New aircraft carrier, drones, fighters in latest navy boost

Updated on Dec 04, 2022 07:37 AM IST

India currently has two aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant, which was commissioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kochi on September 2, and INS Vikramaditya, bought secondhand from Russia for $2.33 billion.

Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar in New Delhi on Saturday. (ANI)
Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar in New Delhi on Saturday. (ANI)
By, New Delhi

India is working on plans to build a new aircraft carrier, develop an indigenous deck-based fighter jet, and buy hi-tech drones from the US to strengthen itself militarily, even as the navy is keeping tabs on Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean region and is ready to protect the country’s interests in the far seas, Indian Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar said on Saturday.

“Maintaining credible deterrence while remaining ready to go into harm’s way to protect, preserve and promote national interests will remain our principal priority. Our vision of being a combat ready, credible, cohesive and future-proof force underpins this aspect,” the navy chief said at his annual press briefing on the eve of Navy Day.

The navy is also committed to being fully self-reliant by 2047, when India celebrates 100 years of Independence, getting rid of irrelevant colonial-era practices, processes and symbols, and believes that jointness among the three services is the only way forward, he said.

A second indigenous aircraft carrier to project India’s maritime power in the far seas is on the navy’s radar after it commissioned its first locally built carrier, INS Vikrant (earlier called IAC-1), in September.

“We are still working on some aspects of IAC-2 like what size it should be and what are the capabilities desired. But right now, we have put a hold on it (IAC-2) because we have just commissioned the Vikrant and are quite happy with the ship. We are examining whether we should look at a repeat order for IAC-1 instead of going for IAC-2 to capitalise on the expertise gained during the former’s construction. We are in the discussion stage right now,” he said.

The 45,000-tonne Vikrant was built at Cochin Shipyard at a cost of 20,000 crore. Only the US, the UK, Russia, France and China have the capability to build aircraft carriers. IAC-2 is expected to be bigger (65,000 tonne) and costlier than Vikrant.

India currently has two aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant, which was commissioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kochi on September 2, and INS Vikramaditya, bought secondhand from Russia for $2.33 billion. The navy has been arguing it needs three such floating airfields to boost its sea control and power projection capabilities, and help it fulfil its growing responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific.

The navy is preparing a draft cabinet note for the design and development of the indigenous twin-engine, deck-based fighter (TEDBF) that India plans to operate from its aircraft carriers, Kumar said. “The first prototype of the TEDBF is likely to be ready around 2026, and its production could begin by 2032,” he said. The navy is working with the working with the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and Aeronautical Development Agency on the TEDBF project.

The Vikramaditya operates Russian-origin MiG-29K fighter jets and some of those are being deployed on INS Vikrant for conducting critical flight trials shortly. Vikrant is expected to be fully operational and integrated with its air wing by the middle of next year. Since TEDBF is still a decade away, the navy is looking at importing deck-based fighters as an interim measure.

India plans to buy 26 new fighters for Vikrant through a government-to-government deal to meet the navy’s requirements, with French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation’s Rafale-M competing with US firm Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet for the order. “Trials have been conducted on both fighters and the evaluation process is underway. We will take a call on what’s in our best interest,” the navy chief said.

India is also on course to buy Predator drones from the US for the three services, and discussions are on to finalise the numbers needed, he said. The earlier plan was to buy 30 such drones - 10 each for the navy, air force and army - in a deal estimated to be worth $3 billion.

In 2020, the navy leased a pair of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones (an unarmed variant of the Predators manufactured by General Atomics) from the US to boost its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. The MQ-9Bs have helped the navy keep a close watch on the Indian Ocean at a time when it has stepped up surveillance in the region to check China’s ambitions.

Asked to comment on China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean region on the back of two Chinese surveillance vessels being recently sighted in the area, Kumar said the Indian Navy was keeping a close watch on the developments, and its job was to see that India’s interests in the maritime domain are protected. “Apart from the Chinese, there are a large number of extra-regional forces in the Indian Ocean region. We keep a close watch, track them, and we see no one undertakes any activity inimical to India’s interests.”

Responding to a question on eight former Indian Navy personnel held in Qatar on unspecified charges, Kumar said the highest levels of the government had raised this issue with the Qatari authorities, and he was hopeful that the matter would be resolved soon. “Once you join the navy, you become a part of the naval family. Even after you leave, you are still a part of it,” he said. “Efforts are on to solve this problem.”

India on Thursday said it is still pursuing the case of the navy personnel even as the families of the detained men have been allowed to meet or speak to them more frequently. The men were detained on August 30, but the Qatari authorities are yet to officially state why they were held. All eight men were working for Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services, a private firm owned by a retired Oman air force officer that provides training and other services to Qatar’s armed forces.

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