India launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier yesterday, beating China to join an elite group of military powers that can design and build such massive warships.
Only the United States, Russia, Britain and France have the capability to build carriers of 40,000 tonnes and above. China operates a retrofitted carrier of Russian origin, and is still working on its first home-built carriers.
"We must continue the process of developing indigenous capability to secure our maritime interests," Defence Minister A.K. Antony said after his wife, Elizabeth, launched the 37,500 tonne INS Vikrant down the slipway into the water at a shipyard in Kochi, southern India. Additional fittings will take its tonnage to 40,000.
The US$3 billion (S$3.8 billion) vessel will be docked and fitted out for commissioning by 2018. Work on the carrier started in 2006, and the keel was laid three years later.
In recent years, India has stepped up its military modernisation programme, spending billions of dollars on upgrading its Soviet-era weapons and systems. While buying mostly from American, Israeli and French suppliers, New Delhi is also pushing its own military industry.
The Vikrant's launch comes two days after
the Indian navy activated the reactor on board the INS Arihant nuclear submarine, the first to be designed and built in India, and ready for commissioning next year.
Yesterday, it also successfully test-fired its nuclear-capable surface-to-surface Prithvi-II missile from a military base in eastern India.
India has stepped up its naval focus as China boosts its presence in the Indian Ocean, which New Delhi considers within its sphere of influence. The launch of the Vikrant will enhance its navy's strike capabilities far from its shores.
With plans to induct more carriers into its fleet, India could be operating two full-strength combat battle groups before the end of the decade, enabling it to project its naval strength farther afield into the Asia-Pacific.
Combat battle groups are a cohesive strike force comprising an aircraft carrier, destroyers, frigates, submarines, tankers, fighters and other aircraft capable of travelling 600 nautical miles a day.
"There is a need for a strong navy to defend our mainland," Mr Antony said at the Vikrant's launch. "The navy must continue to maintain high preparedness in waters to ward off any possible threat from water."
Describing the Vikrant as the "crowning glory" of the Indian navy's indigenous programme, Indian naval officials said the conventionally powered carrier can reach a top speed of 52kmh and carry 1,400 crew.
It is 260m long, 60m wide and as high as a 14-storey building. Its flight deck is the size of two football fields.
Nearly 90 per cent of the carrier's structure has been designed and built in India. About 50 per cent of the propulsion system is of Indian origin, with the rest from the US and Italy. But only around 30 per cent of the fighting capability installed on the warship is indigenously built.
It can carry 30 aircraft, and its mainstay fighter jets will be the Russian-made MiG-29K. The carrier will be armed with a long-range surface-to-air missile system with multifunction radars and close-in weapons systems, including four 76mm rapid-fire guns.