With much fanfare and aplomb, the Indian Government unveiled its purported indigenous aircraft carrier INS VIKRANT on 2 September. The opportunity was used by both the Indian Government and its subservient media to showcase Indian prowess as a major defense products powerhouse. However, a closer look will instead substantiate that the Vikrant is actually a negation of all grandiose claims about the strength of the Indian defense industry and more of an emblem of its weaknesses.
First of all the term indigenous may not be at all suitable to be used for VIKRANT. As per Indian claims, 80-85% of the carrier is indigenous but that is more by weight than by value. The 15-20% of the rest could be called the technological core or the essence of the Carrier consisting of weaponry such as guns & missiles, sensors, data/information fusion, navigation and other paraphernalia enhancing situational awareness which actually make up most of the costs are of foreign origin and have been imported. According to the Indian media website The Wire, 50% of the equipment relevant to the propulsion aspect of the Carrier while 70% equipment relating to the fighting capability is imported.
Secondly, meeting time deadlines and being cost effective is one of the essential requirements of an efficient defense industry but the Indian defense setup seems to be highly lacking in this regard. Taking the case of INS VIKRANT, it has been delayed by nearly seven years and afflicted with a six times increase in its costs, from its original 2003 projected cost of Rs 3,216 Crores to over Rs 20,000 Crores currently. This is not the only project inflicted with time delay and cost overrun. The Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, another so-called indigenous product but also filled with imported parts, took more than 30 years to reach operationalisation. Another Indian defense program, the Arjun Tank also took a whopping 30 years plus for development. Even then in all cases, the end product left a lot to be desired.
The LCA Tejas was derided by both the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy while the Arjun Tank’s feasibility led to the Indian military only inducting just 124 tanks into service by mid-2018 which have continued to face severe technical issues leaving 75 percent of the units totally non operational. VIKRANT also seems to be not far different in this regard, it has been launched without its Aviation Flight Complex (AFC) that is critical to operating its combat air arm. The AFC, which is the electronic suite Vikrant uses to detect and manage the Ship’s aircraft when in the air, has been designed by the Russian (again negating the indigenous claim) is unlikely to be fully installed and functional till the end of 2023. This too is also a pre-Ukraine war estimate as the current sanctions on Russia will further complicate the delivery of the AFC which raises further questions about VIKRANT’s battle worthiness in the future.
But one of the most glaring drawbacks of VIKRANT is its complement of aircraft or more correctly, the lack of it. VIKRANT is making do with 12-15 MiG-29K/KUBs until the Indian Navy finally decides on whether to acquire new foriegn off the shelf platforms (Rafale or F18) or make a naval version of the Tejas. The MiG29K in service are notorious as per Indian sources for being “operationally inefficient, with an appallingly low serviceability rate and the inability to deliver specified payloads to their declared ranges with a full fuel load”. Furthermore, VIKRANT is equipped with a ski-jump system which forces its jets to launch using their own power which further restricts the amount of fuel, missiles and bombs they can carry into combat. Another drawback observed during sea trials is that VIKRANT experienced heavy pitching in high seas. The said factor will not only affect speed and stability of VIKRANT but will also increase difficulty in take off and landing of Carrier based aircraft.
The whole VIKRANT project itself is under question by Indian intellectuals even if one ignores the drawbacks of the program. Bharat Karnad who is an emeritus professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi has stated that “ the Indian aircraft carrier-making capability is coming to fruition just when the age of the large ships is coming to a close”. Indian critics have highlighted that INS VIKRANT is likely to become a headache for Indian maritime security as not only will it necessitate more and more funds for maintenance but also require additional assets for protection as it will become a lucrative target for hostile elements. These assets will have to be diverted from other responsibilities which will lead to gaps in Indian defenses.
At the end, it can be stated that the INS VIKRANT seems to be more of a vanity project that has tried to portray failure as a sign of national pride. However the end result seems to be more detrimental to the country’s stature rather than being beneficial.
The author is a M.Phil from National Defence University (NDU) Islamabad in International Relations and routinely writes on current affairs.