Asia Defense | Security | South Asia

Is India’s Third Aircraft Carrier Project on Hold?

India’s new chief of defense staff has cautioned that the Indian Navy’s third carrier won’t be materializing anytime soon.

Ankit Panda
Is India’s Third Aircraft Carrier Project on Hold?

INS Vikramaditya.

Credit: Indian Navy photo

After decades of consideration, India finally has a high-level chief of defense staff. Announced last year during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s August Independence Day address, the position was given to former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat. As the inaugural CDS, Rawat has a mandate to address high-level tri-service coordination and to streamline procurement procedures.

Earlier this month, Rawat spoke to Indian publication News18 about a range of issues. He was asked specifically about the Indian Navy’s plans to eventually operate three aircraft carriers, including two indigenously designed carriers. The Indian Navy currently operates a single carrier: INS Vikramaditya, which is a modified Soviet-era Kiev-class carrier. INS Vikrant, an indigenous 44,000 ton carrier, is currently undergoing construction at the Cochin Shipyard while the most anticipated in the Indian Navy’s fleet, INS Vishal, the second indigenous carrier design, is in the concept phase and yet to see construction.

INS Vishal, while a conventionally powered carrier, may become the first Indian carrier to incorporate advanced technologies like an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), which can up the carrier’s sortie rate for aircraft and reduce launch stress on airframes compared to conventional catapult systems. (INS Vikramaditya uses a short take-off but arrested recovery, or STOBAR, launch mode, as will INS Vikrant.)

Rawat, when asked about the time table for INS Vishal, was careful not to overpromise. Instead, he significantly recalibrated expectations, including for the timeline of the carrier’s commissioning into the Indian Navy. He said the following:

One aircraft carrier will be on the seas next year. You look at when do you really need a third one. If you get a third one, how many years will it take for it to develop? Even if you place the order for 2022 or 2023, it is not coming before 2033. Also, aircraft carrier is not just a carrier, along with it will have to come the aircraft. Where are the aircrafts coming from? Along with that we will need the armada protection for that aircraft carrier. It does not happen overnight. It will be bought if it is required… but you cannot predict what the situation will be 10 years from now. We don’t know what will happen.

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If this is how India’s new CDS is describing the Indian Navy’s third carrier requirement today, it’s likely that it will remain a two carrier navy for most—if not all—of the 2020s. Expectations for INS Vishal’s rapid construction and commissioning will need to be tempered.