India has launched an indigenously-built aircraft carrier, joining a small group of countries capable of building such a warship.The project is part of India's efforts to enhance its naval capabilities amid a growing regional rivalry with the other Asian giant, China.
Standing in front of the 37,500-ton warship decorated with flags and buntings in the southern city of Kochi on Monday, Defense Minister A.K. Antony called it a “red letter day [a day of special significance] for the nation.”
There was an outpouring of national pride at the carrier's launch. India's biggest warship has been designed and built locally, making it the fifth country after Britain, France, Russia and the United States to do so.
The aircraft carrier is not yet operational. It will be fitted with advanced weaponry and undergo extensive sea trials before being put into service sometime around 2018.
But defense analysts point out that New Delhi has beaten its regional rival, China, in building an indigenous aircraft carrier.
Uday Bhaskar, former director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, said it is the first time India has embarked on such an ambitious project.
“For a country that does not have any significant indigenous capability, we don't make a main battle tank, we don't make an artillery gun, we don't even make a personal weapon. Forget about trainer aircraft and jet aircraft. So against this backdrop, to come to a point where you are able to design a carrier, and bring it from keel to launch is, for India, a technological and industrial accomplishment of considerable significance,” said Bhaskar.
Defense Minister Antony said India needs a strong navy to defend itself and will press ahead with developing its maritime capabilities.
Vikrant's launch comes just two days after India announced that its first indigenously-built nuclear submarine was ready for war trials. That was described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “giant stride” for the nation.
India's efforts to boost its naval capabilities come amid a growing rivalry with regional power, China. One of the critical areas where they are competing for influence is the Indian Ocean region, a busy sea lane.
Rahul Bedi in New Delhi is a defense expert with Jane's Defense Weekly. He said an aircraft carrier will help India project its power in the Indian Ocean, which he calls a potential zone of conflict between major powers. “The navy is one of the principal riders and game changers in this whole region. So this will significantly add punch to the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean region, which is going to be a zone of competition for many, many years to come,” he said.
India has one aircraft carrier in operation, and Russia is due to deliver another one later this year.