The handover by Russia of the 26-year-old Vikramaditya to the Indian Navy, should provide an opportunity to examine the role of aircraft carriers in modern naval warfare, and of the role of India in the region. The ship, which is the ex-Soviet Admiral Gorshkov refitted after having been mothballed, was to have been handed over in 2008, but the project was not only five years beyond target, but cost $2.3 billion instead of $771 million as originally agreed in 2004. Perhaps the timing, just before the Indian election, may have been on the mind of Indian Defence Minister A.K. Anthony when he attended the takeover ceremony at the Arctic port of Severodinsk with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, but he should have been thinking about whether the billion people of India, the vast majority living in crushing poverty, can afford such a grandiose project.

The question of cost arises because aircraft carriers may well be excellent for power projection, for if they sail close to a coast, their planes can hit targets deep inland. However, they are also high-value targets, and need a number of other ships, both surface and subsurface, for their protection. An aircraft carrier is not just expensive to run, but so are those ships. This is apart from the cost of the aircraft it will operate, and which provide the reason for is existence. India’s pretensions to great power status make it want aircraft carriers to allow it to dominate the Indian Ocean, but it needs to ask itself whether it can afford the expense. It should note the example of Russia itself, which could not afford the upkeep of the Gorshkov after the USSR collapsed.

India should also be aware that such inductions merely spark off an arms race, and should be avoided. Navies with interests in the Indian Ocean, which includes not only Pakistan, Iran and the Arab countries, which have coasts on it, but also any country whose trade passes through it, will contemplate countermeasures. Pakistan for example, has long deployed the Harpoon anti-ship missile. It also has a large enough submarine fleet to get past any submarine pack India can launch to protect the Vikramaditya, and take a shot at it.

The whole project shows how addicted is the Indian establishment, which includes its armed forces, to outmoded thinking. Aircraft carriers had their heyday in World War II, when they played a crucial role in the American victory in its naval battles with Japan. However, instead of festooning itself with the trappings of a ‘great power’, it would be better if they devoted themselves to lifting their benighted masses of poverty.