KOCHI: If there is a constant factor in the history of great powers, it is their naval capabilities unparalleled in their period of dominance. This has especially been so since wood and sails were replaced by steel and steam engines a few centuries ago. Modern history of mankind is in many senses a narrative of the evolution of naval capabilities; from ship building and offensive capabilities, from simple guns to supersonic missiles and fighters launched from the deck.
Against such a history, the launch of Air Defence Ship, the largest military ship and first aircraft carrier to be built in India, in Kochi on Monday is a historic step. It not only sends out the right signals about India's ability to build such a complex naval platform, but also shows the country's growing capabilities in ship building. And most importantly, India's growing ambition to build a truly 'blue water' navy that can reach across the oceans to protect its interests-- be it minerals and commodities in Africa and Latin America or oil and gases from Middle East.
The indigenous aircraft carrier, first of the two being built under the Vikrant class, is expected to join the navy by 2018, by when INS Vikramaditya, the Russian aircraft carrier set to join service in a few months, would have become the focus of a powerful carrier battle group. The Vikrant class indigenous carrier would become the centrepiece of a second carrier battle group.
The 40,000 tonne ship takes India to a select club of five countries that can build an aircraft carrier. The others are US, Russia, Britain and France. The carrier is being built from indigenously produced high grade warship steel, made by the Steel Authority of India.
It would truly be a proud moment for Cochin Shipyard Limited. But for India, the history of the indigenous carrier and related developments throw up very serious questions too. The undue delay in warship construction in India, though its indigenous capabilities are impressive, must be of serious worry. The carrier has been delayed by almost four years, according the timeline projected now.
Besides the Russian MIG-29K fighters, the carrier could also end up having naval version of the indigenously made light combat aircraft (LCA) on board. The carrier would also have long range surface-to-air missiles (LRSAM) being developed by Israel, and other weapon systems. But the LCA, being developed in Bangalore, is yet nowhere near readiness to be placed aboard the carrier. The LRSAM is being developed mostly in Israel, and has been significantly delayed.
While Navy has been at the forefront of indigenization, it is time for New Delhi to wake up to the fact that self-reliance cannot be a political platitude but a crying need. Though there have been some efforts in recent months to step up indigenization, India is still the world's largest importer of military systems, and almost 65% of its military requirement comes from foreign companies.
There cannot be anything more shameful than this, because indigenous military spending not only improves self-reliance of modern nation-states but also triggers significant scientific breakthroughs with wide applications beyond military. Besides, military-industrial complexes are among the biggest employers in all major countries. The carrier launch in Kochi on Monday should be a loud wakeup call for Indian policy makers to urgently look at unprecedented initiatives to step up indigenization.