KOCHI, INDIA - India launched its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier on Monday, a landmark moment in the US$5 billion (S$ 6.28 billion) project that seeks to project the country's power and check the rising influence of China.
When 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 the southern city of Kochi. "It marks just a first step in a long journey but at the same time an important one."
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 IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, told AFP.
On Saturday, India announced its first indigenously-built nuclear submarine was ready for sea trials, a key step before it becomes fully 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 added.
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 highly dependent on imports.
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.
Overall, India lags far behind China in defence capabilities, analysts say, making the success in beating its regional rival in the race to develop a domestically-produced aircraft carrier significant.
China's first carrier, the Liaoning, which was purchased from the Ukraine, went into service last September. Beijing is reportedly planning to construct or acquire a bigger ship in the future.
Jane's claimed earlier this month that it has seen evidence that China might be building its first carrier in a shipbuilding facility near Shanghai.
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.
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.
While its hull, design and some of its machinery is domestically made, most of its weaponry will be imported as well as its propulsion system, which was sourced from GE in the United States.
"Its 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," Menon said.
C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired naval officer and former director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, said the ship would "enhance India's credibility" - but it "would not alter the balance of power with China".
"China's nuclear expertise and ship-building capabilities are of a higher order," he told AFP.
The Indian navy is currently working on 39 ships and has begun planning to make another two aircraft carriers, Bedi said.