With much fanfare, the Indian government unveiled its purported indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant on Sept 2. The opportunity was used by both New Delhi to showcase Indian prowess as a major defense products powerhouse. But a closer look will instead substantiate that the Vikrant is actually a negation of all grandiose claims about the strength of the Indian defence industry and more of an emblem of its weaknesses.
First of all, 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 and 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 defence industry but the Indian defence setup seems to be highly lacking in this regard. In the case of the 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 Rs3,216 crores to over Rs20,000 crores currently. Not just the Vikrant, the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, another so-called indigenous product, took more than 30 years to reach operationalisation. Another Indian defence programme, 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% of the units totally non-operational. The Vikrant also seems to be not too different in this regard, launched without its Aviation Flight Complex (AFC) that is critical to operating its combat air arm. The AFC, the electronic suite the Vikrant uses to detect and manage the Ship’s aircraft when in the air, has been designed by the Russians (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 the Vikrant is its complement of aircraft or more correctly, the lack of it. The Vikrant is making do with 12-15 MiG-29K/KUBs until the Indian Navy finally decides on whether to acquire new foreign 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, the 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 the Vikrant experienced heavy pitching in high seas. The said factor will not only affect Vikrant’s speed and stability 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 programme. Indian critics have highlighted that the 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 its protection.
It can be concluded that INS Vikrant seems to be more of a vanity project that has tried to portray failure as a sign of national pride.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2022.
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