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India launched its first indigenously-built aircraftcarrier on Monday, a landmark moment in the $5 billion project thatseeks to project the country’s power and check the rising influence ofChina.
Indian Naval sailors stand on the deck of aircraft carrier INSViraat during a the Fleet Review (PFR-11) in Mumbai on December 20,2011.
When the INS Vikrant comes into full service in 2018, India willbecome the fifth nation to have designed and built its own aircraftcarrier, pushing ahead of China to join an elite club that includesBritain, France, Russia and the United States.
“It’s a remarkable milestone,” Defence Minister A.K. Antony said ashe stood in front of the giant grey hull of the ship at a ceremony inthe southern city of Kochi. “It marks just a first step in a longjourney but at the same time an important one.”
The ship, which will be fitted with weaponry and machinery and thentested over the next four years, is a major advance for a countrycompeting for influence in Asia, analysts say.
“It is going to be deployed in the Indian Ocean region where theworld’s commercial and economic interests coalesce. India’s capabilityis very much with China in mind,” Rahul Bedi, a defence expert with IHSJane’s Defence Weekly, told AFP.
On Saturday, India announced its first indigenously-built nuclearsubmarine was ready for sea trials, a key step before it becomes fullyoperational. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a “giant stride”for the nation.
“All these are power projection platforms, to project India’s power as an extension of its diplomacy,” Bedi added.
New Delhi is spending tens of billions of dollars upgrading its mainly Soviet-era military hardware to bolster its defences.
Successes in its long-range missile and naval programmes have beentempered by expensive failures in developing its own aircraft and otherland-based weaponry, leaving the country highly dependent on imports.
INS Vikrant is two years behind schedule after problems in sourcingspecialised steel from Russia, delays with crucial equipment and even aroad accident in which vital diesel generators were damaged.
Overall, India lags far behind China in defence capabilities,analysts say, making the success in beating its regional rival in therace to develop a domestically-produced aircraft carrier significant.
China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, which was purchased from theUkraine, went into service last September. Beijing is reportedlyplanning to construct or acquire a bigger ship in the future.
Jane’s claimed earlier this month that it has seen evidence thatChina might be building its first carrier in a shipbuilding facilitynear Shanghai.
India already has one aircraft carrier in operation — a 60-year-oldBritish vessel acquired by India in 1987 and renamed INS Viraat — butit will be phased out in the coming years.
India’s ally Russia is also set to hand over a third aircraft carrier– INS Vikramaditya — later this year after a bitter row over therefurbished Soviet-era warship caused by rising costs and delays.
The INS Vikrant, which means “courageous” or “bold” in Hindi, is a40,000-tonne vessel which will carry Russian-built MiG-29 fighter jetsand other light aircraft.
While its hull, design and some of its machinery is domesticallymade, most of its weaponry will be imported as well as its propulsionsystem, which was sourced from GE in the United States.
“Its primary role will only be to defend our naval fleet and it willnot be used for ground attacks,” retired rear admiral K. Raja Menon toldAFP.
“It’s a defence carrier so it will attack platforms that are comingto attack our (naval) fleet …without air defence our fleet just cannotsurvive,” Menon said.
C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired naval officer and former director of theNational Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, said the ship would “enhanceIndia’s credibility” — but it “would not alter the balance of powerwith China”.
“China’s nuclear expertise and ship-building capabilities are of a higher order,” he told AFP.
The Indian navy is currently working on 39 ships and has begun planning to make another two aircraft carriers, Bedi said.