INS Vikramaditya settles the aircraft carrier debate

INS Vikramaditya settles the aircraft carrier debate

Last Updated: Sat, Nov 16, 2013 01:54 hrs
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INS Vikramaditya, to be commissioned as an Indian Navy warship at Severodvinsk, Russia on Saturday, will be the navy's second aircraft carrier, supplementing the venerable INS Viraat. With INS Vikrant, being built in Cochin Shipyard, due to join the fleet by 2015, the navy continues the tradition of sea control through aircraft carriers, inherited from the Royal Navy.

Other navies have shied from this expensive and technically-challenging option. Australia decommissioned its lone aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, in 1982, and relies on a fleet of lighter warships and submarines. India, in contrast, commissioned INS Vikrant in 1961 and, after purchasing INS Viraat in 1987, operated two carriers for a decade till the Vikrant was decommissioned in 1997. Indian naval planners argue they must deploy an aircraft carrier on each seaboard, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

With the 36-year Vikrant being decommissioned in 1997, the navy began looking for a second aircraft carrier. Work was only beginning on the first indigenous aircraft carrier, which will inherit the name of INS Vikrant. Since that was at least a decade away, the navy accepted a Russian offer, first made in the early 1990s, to refurbish and transfer the Admiral Gorshkov, a 44,500-tonne aircraft carrier that a bankrupt Russia had mothballed after the Cold War.

This faced serious resistance from the Indian Air Force (IAF). Every navy that has acquired aircraft carriers has encountered opposition from the air force, which naturally views the acquisition of fighter aircraft by a sister service as a threat to its relevance and turf. In 1998, Air Chief Marshal S K Sareen strongly opposed the Gorshkov, arguing the IAF could provide air support to naval vessels in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean from its bases in peninsular India, which thrust like a dagger into the Indian Ocean.

"Aircraft carriers can be sunk, while a shore-based airfield cannot be," argue senior IAF officers even today. "Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, operating from shore-based airfields, can carry more weaponry than lighter fighters operating from carriers. And with mid-air refuelling, we can reach anywhere the navy wants."

The navy countered by pointing out when a target had to be struck from the air at, say, the Gulf of Aden, it would take at least two hours for shore-based fighters to reach. In contrast, an aircraft carrier launches fighter aircraft in less than five minutes.

Naval planners also believed the IAF would be so focused on the land battle and striking enemy airfields, it would not spare the fighters to support maritime operations, comparatively less visible. More, with three decades of Vikrant, the navy believed the pilots must be specially trained for maritime air operations - and IAF fighter pilots have little experience of those.

"While the IAF carries out initial training of our pilots, we orient and train them ourselves for maritime flying, since that requires pilots with salt in their veins. Last week, we procured our own Hawk advanced jet trainers (AJTs), which we use for orienting our pilots to the maritime environment," says Vice Admiral (retired) Anup Singh, who headed the navy's eastern command.

The Gorshkov proposal also faced resistance from the ministry of defence (MoD), with the sharp Budget cuts of the 1990s whittling the capital procurement Budget. Some defence planners dismissed a carrier as a "sitting duck" that could only operate as part of a carrier battle group (CBG). Since the sinking of a carrier could not be accepted, four-five destroyers and frigates were tied as escort vessels for its protection.

But the navy pointed out the weapons and sensors on a modern carrier like INS Vikramaditya made it far more potent than earlier carriers that required protection. While the Vikramaditya would still operate as part of a CBG, its radars, airborne early warning (AEW) systems fitted in Kamov-31 helicopters, and on-board strike aircraft would provide air defence protection to the vessels it sails with. From requiring protection of other vessels, the carrier has graduated to providing protection, say the admirals.

"The Vikramaditya will dramatically increase the reach of the navy, creating a sanitised bubble of 300 nautical miles (550 km) around the battle group, essential for conducting distant area operations in Indo-Pacific," says Admiral (retired) Sureesh Mehta.

With modern warships having a multi-role (anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine) capability, a CBG now fights as an integrated whole. Warships share the burden of surveillance for enemy aircraft, warships, submarines and even attack from land. For example, helicopters from each vessel take turns to conduct anti-submarine surveillance or monitoring of airspace. Destroyers are sent on "forward picketing" up to 100 nautical miles (185 km) away.

The navy would be carrying out these operations in wartime while blockading enemy shipping at Indian Ocean choke points like the Gulf of Aden or the Malacca Strait.

Eventually, even as these debates continued to rage, India and Russia signed a deal in December 1998 and an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) in October 2000 for the acquisition of Project 11430, as the Admiral Gorshkov was termed. On January 20, 2004, a contract was signed, which involved the payout of Rs 4,881.7 crore for repairing and refurbishing (R&R) the vessel at Sevmash Shipyard in Severodvinsk; spares; infrastructure augmentation; and documentation. The shipyard began work on April 4.

But the refurbishing that was to take 52 months quickly got extended. Owing to what Russian officials describe off the record as "sloppy contracting", it was discovered Sevmash was required to do significantly more than what the contract required. With the delivery date extended till 2012-end, another disaster struck, the Vikramaditya's engines gave way as it underwent trials last year. After another year lost in re-engineering the engines, the carrier is finally ready for delivery.

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