard at all times, appears unlikely to be realised.
That would certainly be a blow for the Indian Navy, which has enshrined the three-carrier requirement in its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) for the period 2012-27. And, it has been working closely with the United States via the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Co-operation (JWGACTC) to realise this ambition in the form of INS Vishal.
Exposure to the US carrier practices and technology has played a major role in the Navy arriving at the specifications for INS Vishal, which will be designed to use an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) imported from the US. EMALS may lead to INS Vishal exhibiting superior operational performance in comparison to aircraft carriers using traditional steam catapults for launching their aircraft.
Confident that it would be able to acquire a state-of-the art carrier through American assistance that will put it ahead of the Chinese in terms of quality, the Navy had even floated a request for information (RFI) for some 57 fighters that would form Vishal’s air group in January 2017.
Unsurprisingly, quality comes at a price. Although the Indian Navy has dropped its earlier plans of making INS Vishal nuclear-propelled, the projected cost of the ship alone is easily in the $10-billion range and that is as of today.
Judging by the IAF’s Rafale deal, the proposed air group consisting of either Rafales or F-18s will cost another $12 billion or so. Simply put, with its current price tag, INS Vishal project is unlikely to see light of the day anytime soon when both the Army and the Air Force are equipping themselves for possibly fighting an ‘intense’ 10-15 day limited war with either of India’s neighbours.
The IAF also seems to have successfully made a case for using fighters based in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to fulfil some of the roles INS Vishal’s air group would have executed.
Not sanctioning INS Vishal will also have attendant costs. The trained workforce at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) that built the 40,000-tonne INS Vikrant (India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) and due for commissioning in 2020) will be lost, alongside attenuation in the supply chain.
Indeed, a case could be made for building a more modest INS Vishal, which would basically be an enlarged INS Vikrant and would host a group of indigenous LCA-Navy Mark 2 fighters that are currently under development. To be sure, this option might not easily find favour with the Navy, which obviously does not want the Vishal to be just a modest step-up from its current carriers.
Nonetheless, a more limited INS Vishal can be built relatively quickly and economically by CSL, which is currently setting up a new dry dock suitable for building super-carriers. For now, the Navy can consider setting up a ‘joint project body’ with the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on the lines of ‘Project Akanksha’, which oversees India’s nuclear submarine projects, to commence construction on a large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the late 2020s. By that time, New Delhi will likely be able to afford it.
Saurav Jha is a former consultant to FICCI’s International Division and Chief Editor of Delhi Defence Review. His Twitter handle is @SJha1618