India has launched its first domestically produced aircraft carrier as it seeks to counter China’s growing naval power.
In addition, the country, heavily dependent on foreign military equipment, wants to expand its defense manufacturing capabilities.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the 262-meter-long, 60-meter-wide carrier, called Vikrant or “courageous,” at a ceremony in the southern state of Kerala Friday. Its launching is part of events commemorating India’s 75th year of independence.
Underlining India's entry into a select group of countries capable of building such a vessel, Modi said that the Vikrant has filled the country with a new confidence.
“It’s a historic day and landmark achievement,” he said. “It is an example of the government’s thrust to make India’s defense sector self-reliant.”
Modi’s government has put emphasis on building a domestic defense hardware industry to reduce the country’s huge dependence on foreign weaponry – India is among the world’s largest arms importers. More than two dozen naval ships and submarines are being built in the country’s shipyards.
The navy said that the new warship, built at a cost of $2.5 billion, can carry a crew of around 1,600 and operate a fleet of 30 aircraft, including fighter jets and helicopters. More than 75% of its components are domestically produced.
Built and tested over 17 years, it has now completed a year of sea trials. However, defense analyst Rahul Bedi told VOA that the aircraft carrier will not be fully operational until the end of next year due to a shortage of jets.
“It does not have suitable aircraft at the moment. India plans to buy these either from France or the United States,” he said. “For the time being it will have to rely on Russian-made aircraft that operate on its other aircraft carrier.”
The new aircraft carrier is India’s second -- the first one was built in the former Soviet Union.
India has focused its military on Himalayan border disputes with Pakistan and China. However, boosting its naval capabilities has also become a priority as concerns intensify about Beijing’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean, where it has built ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, giving it a strategic advantage close to Indian shores.
India and the United States had recently raised objections with Colombo when a Chinese naval ship docked at the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.
New Delhi is also working as part of the Quad – a grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia – to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, where China’s maritime claims have triggered disputes with neighbors including the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and South Korean.
“The security concerns of the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region were ignored earlier. But today this area is a major defense priority for the country,” Modi said. “So, we are working in every direction, from increasing the budget for the navy to increasing its capability.”
In recent years, military strategists have pointed to the increased capacity and capability of China's rapidily modernizing navy. China has a huge naval fleet that includes three aircraft carriers -- the third was launched recently. It also has some 355 ships, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
Modi also unveiled a new naval flag on Friday that replaced a colonial era ensign of Saint George’s Cross with the royal seal of a Hindu warrior king, Chhatrapati Shivaji.