India aiming for 175 warships by 2035 with sub cooperation from France and a vision of driving China out of the Indian Ocean
India plans to embark on a massive naval build-up in response to China’s growing naval might and presence in the Indian Ocean, but the broad strategy will face various significant challenges that could cap its ambitions.
Last month, multiple media outlets reported that the Indian Navy plans to order another Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) similar to the INS Vikrant. The plan was announced by Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar, according to the reports.
Moreover, the Indian Navy is also lobbying for additional assets such as three nuclear-powered submarines and six diesel-electric conventional submarines, all potentially to be constructed under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Atmanirbhar Bharat” self-reliance vision.
Current projections suggest that the Indian Navy’s fleet could reach around 155-160 warships by 2023, with an ambitious target of having at least 175 warships by 2035. Various other assets, including aircraft, helicopters and drones, will also be augmented to ensure strategic reach and flexibility.
While China has rapidly expanded its naval capabilities—projected to reach 555 warships in the next five to six years—the Indian Navy is taking proactive steps not to fall behind.
Despite this, it has yet to receive preliminary government approval for constructing a third aircraft carrier, a crucial step given that such a project would take more than ten years to complete. The Indian Navy is now advocating for a 45,000-ton “repeat order” of the INS Vikrant to maintain continuity in its shipbuilding capabilities.
India’s first indigenous carrier, the INS Vikrant has had a protracted development process spanning over a decade, underscoring the many challenges India faces in indigenously producing sophisticated warships.
In September 2022, Asia Times reported that India commissioned the INS Vikrant after 13 years of development and US$2.5 billion in spending. Technical difficulties, funding and procurement issues and corruption reportedly caused delays.
Plans for a third carrier to join the INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya suggest a broader naval strategy centred on three carrier battlegroups, each consisting of an aircraft carrier and accompanying multi-mission escort and support vessels. These battlegroups will have integrated anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.
Small carriers may face a dilemma between offense and defence due to their limited number of aircraft. For example, the INS Vikramaditya has 24 MiG-29K fighters while the INS Vikrant has 30, which means they must decide how many planes to dedicate to attacking and fleet air defence.
If the carriers allocate more planes to attack, they increase the risk to the carrier battlegroup, but if they commit more planes to defence, they decrease their attack capabilities. Furthermore, aircraft carriers are vulnerable to anti-ship missiles and submarines.
India may be looking to France as a partner in its nuclear attack submarine (SSN) program, adding to a list of high-tech defence projects including conventional attack submarines (SSK) and fighter jets.
In July 2023, The Print reported that India and France are exploring ambitious plans to develop six SSNs, which do not carry nuclear weapons. The collaboration has been in closed talks for over a year with broad details yet to be finalized.
The Print mentions that France wants to improve its submarine cooperation with India, noting that the former has offered the latter a new conventional submarine based on its Barracuda class of nuclear-powered submarines.
Previously, France has helped India build its conventional submarine fleet. In January 2023, Asia Times reported that France and India agreed to work together on air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology to enhance India’s Kalvari-class submarines. This agreement further strengthened their growing strategic relationship.
AIP technology enables conventional submarines to remain submerged for several weeks, approaching the underwater endurance of nuclear submarines. Naval Group France and India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) have decided to create fuel cell AIP that can be retrofitted on the first-of-class INS Kalvari, a variation of the French Scorpene-class submarine.
India’s goal of acquiring 24 submarines by 2030, consisting of 18 conventional and six nuclear-powered submarines, requires foreign assistance as it drives to catch up with rivals including China. Presently, India possesses 16 submarines, including two active nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and no AIP submarines.
Further, India plans to operate up to four Arihant-class SSBNs, making it the only country apart from the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council to operate the ultimate nuclear deterrent.
In a January 2019 War on The Rocks article, Yogesh Joshi mentions that India’s SSBNs are expected to follow a bastion strategy that operates in waters close to home and away from hostile forces, with the most suitable areas for deployments being the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and the northern Indian Ocean.
According to Joshi, the Indian Navy’s strong conventional fleet and anti-submarine warfare operations will effectively block Chinese submarine activity in the region. He also says that India’s SSBNs will operate independently as coordinating with the conventional fleet could jeopardize the nuclear submarines’ security due to the enemy’s potential interception of fleet communications.
However, India’s current nuclear capabilities may spark a proportionate response from Pakistan and fail to present a credible threat to China’s defence planners, undermining its deterrent purpose.
It was noted in October 2022 that Pakistan has deployed more weapons at sea to increase the survivability of its small, land-based nuclear arsenal due to the threat of a potential Indian counterforce strike.
To that end, in 2012, Pakistan established a Naval Strategic Force Command, indicating an intention to deploy nuclear weapons at sea, most likely nuclear-tipped Babur III submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) from its Agosta 90B and Agosta 70 submarines.
Despite India’s nuclear arsenal, China maintains a relatively relaxed attitude about India’s modernization programs, a confidence rooted in Beijing’s belief that it can remain ten years ahead of India in terms of conventional military capabilities.
While China and India see each other as rivals, the strong economic interdependence between the two major Asian powers is a strong incentive against using nuclear weapons, as witnessed in their Himalayan clashes in 2020-21. In addition, China sees India’s nuclear arsenal as a strategic deterrent and not likely for tactical use.
Still, India’s ambitious new projects tie into its larger strategic vision to build up the local defence industry, diversify defence partners and strengthen ties with like-minded states to maintain strategic autonomy.
But significant challenges remain in an apparent lack of political support, meagre research and development budgets, inefficient manufacturing capacity, often poor human resource management, weak acquisition systems, protectionism and, as ever, excessive bureaucracy.