India’s plans for a 3rd aircraft carrier may have been torpedoed as the defense chief prioritizes new submarines. This decision will shape the Indian Navy’s strengths and weaknesses at a time when regional players, notably China and Pakistan, are modernizing their navies.
The Indian Chief of Defense Staff, General Bipin Rawat, has been quoted as saying “When we know that there would be two aircraft carriers there, and if the submarine force is dwindling, then our priority should be for submarines”. In an interview published on February 10 he also cast doubt on the third aircraft carrier. “It will be bought if it is required… but you cannot predict what the situation will be 10 years from now. We don’t know what will happen.”
The submarine programs are likely to be locally developed nuclear-powered submarines. In particular a fleet of 6 next-generation attack submarines. These will extend the potency and reach of the navy, giving it the same number of nuclear attack submarines as France.
India already operates nuclear boats. The first of 4 Arihant Class ballistic missile submarines has already conducted deterrence patrols. And their new K-4 ballistic missile was successfully tested in January. And a follow-on S-5 Class missile sub is also in the works.
The third carrier had been planned for years and was expected to be much larger than the other two. The unbuilt ship even has a name, INS Vishal. But India’s second carrier, INS Vikrant, is still under construction. That project has been significantly delayed and has yet to be proven in service. This may be a factor.
The defense chief’s hesitation on the aircraft carrier front is important. China already has two aircraft carriers in service. At 65,000 tons each is larger than India’s own two carriers, but Vishal would be around the same size. And China is already building its third carrier with probable plans for a forth.
But meanwhile both Pakistan and China are also improving their submarine forces. Pakistan has been upgrading its submarines for cruise missiles. And also fitting the Turkish Zargana anti-torpedo defensive system. Pakistan is buying 8 Type-039B Submarines from China. These will feature Air-Independent Power (AIP) which should increase their stealth. India’s own non-nuclear submarines do not have AIP although there is local research in this area.
Deprioritizing the Vishal project will be a blow for international defense firms. The carrier, and its aircraft, would likely have imported elements. The Vikrant Class carrier currently under construction was designed with Italian help. So international players were hoping to cash in with design assistance for Vishal. Russia may have offered their Project 23000E Shtorm nuclear-powered aircraft carrier design. This is a contender for their own future carrier. And there were some reports that Britain was offering the Queen Elizabeth class design.
Indian submarine programs have also benefited from outside help. But they are increasingly indigenous. India has been locally producing non-nuclear submarines of Russian, German and French designs. Indian nuclear-powered projects also show clear influence from Russia, but overall can be described as local designs. The Arihant Class for example has clear traces of the Russian Kilo Class submarine.
INS Vishal doesn’t seem to have been formally cancelled, and there are already hints in the Indian press of a challenge to the new direction. But if it ever materializes, it is now many many years away.