India's Navy unveiled its very first home-built aircraft carrier, joining the United States, United Kingdom, Russia and France as the only nations with the capability to design and build the massive warships.
The 37,500-ton ship was launched in Kochi Monday, christened INS Vikrant after the first aircraft carrier acquired by the Indian Navy in 1961 that went on to play an important role in the war against Pakistan in 1971.
The new Vikrant likely will be commissioned in 2018, after two years of outfitting and two more years of basin and sea trials.
"The launching of the indigenous aircraft carrier marks just the first step in a long journey, but at the same time an important one", Defense Minister A. K. Antony said.
The launch marked a shift from a "buyer's Navy to a builder's Navy," with the Vikrant marking the first of 26 ship orders for Cochin Shipyard, including patrol vessels for the Indian Coast guard and support ships for international clients.
Vikrant will ultimately be capable of operating a mix of Russian MiG-29K and Light Combat Aircraft fighters, Kamov 31 and Indian-developed ALH helicopters, long-range surface-to-air missiles, early warning radar, tactical air navigational and direction finding systems.
It is 262 meters long and 62 meters wide, and will have a 1600-person complement.
Defense experts said the launch of Vikrant puts India ahead of China, and possibly in position to encroach on China's dominance of the eastern Pacific. India will have two carriers in operation by the end of 2013, even before the Vikrant is commissioned, to China's one.
"By the end of this year India will become the only country in Asia to have two aircraft carriers," said Zhang Junshe, the vice president of China's Naval Research Institute. "This will enhance the overall capabilities especially the power projection capabilities of the Indian Navy."
"India's first self-made carrier, along with reinforced naval strength, will further disrupt the military balance in South Asia," he said.