Why India wants a bigger navy and to build the ships on home soil

In recent years, the focus of India’s military strategy has broadened, with a growing emphasis on building up its sea power.

Key points:

  • An expert says a strong Indian navy would help to “deter China from military adventurism in the Indo-Pacific”
  • Much of India’s military development has been with assistance from Russia but it is now also looking to the West
  • India is planning to build a new fleet of 12 submarines and a third aircraft carrier

India now spends up to $110 billion annually on its military, and the navy, which had been somewhat overlooked, has become an increasingly significant part of its armed forces.

Last week, it bolstered its naval power with its first locally made aircraft carrier — the $3.7 billion INS Vikrant — taking to the seas.

“The security concerns of the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region were ignored in the past but it is our top priority today,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi Modi said at the vessel’s commissioning ceremony.

However, experts say this goal is being hampered by its lack of a significant domestic arms manufacturing industry.  

What’s the state of play in the region?

Vikrant is a Sanskrit word for “powerful” or “courageous”.(AP: Prakash Elamakkara)

India’s moves to build up its naval power come — not coincidentally — as China is rapidly building up its own. 

Historically, the land borders with Pakistan and China have been India’s main concern and while they would continue to be significant, things had shifted, Ashok Sharma from the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre told the ABC.

“In the past, it was all India–Pakistan border, India–China border, so the navy was ignored,” he said.

“It is the rise of the Indo-Pacific in strategic significance that has pushed India to invest more and more [in its navy].”

Ian Hall from the Griffith Asia Institute said India remained the dominant sea power in the Indian Ocean, able to project its power into the South China Sea and even the Western Pacific.

But China in the past decade has gone from zero to three aircraft carriers in service, with plans to have a fleet of six in the near future.

In total, it has more than 300 ships and is building another 50 or more.

There have been rumours China is building a fourth carrier, but no solid evidence has emerged yet.(ABC News graphic: Jarrod Fankhauser)

“China’s navy is growing very fast,” Dr Hall told the ABC.

“It is unlikely that India will acquire that many ships anytime soon, so China will soon have a numerical advantage, at least.”

While the INS Vikrant is one of the world’s biggest naval vessels, crewed by 1,600 sailors, it is dwarfed by China’s newest carrier.

Launched in June, the Fujian is named for the province opposite Taiwan.

“The Fujian is almost twice the size of the INS Vikrant,” Dr Hall said.

According to Dr Hall, the challenge for other countries, including Australia, is to work out how best to combine their fleets to ensure that China is deterred from using all of that power.

“Tensions are already high [in the region],” Dr Hall said.

“If anything, a robust Indian military, including a capable navy, will help to deter China from military adventurism in the Indo-Pacific.”

Maritime military conflict ‘unlikely’

Edward Chan from the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific said China’s only naval base with direct access to the Indian Ocean was in Djibouti.

However, Beijing had also been building a network of military and commercial facilities, he said.

“Chinese companies have been investing and purchasing ports in littoral countries along the Indian Ocean, claiming they’re for civilian uses instead of for military purpose, which is something that strategists are looking at closely,” he said.

Given the Chinese navy’s main function in the region was to protect the country’s economic interests, he said, there would be some strategic tension between Beijing and New Delhi, especially as China’s presence increased.

“But it is unlikely to turn into a military conflict,” Dr Chan told the ABC.

He added China’s navy was powerful due to its numbers, but was limited by a lack of operational experiences and joint operational warfare.

“It is getting there with training and structural reforms,” Dr Chan said.

“The Chinese carriers are still incapable of fully navigating to the Indian Ocean due to the lack of operational experiences and complexity in the South China Sea.”

India wants another carrier and nuclear attack subs

Dr Hall said the INS Vikrant would help India defend its interests throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond, and could also deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

“The one challenge India does face at this point, however, is getting hold of the planes and helicopters it needs for this new ship,” he told the ABC.

India has in the past relied on Russia for much of its arms supply but is also looking to France and the US.(Supplied: Indian Navy)

India has long been the world’s biggest importer of arms and, like its other carrier, the ex-Soviet INS Vikramaditya, much of India’s military development has been with assistance from Russia.

“India is expanding and modernising its fleet, but the navy does not get the biggest slice of the defence budget, so progress is slower than it could be,” Dr Hall said.

“A third aircraft carrier is planned and there are plans for a new batch of six conventional and six nuclear-powered attack submarines, along with new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.”

New destroyers, frigates, and helicopter dock ships are also under construction, with much of the work happening locally.

“India has had assistance from Russia in the past, and is looking to the US and France, in particular, for help with new projects, including the carrier and submarines,” Dr Hall said.

Construction of the 262-metre INS Vikrant began in 2009 and was supposed to be completed in 2016 but the project suffered from cost blowouts and delays.

Despite the INS Vikrant taking longer than forecast and costing more than first estimated to be built, Dr Hall said he believed India would accelerate its ship-building program.

“China’s navy is now present in the Indian Ocean, and relations between the two have deteriorated significantly in recent years,” he said.

“The Ukraine war has made it harder to acquire Russian-made aircraft and it may be that New Delhi will have to buy French or even American planes for the INS Vikrant.”

Is reliance on Russia harming India?

India has abstained from several key United Nations votes condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.(AP: Melton Antony)

India’s reliance on Russia for arms supply and support could be hampering its ability act freely on the geopolitical stage.

All of India’s Quad allies — Australia, the United States and Japan — have hit Russia with sanctions and provided military and financial assistance to Ukraine in the wake of the invasion. 

But India has so far refused join them.

Mr Modi has called for peace in Ukraine, but India has abstained from several key United Nations votes condemning Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Some estimates suggest that more than 60 per cent of India’s weapons rely on Russian technology.

“This is a huge challenge,” Dr Hall said.

“Transitioning away from that dependence will take decades.”

India would likely need to maintain a working relationship with Moscow — even if only for ammunition, maintenance, and spares — “for some time to come”, Dr Hall said.

“That will condition its stance on the Ukraine war,” he said.

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