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Politics

India charts naval expansion with eye toward rising China

India's first homegrown aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, leaves the dock in June. The government aims to increase domestic development of defense equipment. (Courtesy of the Indian Navy)

NEW DELHI -- India is accelerating efforts to bolster its naval capabilities, wary of China's growing influence in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

     A top naval official told reporters that India plans to expand its navy by roughly 40%, from 137 vessels to about 200, by 2027. It will increase active aircraft carriers from two to three and submarines from 13 to at least 20, a naval source told The Nikkei.

     The Vikrant, India's first domestically built aircraft carrier, was undocked at the Cochin shipyard in June. The ship will enter service as early as 2018 once it is fully equipped. A second carrier is in development, and the navy has asked Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors to submit their bids for the design. Since the navy plans to retire an aging carrier within several years, it expects to have three carriers in commission in the mid-2020s.

     Fleets will consist of destroyers, submarines, transport vessels and other ships in addition to aircraft carriers. Boosting the total number of these ships to 200 would let India reorganize its navy into three fleets and different naval commands will have their own operational areas to look after, said Rumel Dahiya, deputy director general at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

     The navy looks to protect key sea lanes south of India. The western Indian Ocean, off the coast of Somalia, is frequented by pirates. And to the east, China is aggressively expanding its sphere of influence. In the South China Sea, where Beijing is involved in territorial spats with Vietnam and other countries, India is "watching the situation carefully to prevent conflict in the Indian Ocean," a retired Indian naval officer said.

     Beijing is creating a "string of pearls" in the Indian Ocean, pouring money into port development in countries along the coast in order to contain India. Chinese submarines docked in Sri Lanka twice between September and November of last year. The Indian navy now appears to see a need for the capability to swiftly deploy a fleet east of the Malay Peninsula, the officer said.

     Securing the required resources will be an issue. India's naval budget for the year ending March 2016 totals 405.2 billion rupees ($6.6 billion), the Defense Ministry said. If it continues to grow at the average annual rate of 9% seen in the five years through fiscal 2014, India will spend more than 9 trillion rupees over the 13 years through fiscal 2027.

     But just 4 trillion rupees would be available for new equipment after labor and maintenance costs. Over half of that could be spent on buying aircraft carriers and submarines alone. Aging vessels must be replaced as well.

     Shifting to domestic production thus is a priority for India to cut costs. The country's growing shipbuilding industry still often relies on overseas sources for engines and combat-related equipment. The navy will focus on domestic sources for such items.

     Technology transfers from advanced countries will be essential to these plans. India received just $80,000 in foreign direct investment in defense in the year through June. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government boosted the cap on foreign stakes in defense companies from 26% to 49% last year.

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