|INS Vikrant, the Indian Navy’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1|
INS Vikrant, the Indian Navy’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1 (IAC-1), the 43,000-tonne warship won’t be fully operational until the end of 2023, despite the fact that the commissioning of INS Vikrant Aircraft Carrier-1 (IAC-1), in next week is unquestionably a major and historic feat.
- The 43,000-tonne warship will only be fully operational by end 2023, the navy says.
- The induction of MiG-29K fighter jets and exploitation of its Aviation Facility Complex (AFC) will follow after Vikrant’s formal commissioning.
- Admiral Ghormade stated as much, when he declared at his presser that though Vikrant had been designed for the MiG-29Ks, ‘evaluation’ was underway to select the ‘right’ deck-based fighter as a stop gap or interim measure till the TEDBF was ready in 5-7 years, but declined to name the platforms under appraisal for pro-tem acquisition.
- Designing a carrier around the MiG-29K, that the navy internally had deemed operationally deficient, and acquiring an expensive interim replacement for it, before settling on yet a third combat aircraft – the TEDBF – defied all and any organisational logic.
- Such obvious design flaws may even jeopardise the Indian Navy’s demands for a third carrier.
The navy will begin MiG-29K aircraft landing trials aboard Vikrant in November and finish them by mid-2023, Vice Chief of Staff Vice Admiral SN. Ghormade announced earlier this week. He told news reporters in New Delhi on July 25 that the carrier will only be completely operating by the end of that year. He declined to go into further detail.
Simply put, for the next 15 or so months, Vikrant won’t be a deployable, combat-ready platform; instead, it’ll just be a massive, toothless floating air-deck that has the capacity to carry up to 30 combat planes and helicopters. The carrier’s aerial capabilities are intended to eventually carry out its assigned role of ensuring the Indian Navy’s maritime dominance throughout India’s two adjacent seas as well as further afield in the strategically important Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to contain China’s hegemonic People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), among other various roles.
The Indian Navy had previously declared in a public statement that, in accordance with the standards followed by developed nations when building aircraft carriers, deck integration trials of fixed-wing aircraft and use of its Aviation Facility Complex (AFC) wouldn’t begin until after Vikrant’s official commissioning on September 2. It stated that this would take place once the navy had operational command and control of the ship, including flight safety.
The 262 m long and 62 m wide short take-off barrier arrested recovery (STOBAR) Project-71 IAC-1, built by the public sector Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) in New Delhi, was designed by the Warship Design Bureau and has an operational range of roughly 7,500 nm or 13,900 km.
With a six-fold cost overrun to Rs 20,000 crore and a roughly seven-year delay, Vikrant’s construction employed about 50 local businesses and manufacturers, reiterating the navy’s advantage over the other two services in domesticating its needs. Nearly 40 different Indian Navy warships are now being built locally in both commercial and public shipyards, including diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), survey vessels, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs).
The navy asserts that local suppliers provided 23,000 tons of warship-grade steel, 2,500 kilometers of electrical cables, and 150 kilometers of specialty pipelines, constituting 76% of the material and equipment utilized in Vikrant. Rigid hull boats, air conditioning and refrigeration systems, anchor capstans, galley and communication equipment, and the platform’s battle network systems were among the other locally-provided equipment that made up its 14 decks and served its 1,600-person crew. This features a sophisticated medical facility with a modular operating room, a dental center, cabins specifically designed for its female officers and crew, and kitchens that offer a variety of cuisines.
According to industry sources, around 50% of the carrier’s “move” material (propulsion) and 70% of its “fight” content were imported (weapons and fighter air and rotary-wing group). 90% of the “float” component, which consists of the hull and overall structure, was furnished domestically, demonstrating Indian industry and the navy’s developing shipbuilding capabilities.
According to naval sources, CSL adopted the modular integrated hull outfit and painting (IHOP) approach in constructing Vikrant that comprised creating roughly 874 compartment blocks, each averaging 250 tonnes, to accommodate most of machinery for navigation and overall survivability. This incorporated four imported General Electric LM-2500 gas turbines, totaling 80 MW (120,000 hp) of power, which would be enough to propel the carrier up to speeds of approximately 28 kt (52 km/h).
However, the Vikrant’s AFC, which is the key to operationalizing its offensive capabilities, is being provided by Russia’s Nevskoe Design Bureau (NDB) and is similar in design to the one placed in the navy’s second 44,750-ton, renovated Kiev-class carrier, INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov). Even though a substantial amount of its various high-tech compartments, workshops, and components had already been shipped to CSL for installation, other crucial components were still on order, the AFCs installation in Vikrant is still years behind schedule.
According to Indian Navy sources, this AFC will be fully installed over the next months with the help of Russian engineers and technicians, whose arrival in India may be delayed as a result of the US-led sanctions placed on Moscow for annexing Ukraine. As a result, the navy’s plan to fully operationalize Vikrant as a warfighting platform by the end of 2023 may be postponed.
Vikrant’s projected fleet of 12–15 MiG 29K/KUB combat aircraft, with which the Indian Navy was currently only able to get by until it imported about 26 multi-role carrier borne fighters (MRCBF), including eight twin-seat trainers, in order to supplement and eventually replace the Russian fighters, remains, however, one of its inherent disadvantages as an offensive platform. After completing flight tests at the Indian Navy’s shore-based test facility (STBF) at INS Hansa in Goa, which replicates a carrier flight deck, both platforms—the Rafale M (Maritime) fighter from France and the Boeing F/A-18E/F “Super Hornet” from the US—were currently being evaluated for procurement.
Senior navy officials acknowledged in private that the MiG-29K/KUBs, of which the navy had purchased 45 for about $2 billion in two lots between 2009 and 2017, had over time shown to be operationally inefficient, with an appallingly low serviceability rate and the inability to deliver specified payloads to their declared ranges with a full fuel load. Furthermore, some Klimov RD-33MK turbofan engines on the fighters had been found to be defective, and the aircraft themselves frequently required repair after deck landings that usually harmed some of their onboard components.
Nevertheless, the main air arm of Vikramaditya is made up of MiG29K/KUBs, even though Vikrant was initially intended to be equipped with these Russian fighters. Like Vikramaditya’s AFC, it was designed to handle and operate MiG-29K aircraft with a few minor enhancements.
However, Indian Navy planners decided to purchase either the Rafale-(M) or the F-18 ‘Super Hornet’ as a ‘interim measure’, until the eventual advent of the under-development indigenous twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) or the navalized version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, having recognized – and accepted – the fighters serious shortcomings.
When Admiral Ghormade said during a press conference that although Vikrant had been designed for the MiG-29Ks, “evaluation” was taking place to choose the “right” deck-based fighter as a stop gap or interim measure until the TEDBF was ready in 5-7 years, he made clear that this was the case. However, he declined to name the platforms under evaluation for pro-tem acquisition. However, most industry estimates indicated that the TEDBF, which was created by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, was unlikely to enter service before 2030–2022, if not later.
In addition to this perplexing situation with Vikrant’s fighters, it also begs the disquieting issue of why the navy did not account for such a contingency when designing IAC-1 despite being fully aware of the flaws of the MiG-29K. Additionally, the cost of importing 26 naval fighters would range from $5 to $7 billion, making them a prohibitively expensive “interim measure” at a time when the Indian Navy, like the Indian Army and Indian Air Force, was facing a declining annual budgetary allocation, the lowest in several decades.
A senior security officer further pointed out that it defied all organizational sense to construct a carrier around the MiG-29K, which the navy had internally decided to be operationally insufficient, to buy a pricey interim replacement for it, and then choose a third combat aircraft, the TEDBF. He argued that, in contrast to the Indian Navy, nearly all carrier-operating navies outside made a decision about their on-board fighter complement early on and stuck with it.
He added, while requesting anonymity, “And even though these evolutionary changes would be sequential, even operating in tandem for varying periods, they would pose serious logistic challenges and a financial burden in training personnel and, more importantly, managing spares, maintenance, and related backup for multiple fighters.
The official noted that these glaring design errors significantly diminished the navy’s hard-won reputation as practical planners and implementers of their equipment requirements in comparison to the other two services, and they may even end up jeopardizing the Indian Navy’s demands for a third carrier.
In addition, other naval aviators claimed that the Russian-origin AFC would also require some adjustment and modification to make room for either of the two fighters that were shortlisted for acquisition and, eventually, the TEDBF.
According to a retired two-star Indian Navy commander, “Understandably, the general focus is currently on showing the indigenously built carrier, an achievement which makes India the sixth country after Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US to be able to design and build such a warship.”
The carrier must eventually be quickly and inexpensively fast-tracked to its intended operational aim as an effective power projection ship and not merely a sophisticated demonstration floating aviation strip manned by 1,600 naval people, he vowed.