India’s naval doctrine professes a three-carrier force: one each on either flank, with a third one remaining on periodic maintenance at any given time. Having envisaged a naval force built around a carrier battle group to retain control over the expansive seas under its sphere of geostrategic interest, India acquired its first carrier, INS Vikrant, as early as 1961 and operated it till the late 1990s alongside another British-origin carrier, INS Viraat, which was inducted in 1987. Aircraft carrier Vikramaditya has now been inducted into the Indian Navy as a work-in-progress. It is meant to bridge the operational gap between the retirement of Viraat, already a spent force and on its last lap, and the induction of the indigenous carrier, Vikrant, to be ready hopefully by 2018. During the interregnum, the Navy could not have afforded to waste its five-decade experience and skills in operating carriers. The strategic value of an aircraft carrier is apparent also from China’s acquisition of a resurrected Soviet carrier.
The debate may continue on the strategic utility of sea control when stealthy underwater platforms are part of the strategic deterrence. Yet, the significance of carriers in implementing India’s quest to exert a benign influence over the volatile Indo-Pacific cannot be overstated. Strengthening its expensive carrier-centric surface fleet should not of course be at the expense of critical sea denial capability achieved through a strategic submarine force. The two can indeed be complementary. Carriers demonstrate ‘intent’, but a potent undersea fleet, which is less costly to build and maintain and relatively less vulnerable to attacks, would be increasingly vital to attaining credible strategic deterrence. The induction of Vikramaditya has hopefully ended any debates over its usefulness. The age of the hull, the quality of work done at the Russian submarine yard of Sevmash where it was rebuilt, and price renegotiations, were part of this debate in the past. The Navy should now focus its energies on integrating it into the fleet. It should train and qualify its fighter pilots on the Vikramaditya’s deck. It should negotiate with Russia on the maintenance of the platform so as to operate the systems smoothly and efficiently through its life-cycle of 25 years. Concurrently, an Indian yard should be qualified to carry out minor refits. Weaponising the carrier will pose the next major challenge. It will be in the interest of the Indian Navy to zero in on and integrate without delay effective and key defence systems such as surface-to-air missiles on the platform to fast-track its operationalisation. After inducting the Vikramaditya, the Navy would be looking to commissioning the indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant.