Need for a New Aircraft Carrier for the Indian Navy – Explained, pointwise

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India’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC), the 45,000-tonne INS Vikrant, is set to be commissioned on September 2, 2022. The Aircraft Carrier has been built by the Cochin Shipyard Ltd. India had earlier owned and operated two Aircraft Carriers bought from the UK. At present, India has already operational Aircraft Carrier bought from Russia. With the commissioning of INS Vikrant, Indian Navy will have two operational Aircraft Carriers. Given the rapidly changing geopolitical scenario, rising importance of the Indo-Pacific and increasing presence of China in Indian Ocean, Navy has requested for a third Aircraft Carrier as well.

What is an Aircraft Carrier?

Aircraft Carrier is a large warship with a full-length flight deck from which aircraft can take off and land. It is capable of carrying, arming and deploying aircraft (like fighter jets and helicopters). Thus it serves as a seagoing airbase, i.e., having an airbase in the middle of the sea. It allows the naval force to project airpower globally without depending upon local airbases. It enhances attack capabilities of the Navy by providing with air-strike capability.

What is the history of Aircraft Carriers in India?

India’s two earlier carriers, the INS Vikrant and the INS Viraat, were originally the British-built HMS Hercules and HMS Hermes.

INS Vikrant: It remained in service of the Indian Navy from 1961 to 1997. It was being built by the British as HMS Hercules during the World War II but was put on hold due to end of the war. India bought it in 1957, and commissioned it in 1961 after completion of construction. INS Vikrant played a stellar role in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. It was used as a museum until 2012, and was scrapped in 2014-15.

INS Viraat: The Ship was commissioned in the British Royal Navy as HMS Hermes in 1959 and remained in service till 1984. After being decommissioned by the British Navy, it was refurbished and commissioned in the Indian Navy as INS Viraat in 1987. It was decommissioned from the Indian Navy in 2016.

INS Vikramaditya: The Ship was originally commissioned in 1987 and served in the Soviet (as Baku) and Russian Navies (as Admiral Gorshkov). It was decommissioned in 1996 and bought by India in 2004 at a price of ~US$ 2.3 billion. The Ship was commissioned as INS Vikramaditya in the Indian Navy in 2013 after extensive refurbishment. It remained India’s sole Aircraft Carrier since 2016.

About the New Aircraft Carrier, INS Vikrant

It has been designed by the Indian Navy’s Directorate of Naval Design (DND), and built at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), a public sector shipyard under the Ministry of Shipping.

The new warship is comparable to India’s existing carrier INS Vikramaditya which is a 44,500-tonne vessel and can carry up to 34 aircraft. It will operate the Russian-made MiG-29K fighter aircraft and Kamov-31 Air Early Warning Helicopters, both of which are already in use on the INS Vikramaditya.

According to the Navy, over 76% of the material and equipment on board IAC-1 is indigenousThis includes 23,000 tonnes of steel, 2,500 km of electric cables, 150 km of pipes, and 2,000 valves, and a wide range of finished products.

More than 50 Indian manufacturers were directly involved in the project, and about 2,000 Indians received direct employment on board IAC-1 every day. Over 40,000 others were employed indirectly.

About the proposal for another Aircraft Carrier

Since 2015, the Indian Navy has been seeking approval to build a third aircraft carrier for the country, which, if approved, will become India’s second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-2). 

This proposed carrier, to be named INS Vishal, is intended to be a giant 65,000-tonne vessel, much bigger than both INS Vikrant (IAC-1) and the INS Vikramaditya.

The Navy has been trying to convince the Union Government of the ‘operational necessity’ of having a third carrier. 

What is the need for a third Aircraft Carrier?

First, An aircraft carrier is one of the most potent marine assets for any nation. It enhances the capability of the Navy to travel far from its home shores to carry out air domination operations.

Experts consider having an aircraft carrier as essential to be considered a ‘blue water’ navy; a navy that has the capacity to project a nation’s strength and power across the high seas. The carrier will allow the nation to evade hostile attacks from neighboring countries.

Second, more aircraft carriers are a vital requirement if India wants to maintain a dominant position in the Indian Ocean. Major countries like the U.S and China are already present in the region and possess much greater naval capabilities. The United States Navy has 11 aircraft carriers. 

China too is moving ahead aggressively with its aircraft carrier programme. It has 2 carriers now, a third is in the making, and another two are likely to be commissioned within a decade. Thus Chinese Navy is expected to have 5 Aircraft Carriers by 2030, and it will further increase military asymmetries between India and China. Chinese Navy has already surpassed the US Navy on the basis of number of naval vessels.

The under-construction Type 003 will be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to use Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). This will permit bigger fighter aircraft with heavier payloads and longer ranges to operate from its deck.  

Third, the new carrier will put India in an elite club of nations that have the capability to design and build giant, powerful warships. It will enhance India’s global standing and ‘Make in India’ brand. A retired Admiral of Indian Navy argues that the rising naval capabilities of India made it an ‘attractive partner’ in the QUAD.

Fourth, three carriers are needed to ensure at least two are operationally available, one each for the eastern and western seaboards, while the third undergoes its maintenance-and-refit cycle. Further, India has been without an operational aircraft carrier for almost two years now since the 44,500-tonne INS Vikramaditya is undergoing a major refit.

Fifth, Another argument favouring a third aircraft carrier is that the gestation period for such large aircraft carrier is long. INS Vikrant took 17 years to complete. Failure to take an early decision could result in India’s shipyards losing the expertise that has been nurtured in recent years.

Sixth, construction of aircraft carriers has the potential to provide a huge impetus to domestic heavy and medium industries, and will spawn a complex of ancillaries in the MSME sector. It will help in skilling youth and creating job-opportunities.

What are the challenges associated with inducting a new Aircraft Carrier?

First, the cost of inducting an aircraft carrier is very high. The cost of the indigenously produced INS Vikrant, without the aircraft and weapons systems, amounted to INR 23,000 crore. Further, the economy is still recovering from the economic impact of the pandemic and expenditure towards the social sector is bound to rise in future.  

Second, many experts argue that shore based aircraft are a cheaper alternative than an aircraft carrier. They are increasingly bigger, capable of carrying heavier fuel and weapons payloads and can be supported by airborne re-fuellers. So, Navy should focus on building destroyers and frigates.

Third, the Navy budget is the smallest of the three services. Inducting a 3rd aircraft carrier with such a small budget may hinder ongoing and planned major naval acquisitions. These include the Scorpene submarines (P-75 Programme), the Project 75 (India)-class submarines, the Visakhapatnam (P-15B) class destroyers, and the Nilgiri (P17A) class stealth frigates.

What lies ahead?

First, the government should make a prompt decision on IAC-2 as even if the project gets a go-ahead now, it will be over 10 years before the warship can be commissioned. Nonetheless, any decision should be taken keeping in mind the condition of the Indian Economy and its post pandemic growth.

Second,  the new carrier should be at least 65,000-tonne to ensure requisite combat capability and cost-effectiveness. This will ensure the carrier can carry more aircraft than the 30 capacity of the IAC-1.

Moreover, the IAC-2 should have CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) configuration to launch fighters as well as heavier aircraft for surveillance, early-warning and electronic warfare from its deck. Both INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant have only angled ski-jumps for fighters to take off under their own power in STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) operations.

Third, there should be greater devolution of funds towards research and development in the defence sector. This would help in creation of more affordable and reliable defence equipment in future. 


India has developed the capability to build indigenous aircraft carriers that will play a pivotal role in ensuring the nation’s maritime security. Any decision on their further creation should be taken keeping in mind that the expertise gained in the ‘art of maritime aviation’ should not be wasted and economic feasibility of acquisition. The Government has to delicately balance the social obligations vis-a-vis ensuring national defense, especially against an increasingly aggressive adversary. 

Syllabus: GS II, India and its neighbourhood relations; GS III, Various Security Forces and agencies and their mandate.

Source: Indian Express, Indian Express, The Times of India, The Hindu, Financial Express

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