Not sanctioning INS Vishal would mean that the trained workforce at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) that built the 40,000-tonne INS Vikrant (in picture) will be lost | Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images
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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.


Also read: Modi govt okays buying 111 helicopters for desperate Indian Navy


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.


Also read: The militaries of nuclear-armed India, Pakistan, China are suddenly friendly. Why?


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.


Also read: It has been 5 years but India still has no answers on its biggest peacetime military loss


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

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Read a column on the BBC site recently about two immense, grotesquely expensive aircraft carriers – conventionally fuelled, not nuclear – that the Royal Navy is building. It has been shrinking in terms of manpower and number of ships for a long time now, is a pale shadow of Rule Britannica over the waves. Ships are being put to sea without the required complement of missiles and other necessary equipment. Apparently there was an animated debate on whether Britain needs this luxury at all. More than clearly perceived military utility, what seems to have won the day is emotion and sentiment, of protecting Britain’s status as a great power more than its people. We should revisit the “ quad “.

  2. While India’s poor are suffering without clean water and electricity, Indian elites are splurging the precious and scarce financial resources to match China’s naval prowess which even the yankee are struggling to catch up with.

  3. As I have said so often, India never needed Aircraft Carriers.It needs tiny bases all over its archipelagoes from which small sharp teeth can swarm in the air, under water and on the surface. At less expense, risk and greater effectiveness than any AC

    • And when we have a repeat of Maldives experience in those island airbases you propose?? And in a maritime conflict in south Indian ocean, how would 24*7 air defence be provided by land based air force over three thousand miles away?? Long range strike is possible by use of air to air refueled but Persistent air defence onsite is best afforded by integral air defence assets!! That’s why even PLAN is building so many and so fast!! They can’t be daft…

    • Island base out in the ocean has some inherent strategic vulnerabilities.
      Its location is known, it’s stationary, it can be easily isolated and blocked from the mainland. And most importantly it can’t be used for power projection, instead it is mainly used for Anti access/Area denial operations.
      On the other hand, an aircraft carrier is mainly used for power projection and gunboat diplomacy. It’s constantly on the move and harder to located and can retreat to Port when in dire situations.
      And those trolls that always say “but the poor are hungry” can safely go to sleep knowing that military budget can not be used to feed the poor. And, poverty alleviation and developmental programmes come under a different budget.

  4. I think the costs of three aircraft carrier are grossly over the top. That’s probably the cost of building it in the US but India has inherent advantages in economical ship building. It will all boil down to the National objectives. If India has to protect its interests in the IOR she has to account for China’s aggressive aircraft carrier programme which envisages many bigger and better carriers much sooner to grab a bigger piece the diminishing oil reserves and ensure its energy needs. In the larger picture a truly capable carrier task force makes for a compelling deterrence argument. Cost being the primary factor, India should leverage is current ship building skills to create an asset that no one else can build at half the cost. The aircraft which will equip the carrier can then be the game changer the next thirty years. Now that’s strategy.

  5. A well researched and balanced article. The suggestion to construct a smaller carrier is a sound one. A behemoth like the INS Vishal would suck up too many funds. And then many more, for its air wing. Which would be useless in a ‘short intense war’. Plus, it would draw up many surface combatants to its own defence. The Indian Navy must stop aping the US Navy in everything. And spend wisely on better ASW capability and the submarine fleet.

  6. Good article.the Indian Navy needs to get over ita US fixation. Air defence of the fleet can be provided by smaller carriers too. To strip the army and air force for such a big toy would be suicidal. It would be useless in a ‘short intense war’ which is how the Indian military assesses the next war to be. Even the Chinese have built their dominance of the South China Sea on land based air power by building airfields ans basing aircraft on islands, natural or artificial.

  7. India does need an aircraft carrier but it’s the configuration that needs to be decided. An aircraft carrier cannot be compared to an island, it’s laughable-what if we are attached from our western seacoast.

  8. Ridiculous numbers by left paper, UK makes 2 carriers for $8 billion. With so much shipping building projects running parallely in India , there is no dearth of supply chain , ideally 65000 conventional carrier costs above $4-$6 billion internationally, and 57 aircraft will easy take $6-$8 billion+ again. Rough estimate should go to above $13 billion assuming no overruns, delays and cheapest sales price for conventional carrier. $20 billion for just the carrier is a naxal dream only to wow the unassuming people of India and belittle the 2 decade old requirement of Navy.

  9. Why are we adamant on 3 aircraft carriers as a blue navy option….considering our neighbourhood and their assets in mind we need to go the submarine way only!!!! 20 billion with EALMS tech which evwn USA is finding hard to swallow is an utter waste of money…

    Use this budget ( if ever approved) for more submarines nuclear and electric /diesel….20-25 more subs over and above our existing fleets( arihant and scorpene included) are the actual game changers….NOT aircraft carriers…think of these in the next decade – 2030 onwards…..right now subs, subs and more subs

  10. India does not need fancy and costly hardware. The adversaries are known. 20 billion$ is way too high for a single carrier. Just think of the maintenance costs. Instead, we can have a missile cruiser Plus next generation destroyers.

  11. Air craft Carrier s more than fighting machines are for power projections. Without flanked by frigates and Corvettes and supported by submarines are sitting ducks below open sky in case expand of sea. Frigates are more leaner and deadlier fighting platforms. A helicopter carrier developed by Japan is another option.

  12. How is it that a 40K tonne carrier (INS Vikrant 2) with 40 aircrafts costs $3-4bn while a 65K tonne carrier (INS Vishal) with 55 aircrafts is costing upwards of $20bn? $20bn is like 45% of India’s annual defence budget.

  13. People who are saying 20 billion dollars is too much. Then they know nothing bout aircraft carrier building. Building a 65000 tons carrier will not cost 20 billion. Max you can go is 8 billion dollars. If buying 110 aircraft will be 15 billions for IAF then why 50-55 jets for aircraft carrier will cost 12 billions. Navy version jets are not that different that it will cost 12b.
    And you can’t really compare a military base in island and aircraft carrier. Carrier are in constant move which make them harder to track. It’s is easier to projectiles.
    And if you think island bases will be reliable then you are not looking wider picture islands nation leader changes and different leader have different views bout particularly country, even though leader my be friendly but opposition will be make it difficult to execute.
    And don’t think foreign bases come cheaper. First Donate money to the leader so he stay pro India. You need to develop the base by urself. And also the area near by you need to develop to make an economic zone for the nation. Plus may be soft loan. Which are like almost giveaway. And plus millions and millions of the annual payment you need to pay which you will be paying for like next 15 to 30 or 40 what ever the duration is.
    All this will stack up and will cost more then just a 65000 tons indegenius build aircraft. which will keep the money in home and provide job to our local people

  14. How does a 40K tonne carrier (INS Vikrant 2) with 40 aircrafts cost $3-4bn, while a 65K tonne carrier (INS Vishal) with 55 aircrafts ends up costing $20bn?

    • 36 Rafales for the IAF cost $9 billion, inclusive of unit cost, customization, weapons, infrastructure, training, and 5-year 80% availability performance-based logistics (PBL) support. Without support costs, these planes would be like the current IN’s MiG-29Ks–hanger queens at less than 30% availability rates.

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