New aircraft carrier Vikrant launched for sea trials

India launched its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, on Monday, the culmination of a $5-billion (Rs3,500 crore) project undertaken by the state-owned Cochin Shipyard Ltd.

INS VikrantWhen the INS Vikrant comes into full service in 2018, India will become the fifth nation to have designed and built its own aircraft carrier, pushing ahead of China to join an elite club that includes Britain, France, Russia and the United States.

"It's a remarkable milestone," Defence minister A K Antony said as he stood in front of the giant grey hull of the ship at a ceremony in Kochi. "It marks just a first step in a long journey but at the same time an important one."

INS Vikrant is two years behind schedule after problems in sourcing specialised steel from Russia, delays with crucial equipment and even a road accident in which vital diesel generators were damaged.

Nonetheless, the launch is considered a feather in the cap of Cochin Shipyard, which only got the Vikrant order because none of the four ministry of defence shipyards - Mazagon Dock Ltd in Mumbai, Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers in Kolkata, Goa Shipyard Ltd, and Hindustan Shipyard Ltd, Vizag - has a dock large enough for a 37,500-tonne aircraft carrier.

The INS Vikrant, which means "courageous" or "bold" in Hindi, is a 40,000-tonne vessel which will carry Russian-built MiG-29 fighter jets and other light aircraft.

The term 'indigenous' as used by Indian authorities is, as usual, misleading - while its hull, design and some of its machinery are domestically made, most of its weaponry will be imported as well as its propulsion system, which was sourced from GE in the United States.

The ship, which will be fitted with weaponry and machinery and then tested over the next four years, is a major advance for a country competing for influence in Asia, analysts say.

"It is going to be deployed in the Indian Ocean region where the world's commercial and economic interests coalesce. India's capability is very much with China in mind," Rahul Bedi, a defence expert with the influential Jane's Defence Weekly, said.

The launch follows the announcement on Saturday that India's first indigenously-built nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, is ready for sea trials, which means it is close to becoming operational. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a "giant stride" for the nation.

"All these are power projection platforms, to project India's power as an extension of its diplomacy," Bedi of Jane's said.

New Delhi is spending tens of billions of dollars upgrading its mainly Soviet-era military hardware to bolster its defences.

Successes in its long-range missile and naval programmes have been tempered by expensive failures in developing its own aircraft and other land-based weaponry, leaving the country fully dependent on imports.

India already has one aircraft carrier in operation - a 60-year-old British vessel acquired by India in 1987 and renamed INS Viraat - but it will be phased out in the coming years.

India's ally Russia is also set to hand over a third aircraft carrier - INS Vikramaditya - later this year after a bitter row over the refurbished Soviet-era warship caused by rising costs and delays.

"Its (Vikrant's) primary role will only be to defend our naval fleet and it will not be used for ground attacks," retired rear admiral K Raja Menon told AFP.

"It's a defence carrier so it will attack platforms that are coming to attack our (naval) fleet ... without air defence our fleet just cannot survive."