COLUMN | India’s naval power and influence continue to grow [Naval Gazing]

The future Indian Navy aircraft carrier INS Vikrant (Photo: Official Facebook page of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi)

The Indian Navy (IN) is responsible for the promotion and safeguarding of New Delhi’s maritime interests over a vast swathe of sea, incorporating the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the Southwest Indian Ocean. A particular concern is the possible encirclement by China’s ever-expanding maritime forces, probably acting in concert with Pakistan, a nation that New Delhi regards, from a strategic viewpoint, as being a virtual fiefdom of Beijing.

Vast resources have, therefore, over the past two decades, been allocated to expanding, and upgrading, with the use of both western and Russian technology, the IN, which currently numbers some 150 vessels. Tasking for IN surface vessels includes supporting, in conjunction with the also-expanding Indian Coast Guard, maritime sovereignty and security in offshore and coastal waters, and defence diplomacy, as well providing multi-layered defence for IN carrier-led task groups. The service’s submarine force enables sustained and discreet long-range ocean surveillance, and also provides New Delhi with a nuclear deterrent capability.

Of particular significance is the current deployment of an IN task group to the South China Sea.

In furtherance of its naval ambitions, India has established a complex network of operational agreements, including regular exercises with other naval powers including Japan, Australia, and the USA. Also, Indian warships often visit distant naval ports, most recently in UK and Norway. The IN has, furthermore, established offshore naval bases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and is discreetly building a major base including a large airfield, on the Mauritian island of Agalega.

Vikrant, Asia’s second post-World War II, indigenously-built dedicated fixed-wing aircraft carrier, (China’s Shandong was the first.) put to sea for trials in August. It joins Vikramaditya, the former Russian carrier Baku, in the IN order of battle.

Built at Cochin Shipyard, Vikrant displaces 45,000 tonnes and has a length of 262 metres. Four gas turbines enable a speed of 30 knots, and the ship is fitted with a ski jump take-off aid and arrestor wires. It will operate an aviation group of MiG-29K fighter-bombers as well as Ka-27, Sea King, and MH-60 anti-submarine helicopters, and later, a navalised version of India’s Light Combat Aircraft, which is currently under development.

Defensive armament consists of Barak 8 air defence missiles, AK-630 close-in weapon systems, and four 76mm guns. ELTA multi-function and SELEX air surveillance radars are fitted.

When funds allow, India intends to build another carrier, possibly based on UK’s Queen Elizabeth-class.

The IN’s powerful sub-surface force is headed by the 6,000-tonne, nuclear-powered indigenously-built submarine Arihant, based on a Russian design and armed with K-4 (750-kilometre range) or K-15 (3,540-kilometre range) ballistic missiles, which can both be fitted with nuclear warheads. A sister boat is due to join the fleet shortly, and two more such vessels are planned.

There are fifteen diesel-electric-powered boats, with three more of the French-designed Scorpene class in build, and New Delhi recently gave the green light for the construction of six more diesel-electric submarines to a new design.

INS Karanj, India’s third Kalvari-class submarine, during its commissioning ceremony on March 10, 2021 (Photo: Indian Navy)

Prominent in the IN inventory of destroyers are the three 8,200-tonne vessels of the indigenously-constructed Kolkata-class, commissioned from 2014 onwards, on strength. The armament of these 30-knot, gas-turbine-powered warships includes Barak 8 air defence missiles and Brahmos anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM). Sensors include Israeli-designed and -built multi-function radar. Also on strength are three Delhi-class and two surviving examples of the Russian-built Rajput class.

The Indian Navy destroyer INS Kolkata alongside the guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett during Exercise Malabar, November 2020 (Photo: US Pacific Fleet)

In the pipeline are seven Nigiri-class frigates to be built in India, with technical assistance from Fincantieri of Italy. These 4,000-tonne vessels will feature Barak 8 and Brahmos missiles. The most modern frigates currently in the IN inventory are the three indigenously-built Shivalik-class ships. There are also six Russian-built Talwar-class frigates with three more in build – two in Russia and one in India.

There are also three Brahamaputra-class frigates, which are locally-built, highly-developed variants of UK’s Leander-class.

Four modern Indian-designed and -built corvettes of the Kamorta-class are optimised for middle water anti-submarine operations. They are armed with rockets and torpedoes and operate a Ka-28 helicopter. There are some twenty other corvettes, some derivatives of Russian designs, armed with Russian air defence missiles and ASCMs.

A large and comprehensive inventory of patrol vessels includes OPVs, Israeli-built Dvora fast attack craft and many small coastal and inshore craft, while a four-strong flotilla of replenishment oilers includes two modern Italian-built ships.

A call for tenders to build four landing platform dock (LPDs) to augment the IN’s current amphibious warfare force of 17 vessels was recently issued, while an interesting recent addition to the IN’s support craft fleet was the signals intelligence (SIGINT) vessel Dhruv.

With its large and potent surface and underwater forces, backed up an aviation component of modern fighter-bombers, maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, the IN is certainly making its presence felt in regional seaways and beyond.


Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.