India has put into commission its fourth French submarine – built locally in Mumbai – shortly after adding a separate stealth warship to its navy. The move comes as the country asserts itself in the Indian Ocean, where Western powers also hope to counter China's influence.
Deployed this week, INS Vela is part of a contract worth 2.6 billion euros for six diesel-powered Scorpene submarines jointly built with French military contractor the Naval Group, formerly DCNS.
Its deployment comes as border tensions with China threaten to spill into the Indian Ocean where last month India, Australia, Japan and the US, dubbed Quad, staged the second leg of their naval exercises.
Indian navy chief Karambir Singh said INS Vela was fully fitted for modern combat.
“Given today's dynamic and complex security situation, its capability and firepower will play a crucial role in enhancing navy's ability to protect India's maritime interests," admiral Singh added.
Vela joined India's 130-ship navy four days after it inducted a 7,400-ton stealth destroyer billed as one of India's most potent warships built entirely locally.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh hailed the INS Visakhapatnam as “one of the most technologically advanced guided-missile destroyers in the world” and added it projected the country's “growing maritime prowess”.
"We live in a time when global and regional balances of power are shifting rapidly and the region of most rapid change is undoubtedly the Indian Ocean Region," deputy naval chief Satish Namdeo Ghormade told PTI wire service.
Addressing the UN in August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed for a five-point maritime security charter, which analysts interpreted as a signal to China's disputes with several countries in the South China Sea.
Modi's call came just after India said it was deploying a naval task force for exercises with three Quad members and separate drills with Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam in the contested waterway.
Suresh Goyel, a former diplomat, saidnaval collaboration between China and Pakistan aimed to “limit India's options” in the seas around South Asia.
“We have to develop our own coalitions ... and develop a strength which can be sharp and incisive and which can basically penetrate through the kind of rings that China is building around us,” Goyel told a local TV station.
India has fought a brief but bloody war with China in 1962 over a border dispute that remains unresolved. It has also fought three wars with nuclear-armed arch-rival Pakistan since 1947.
India is also set to launch next month a large naval survey vessel. Thirty-nine warships and submarines are under construction to expand its blue water reach.
India's fifth Scorpene is undergoing trials while the final one is being outfitted to bring a closure to the contract plagued by cost over-runs, project delays, allegations of corruption and an international scandal.
The contract came under the scanner when India allegedly sweetened the deal by ordering 43 Airbus planes for 2 billion euros, overturning an earlier plan to buy Boeing commercial jets, which had upset France.
Separately, Indian police probed allegations that French company Thales, which partly owns Naval Group, paid 155 million euros in dodgy commissions to Indian policy-makers to corner the military contract.
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The original project had provisions for three additional submarines but India dropped plans to expand the French order following the leak of 22,000 pages of classified data about its capabilities in 2011.
India's Defence Ministry said the breach occurred from abroad.
The leak, published in The Australian newspaper in 2016, also raised concerns about Naval Group's 31-billion-euro project to build the Barracuda next generation of submarines in Australia.
Australia in September tore up the French deal and opted for eight nuclear-powered submarines from Britain and the United States, sparking outrage in Paris.