Apart from being a catalyst in creating industrial and technological capability in India, the figure of 76 per cent indigenisation achieved during the ship’s construction implies that more than two-thirds of the cost of the ship’s construction has been invested back in India’s economy and its people. Such investments also support the development of industries and the eco-system required for indigenisation.
|The Author was the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command when he retired on November 30, 2021. He is a Navigation and Direction specialist. He was also the Director General Naval Operations and the Chief of Personnel, Indian Navy.|
The story of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, is synonymous with both the evolution of India’s maritime power and India’s warship-building prowess. The audacious dream of constructing an indigenous aircraft carrier, which germinated in the late 1980s, is also one of the boldest steps in India’s dream of Atmanirbhar Bharat. When the ship is commissioned in August this year, as expected, it will be a moment of pride for the entire country, especially for thousands of our countrymen and women who were associated with the rebirth of a warship forever associated with India’s glorious victory in the 1971 war, leading to the birth of an independent country – Bangladesh. The fact that will happen in the 75th year of independence, being celebrated across India as the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’,as also the Golden Jubilee of our victory in the 1971 War, being celebrated as the ‘Swarnim Vijay Varsh’, makes it even more momentous.
Built originally for the Royal Navy, construction of the Majestic class aircraft carrier began in 1943, during the Second World War. Christened as HMS Herculesat her launch on September 22, 1945, she was almost 75 per cent complete, when her construction was halted in 1946 due to the draw-down of the Royal Navy after the end of the Second World War. The ship remained laid up, incomplete, for over a decade, till India decided to purchase it in 1957. She was then fitted out by Harland & Wolff Ltd, with several major modifications, and was commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Vikrant (Sanskrit for ‘courageous’) at Belfast on March 4, 1961. The ship’s commissioning was presided over by Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, the then Indian High Commissioner to United Kingdom and the ship’s commissioning commanding officer was Captain (later Rear Admiral) Pritam Singh Mahindroo. The ship’s motto, Jayme Sam Yudhispradah, which translates in English into ‘we win over those who dare to fight’, was taken from the Rig Veda. Apart from being the flag ship of the Indian Navy since its commissioning, Vikrant also became a potent symbol of India’s post-independence maritime renaissance.
The spin-off benefits of such a large investment are often overlooked. Support to SMEs and MSMEs, as well as large private and public sector industries, spawn investment in R&D and infusion of technical know-how with dual-use capabilities.
However, it was Vikrant’s role in the 1971 War, which will always remain etched in golden letters in our maritime history. Deployed on the eastern seaboard to lead India’s maritime offensive on Pakistan during the War, Seahawks and Alizes launched from Vikrant’s flight deck pounded enemy targets over Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and Khulna. Vikrant also led the naval blockade, which prevented Pakistani forces in the eastern theatre from being reinforced from sea, thereby playing a major role in the birth of Bangladesh. With Battle Honours of Operation Vijay (for the liberation of Goa) in December 1961 and inthe Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war, as also the award of two Mahavir Chakras and ten Veer Chakras to the ship’s personnel for their role in the 1971 War, the ship remains by far the most decorated unit of the Indian Navy.
By the late 1970s, Vikrant was showing its age and its aircraft were approaching obsolescence. The versatility of an aircraft carrier was demonstrated by Vikrant’s emergence after a prolonged refit (1979-81) in a new avatar as a V/STOL carrier, with the state-of-the-art aircraft, the Sea Harrier replacing the obsolete Seahawks and Alizes. In this capacity, she also served as the training platform for the acquisition of the bigger and much more capable HMS Hermes in 1986, which was commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Viraat in 1987. Vikrant’s new avatar also inspired the commencement of plans for its reincarnation. After serving India proudly for 36 years, Vikrant was decommissioned on January 31, 1997. The sentiments and attachment associated with Vikrant led the ship to being retained as a museum ship for 17 years – the first such attempt in India – and thousands of people, especially school children, visited the ship in its new avatar as a museum ship, to be educated about its exploits and the benefits of carrier aviation at sea. Unfortunately, lack of financial support to maintain the ship led to it being scrapped in 2014.
Plans for the indigenous construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier to replace Vikrant (initially called an Air Defence Ship) had been made in the 1980s (with the induction of INS Viraat being an interim measure to replace an ageing Vikrant). However, Government approval was finally given in 1999, and its construction at Cochin Shipyard Ltd was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in the year 2002. The commencement of steel cutting in 2005 at Cochin Shipyard was a proud moment, not only because it signalled the commencement of Vikrant, but also because itwas the first Indian warship to be constructed with Indian steel, indigenised by the DRDO and cast by the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) at its plants in Bhilai, Rourkela and Durgapur. Many other Indian public and private sector companies such as BEL, HAL, BHEL, KELTRON, Tata Power and Larsen and Toubro, came together in the re-birth of the new Vikrant. The ship’s keel was laid in 2009 and it was launched on August 12, 2013, carrying the proud name of its predecessor – Vikrant.
Many years of hard work by a host of agencies came to fruition on August 4, 2021, when the ship sailed out of Kochi harbour for the first time for her sea trials. It was indeed a momentous occasion, as she was the largest warship ever built in India and the trials were keenly watched by millions of people – both in India and abroad. The new ship took to the sea easily and the fact that it was the first Indian warship to achieve full power on her first sea sortie is testimony of the skill and attention to detail taken by both the designers and the builders of the mighty warship. Meticulous planning also ensured that the ship was capable of landing and launching every type of helicopter in the India Navy’s inventory on her maiden sea sortie. Subsequent to her first sea sortie, Vikrant has undergone several sea trials, and is now in the final stages of preparations prior commissioning. Its fixedwing aircraft flight trials will commence after commissioning, on completion of which the ship will finally be transformed into an operational aircraft carrier.
It needs to be remembered that indigenisation of bigticket items such as missiles, helicopters, tanks and ships cannot be achieved unless there is an indigenous industrial eco-system to provide the building blocks
The successful construction of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier is a glowing testimonial to our vision of an Atmanirbhar Bharat. It has demonstrated the Indian Navy’s capability to design and oversee the construction of the most complex of warships, as also the capability of our ship-builders and industries to successfully execute such a large and complex ship-building project. We have achieved 76 per cent indigenisation on board Vikrant through the participation of several Indian public and private sector industries, and the eco-system so developed will enable us to progress to greater levels of indigenisation in future projects. The country can be justifiably proud of this achievement as India joins an elite club of countries that can design and build aircraft carriers. The ship embodies the spirit of ‘New India’ – an India which is confident, resurgent and truly Atmanirbhar in carving its strategic identity amongst the naval powers of the world. India can be confident that the new Vikrant will be an unparalleled maritime military instrument in the service of our country, well into the 21st century, and write another new and even more glorious chapter in our maritime history.
This is also a good occasion to reinforce the case for the indigenous construction of India’s third aircraft carrier, which has been under much debate for the past few years. In this piece, the case is sought to be argued from the indigenous military-industrial complex point of view, as the operational necessity and self-defence capability of an aircraft carrier has been debated repeatedly for well over a century, and the fact that bigger and more capable aircraft carriers are still being constructed, especially by China, should suffice to answer the naysayers on that account. If one examines the spin-offs from Vikrant’s construction, the benefits become clearly evident. Apart from being a catalyst in creating industrial and technological capability in Indiadue to the involvement of over 100 MSMEs, including those which took birth as a part of Start-Up India, almost 550 indigenous vendors were engaged for supply of various types of items and equipment. More than 40,000 jobs were created during its construction, including over 2,000 workers employed daily at the shipyard, and an ancillary work-force of over 12,000 individuals being employed across the country. Since each worker supports at least 3-5 people of his/her immediate family, the positive effect of such employment is multiplied manifold. In addition to direct employment there are many unseen benefits, such as employment for the service sector of our economy, ranging from the humble tea and samosa stall owners to hotels and boarding houses for out-station workers and experts. Indeed, it is estimated that the multiplier effect on employment generation for each individual employed directly on the ship’s construction is between 36-50! In all, the figure of 76 per cent indigenisation achieved during the ship’s construction implies that more than two-thirds of the cost of the ship’s construction has actually been invested in India’s economy and its people.
The spin-off benefits of such a large investment are often overlooked, but are extremely important to bear in mind. Firstly, support to SMEs and MSMEs, as well as large private and public sector industries, spawn investment in R&D and infusion of technical know-how with dual-use capabilities. For example, the Extra High Tensile Warshipbuilding Steel (DMR249A & DMR249B), new weld procedures and welding electrodes developed by CSL and DRDO, are now not only used extensively on most Naval platforms, but can also be used for civilian marine applications, besides being available for export. Such investments also support the development of industries and the eco-system required for indigenisation. It needs to be remembered that indigenisation of bigticket items such as missiles, helicopters, tanks and ships cannot be achieved unless there is an indigenous industrial eco-system to provide the building blocks, which range from very small items such asnuts and bolts of the grade required for aviation and maritime environments, to advanced materials, software skills, design know-how, etc. Such investments also translate into the skilling of young people who are required to work in such industries, and contribute significantly to the Skill India programme.
However, it is important to remember that only sustained orders for defence equipment will lead to the sustenance of the benefits of indigenisation, which includes the retention of qualified manpower and experience, essential for achieving better designs, technology and materials. Private and public sector companies cannot afford to employ skilled individuals or invest in R&D, unless they have assured orders for equipment. R&D, in particular, requires talented and experienced individuals who can only be retained if their employment is profitable – both to the company and to the individual.
These issues need to be kept in mind as the debate continues on the need for a third aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy. It would indeed be a criminal waste of national resources, if the valuable infrastructure, human expertise and indigenous eco-system, built through extensive investment and effort over the past two decades, is allowed to wither away. It is, therefore, necessary that with the foundation so available, India’s dream of having a three/four-carrier Navy, envisaged right from the first plan made for the Indian Navy’s expansion in September 1948, finally moves towards fructification. If funds are a problem, the simplest thing would be to repeat the order for another Vikrant, with the incorporation of modifications, additions and alterations based on the experience of the first ship. This would retain human expertise, realise cost-savings, enhance employment, support indigenous industries, and ultimately contribute significantly towards building a sustainable eco-system for indigenisation. It would indeed be a fitting tribute to India’s resurgence as a global power, if a commitment to build India’s third aircraft carrier is made to coincide with the commissioning of INS Vikrant.