The Indian Navy won’t be weighing anchor in a hurry any time soon. Reports say that the country’s only aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, has been docked for a year-and-a-half to undergo major refurbishment of its propulsion and weapons systems. This will be a serious handicap for the navy as it steams hard to its goal of becoming a blue water navy — a goal that increasingly looks like a fool’s landfall. After INS Vikrant was decommissioned in 1997, the Navy was left with only INS Viraat, with two other aircraft carriers on order. Although INS Viraat was originally scheduled for decommissioning by 2010, its latest refit programme suggests that the ageing warhorse will have to bat on a lot longer than anticipated. The Russian carrier Gorshkov — to be rechristened INS Vikramaditya — is being refitted at Severnodinsk, and is unlikely to fly the tricolour for at least another six years. India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, being built at the Kochi shipyard, would probably take even longer.
This could potentially put paid to India’s maritime ambitions that are premised on a balanced fleet of surface ships. This includes three aircraft carriers, with a couple of dozen conventional and nuclear-powered submarines, and more than 100 aerial assets like unmanned aerial vehicles to support the fleet. So it’s important for the navy to have at least two carriers operational at any given time, while the third is docked for routine maintenance.
The lack of an aircraft carrier could potentially force a fleet commander to alter his plans into a defensive mode, leaving the navy high and dry. Bureaucrats may argue that naval acquisitions — for whatever reason — tend to take more time than buying equipment for the army or the air force. After all, navies are not built overnight, and ship-building is a slow and time-consuming process. But the Indian Navy, like any other, needs both long-term planning as well as an uninterrupted process of implementation so that there is no void. For any delay in any of the steps in the process will have a cascading effect, and adversely affect doctrine. This, alas, is what is happening to the navy as it prepares to batten down the hatches.