For many years prior to independence, India-based warships, frequently indigenously-built, operated within a succession of mainly British-officered maritime forces. The Indian Navy (IN) came into being when the nation became a republic in 1950.
New Delhi’s subsequent determination to protect its maritime interests, and to exercise regional influence, has resulted in IN involvement in a number of wars and skirmishes, as the service evolved into one of the world’s largest maritime forces.
IN responsibilities these days include providing a reportedly Pakistan-focused submarine-based nuclear deterrent, protecting India’s sea lines of communication, monitoring Chinese and Pakistani naval activity, and maintaining a strategic presence in the Indian Ocean and Middle East waters, as well as carrying out defence diplomacy missions.
The last 20 years have seen India emerge as a major builder of warships, although the country continues to purchase some of its vessels from Russia. The current IN order of battle is made up of about 140 warships, including essential components of a viable modern fleet, namely an aircraft carrier, and nuclear-powered ballistic missile armed (SSBN) and attack submarines, as well as some 240 aircraft.
India’s first SSBN, the indigenously-built Arihant, has been conducting deterrent patrols, armed with short range K-15 missiles since 20I8, and reportedly test fired long range K-4 missiles in early 2020. A second of class, Arighat, is undergoing sea trials, while construction of a further two boats is reportedly underway.
The IN has been operating the leased Russian Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine Chakra (ex-Nerpa), armed with S-30 anti-shipping cruise missiles, since 2012, and another Russian Akula sub is due to be leased from 2025.
The IN has a powerful diesel- electric attack submarine flotilla. Four French-designed, Indian-built, Scorpene-class boats have been completed, while work on two more is in hand.
Four German-designed Type 209 submarines have been in service since the 1980s, and there are also seven Russian-built Kilo boats.
The IN’s sole aircraft carrier, Vikramaditya, is a former Soviet vessel, equipped with short take-off but arrested landing (STOBAR) MiG -29K fighter bombers. Unlike China’s carriers, it is fully operational, a fact of no little regional strategic significance.
A second Indian STOBAR carrier, the 40,000-tonne, gas turbine-powered Vikrant, which has been under construction at Cochin since 2013, will probably eventually be equipped with a navalised version of the indigenous Tejas fighter. The ship has been bedevilled by technical problems, and cost overruns, and is unlikely to be commissioned before 2023.
New Delhi’s long term strategic plan includes the acquisition of a third carrier, in order to ensure that two aircraft carrier-centred task groups are always available for deployment. The Indians have reportedly been looking closely at the design of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth class.
The 19-strong IN destroyer inventory includes three each of the modern Indian-built Kolkota- and Delhi-class vessels, fitted with mainly indigenous air defence, and cruise missiles, backed up by a quartet of Rajput-class ships, constructed in Russia in the 1970s and 1980s.
A new type of destroyer, the Visakhapatan class, developed from the Kolkotas, is currently in build, with the first of a projected four ships due to be completed by 2021. Armament will include the new Indian Nirbhay land attack missile.
IN destroyers and frigates all carry one or two helicopters for ant-submarine and surface warfare, so the potency of many of these warships will be enhanced when the 24 advanced MH-60R helicopters, very recently ordered from the USA, enter service.
Heading the IN frigate inventory are three Indian-built vessels of the Shivalik class, and six Talwar-class ships, which were built in Russia. All are modern, stealthy, comprehensively-armed warships.
In the pipeline is a new class of indigenously built frigates, based on the Shivaliks, and dubbed Project 17A.
With some 25 corvettes on strength, the IN has a strong littoral combat capability. Most of these craft are based on Russian designs, except for the most modern ones, namely the Kamorta class, which are optimised for anti-submarine warfare.
There are also 10 OPVs and a large number of patrol craft.
The IN’s amphibious warfare capability is centred around the former US Navy amphibious transport dock Jalashwa, while there are four replenishment oilers to back up long range deployments.
Recent reports from India indicate that budgetary constraints are putting a brake on IN expansion. According to the reports, plans for a 200-ship navy have been shelved, and some senior politicians and military officials, probably with an eye on China’s continued problems with its own carrier programme, are advocating delaying the project for a third carrier, in favour of more emphasis on submarines.
A period of consolidation might therefore be in the offing but there is no doubt that India remains on course to further enhance its naval capabilities in the years ahead.
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.