As China seeks to embolden its footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India faces a steep challenge in increasing its naval capabilities to set up a strong force to protect its geopolitical interests and counter Beijing's rising aggression.
The differences between China and India in terms of naval power are astute, as India currently possesses 150 warships and submarines as compared to China's 335 warships. Nevertheless, with the acquisition of two powerful indigenously-built aircraft carriers and a third one in the pipeline, India has presented itself as a strong rival to China's influence in the Asian continent.
India now aspires to acquire an ambitious target of 175-200 warships by 2035?equipped with indigenous nuclear-powered submarines, frigates and fighter jets?with state-of-the-art technology, as part of its vision of becoming self-reliant in naval capabilities by 2047. There are over 50 ships and submarines under construction. India is also working on a war footing to acquire marine aircraft and carrier with the help of foreign allies.
India's progress in naval acquisition
According to a report by Times of India, India currently has 132 warships, 143 aircraft and 130 helicopters and the country has now ordered 68 warships and vessels worth Rs 2 lakh crore. In the coming years, India is also said to acquire eight corvettes, nine submarines and five survey vessels among the indigenously-crafted naval equipment.
Despite the push for greater naval fleet assets, India has also been plagued by slower pace of construction, rapid decommissioning of older ships and budget constraints. As such, India is expected to reach a fleet of just 155-160 warships by 2030.
India has two indigenously built aircraft carriers - INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, launched last year. While INS Vikrant, which has a sophisticated air defence network and anti-ship missile systems, is preparing for being combat-ready, India is gearing up for a third 65,000-tonne Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) with the name of INS Vishal.
India has also recently launched a new warship Mahendragiri, the seventh ship of Project 17A frigates series that boasts enhanced stealth features, advanced weapons, sensors, and platform management systems. Project 17A ships have been designed in-house by Indian Navy’s Warship Design Bureau, the pioneer organisation for all warship design activities.
Now, seven more stealth frigates will be created under Project 17A by the timeframe of 2024-2026. Apart from two frigates, all remaining 61 warships are being constructed in India. India also possesses 23 corvettes and 11 guided-missile destroyers - INS Mormugao being the latest to join the latter. Two more destroyers - INS Imphal and Surat will join the fleet expectedly by 2024.
Project 75 (India)
Project 75 (India), launched in 2007, is arguably India's largest defence acquisition initiative under the Ministry of Defence, which aims to procure diesel-electric attack submarines possessing fuel cells and an Air-Independent Propulsion System. The original Project 75 was launched in 1997.
India‘s state-owned shipyard Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) has taken up the responsibility of procuring next-generation submarines for the Indian Navy. In April last year, MDL launched INS Vagsheer, the last of the six Kalvari class submarines under Project 75. INS Kalvari, INS Khanderi and INS Karang have already been commissioned.
The MDL is also in talks to acquire three Scorpene class conventional submarines for the Indian Navy from France. The procurement of such additional submarines is a major boost for India's indigenous sector by creating employment opportunities in the domestic sector while also helping to maintain the required force level and operational readiness of the Indian Navy.
The total strength of conventional diesel-electric submarines in India stand at 17, with a nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant launched in 2009.
However, the Project 75 has been beset by several drawbacks, such as delays in infrastructural augmentation, deliveries and budgetary problems. There is good news on that front, as now Spanish and German companies have signed agreements to build additional submarines at the MDL
Acquisition of Rafale M Jets
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi geared up for his visit to France in July, the defence ministry approved plans to purchase 26 Rafale fighter aircraft. India worked to procure the Rafale jets for deployment on the indigenously built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.
Dassault Aviation, a French aerospace major and maker of the aircraft, said that the Navy Rafale demonstrated that it fully met the Indian Navy’s operational requirements and was perfectly suited to the specificities of its aircraft carrier. They are called Rafale M fighters, which are different from the 36 Rafale jets India already possesses.
Rafale M is designed to be operated from aircraft carriers. The aircraft carriers INS Vikramaditya and Vikrant have been operating the MiG-29s and need the Rafales for operations on both carriers. It has a carrier-based microwave landing system and includes special features like broad range of weapons and a maritime-optimised radar.
In its fleet of aircrafts, India generally relies on the Russian-origin MiG-29K fighter jet, one of which featured on the INS Vikrant recently. The Navy also uses a naval version of the Light Combat Aircraft (LAC) Tejas designed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). India is a now in dire need of deck-based fighter aircraft that can be operated from its two carriers.
Two prototypes of the naval LCA-Mk1 are already operational as part of the aircraft development. Additionally, six next-generation missile vessels will be developed by the Cochin Shipyard and 11 offshore patrol vessels that will be ready by 2026-27.
Competing with China
As India makes strong efforts to compete with China in its naval power, it is worth mentioning that Beijing itself is making strong efforts to increase its own capabilities on water. Apart from adding over 150 warships in their arsenal, China is believed to create over 550 such ships in another five to six years, necessitating a stronger support for India from its foreign partners.
China operates with over 50 destroyers and two aircraft carriers, and it also possesses over 70 corvettes, 43 frigates and 78 submarines.
China's rising aggression has been a source of contention for not only India, but also other Asian countries like Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Much of the territory in the South China is disputed as China seeks lays claims to overcome logistical challenges and expand their diplomatic and economic interests.
Despite the large numbers of Chinese navy, it is said that the US Navy still has more firepower in comparison with a larger fleet of carriers and destroyers.