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The Aircraft Carrier for the Indian Navy

Lt Gen G S Katoch writes, there is a misperception that the acquisition of India’s first aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, was an outcome of a misplaced importance that India gave itself in the world, post-independence.The Vikrant gave the Indian Navy the image and capability to dominate the Indian Ocean, which precluded the permanent presence of the major Navies in the Indian Ocean in the manner that they have maintained a presence in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

There is a misperception that the acquisition of India’s first aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, was an outcome of a misplaced importance that India gave itself in the world, post-independence.

The Vikrant gave the Indian Navy the image and capability to dominate the Indian Ocean, which precluded the permanent presence of the major Navies in the Indian Ocean in the manner that they have maintained a presence in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This was something which was obviously in India’s national security interest, and continues to be so.  This kept the Indian Ocean free of great power rivalry in the Cold War. From 1961 when it was commissioned till 1987 when the Viraat was acquired, the Vikrant was what enabled India to have this deterrence, actual and psychological.

In 1964, Britain’s defence presence in Malaysia and Singapore was the largest and most expensive component of the country’s world‐wide role. Yet within three and a half years, the Harold Wilson Government had announced that Britain would be withdrawing from its major Southeast Asian bases and abandoning any special military role ‘East of Suez’. While it was economic considerations that prompted this decision, it would no doubt have been influenced by Britain’s perceived confidence that India,  a benign Indian Ocean power was capable of preventing the ingress of hostile navies into the vacuum in the Indian Ocean and hence could ensure no harm to British interests. Post the nationalisation of the Suez canal, the abortive British/French effort to retain it had effectively ensured no role for the Royal Navy for the first time after 300 years, east of the Malacca Strait. The Pacific was in any case overwhelmingly dominated by the US Navy, especially because of its commitment in Vietnam, and there really was no vacuum there.

The view that Aircraft carriers are too expensive for us and we need to concentrate on submarines, willy nilly means that we are stating that our Navy’s role is sea denial, in the manner that the Pakistan Navy’s doctrine acknowledges that its role is sea denial. In my view the implications are that we can no longer state that no major navy requires to come into the Indian Ocean as we can maintain security here. We should be mentally prepared to be considered a second rung navy in the perception of the littoral nations and of those nations with interests in the Indian Ocean in case we allow our navy to become a non- carrier navy.

The above are certain facts based on history. In the final analysis every decision is dictated by national interests. If there are other factors that override the argument of this small piece ― in national interest ― then so be it. In matters of national security there are no vested or political interests. All political parties whether in power or opposition do not change national security policy. The various “dashes” in the South China Sea have not been made by Chinese communist government. They have existed since the Nationalist government times. Similarly, communist China’s repudiation of the MacMohan Line was a continuation of the policy of pre-communist China. The shape and size of a country’s armed forces are not dictated by internal politics. They are dictated by geo-politics first and then economics. If the determinant is economics then this has to be offset by alliances.

@Lt Gen Ghanshyam Singh Katoch, PVSM,AVSM,VSM (Retd) attended the Naval Staff Course at DSSC Wellington in 1988-1989. He has a MS in Defence Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

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