Whither Vikramaditya

INS Vikramaditya on commissioning would be well worth every penny of the contracted value of $2.33 billion ( 11,650 crore) that India has spent, even though the contracted delivery schedule has slipped to end 2013

Issue: 1 / 2013By Rear Admiral (Retd) Sushil Ramsay

The news of breakdown of brand-new boilers fitted on Admiral Gorshkov during sea trials was received with stark disappointment and dismay, especially in the Indian Navy which was looking forward to the December 4, 2012, to commission this Soviet-era Aviation Cruiser (Taktichesky Kreyser) as INS Vikramaditya. The breaking news of the boilers failure on September 16, 2012, was all the more damning as by then unfounded and unconfirmed rumours were already circulating on slippage of contracted delivery date by at least three-four months to the first quarter of 2013. However, the report also had silver linings that beamed brightly with the news of successful culmination of aviation trials during the extensive sea trial phase by a MiG-29K and a MiG-29KUB, a fourth-generation fighter aircraft. There were 41 impeccable recoveries (landing) and launches (take-off). This stupendous achievement accomplished during main engine trials at sea compared brilliantly to the basic aviation trials also carried out 10 days later on board Chinese aircraft carrier Varyag-Liaoning.

During Soviet era, all aircraft carriers under Project 1143 were built at the Chernomorsky Shipyard at Nikolayev on the Black Sea in Ukraine. The 44,000-tonne Kiev was the first of the class. Subsequently, three more carriers—Minsk, Novorossiysk and Baku—were constructed. Technology advances prompted installation of improved surveillance equipment and sensors which included phased array radar, upgraded electronic warfare installation and an advanced command and control suite on board Baku. Baku was subsequently rechristened after the legendary Admiral Gorshkov.

The aviation cruisers had a large island superstructure to the starboard, with an angled flight deck to the port. Another significant feature was, these cruisers carried a very heavy armament fit, including the longrange nuclear capable P-500 Bazalt anti-ship missiles; NATO classification of SS-N-12 Sandbox. The air wing consisted of up to 22 Yakovlev, Yak-38 Forger, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighters and 16 Kamov, Ka-25 Hormone or Ka-27 Helix helicopters. None of the carriers of the Kiev class are in service with Russian Navy today—Kiev, Minsk and Novorossiysk were decommissioned in 1993 and were later sold as scrap. Only Admiral Gorshkov has survived.

Admiral Gorshkov was a modified aircraft carrier of the Russian Navy and was considered a class of its own. Although the erstwhile Baku was used for conducting aviation trials of Yak-141 Freestyle supersonic VTOL fighter aircraft, there is every possibility that no sustained operations were carried out from its deck. Baku-Admiral Gorshkov was operated as a strategic missiles (ICBM) launcher. A huge explosion in its boiler room during 1994 rendered the carrier non-operational. Although after major repairs the ship was declared operational in 1995, there is very little evidence of its operational service thereafter. Finally, the ship was transferred to reserve and offered for sale in 1996.

China’s Aircraft Carrier Programme

On September 25, 2012, the duly refitted and refurbished 300-metre-long Varyag was officially handed over by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation at a naval base at port city of Dalian. The aircraft carrier was rechristened as Liaoning. Varyag, an Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier, was merely 30 per cent complete when the ship was bought by China. This offered tremendous flexibility to the Chinese ship design bureau and the shipbuilding industry to convert the platform into a modern aircraft carrier. This was accomplished after several years of refitting efforts to install engines, weapons, as well as a yearlong sea trials. However, at the time of commissioning, there was no clarity on the type of fixed-wing aircraft which will operate from the deck of Liaoning.

In August 2009, ONI reported that China was undertaking a programme to both operationalise the Varyag, likely to be used as a training platform and build an indigenous carrier to join the fleet between 2015 and 2020. The reports also suggested building of multiple aircraft carriers and associated support ships over the next decade.

The delivery and commissioning of Liaoning was recognised as a small step in China’s ambitious aircraft carrier programme and that there was a long way before it could significantly contribute to PLA Navy’s aspiration of operating a Carrier Battle Group as an instrument of power projection. According to official sources, the Liaoning will continue to be exploited for scientific research and training purposes. Despite its re-modelling and extensive refitting efforts, most of the Lioning’s major systems are still the same as those on board its Russian sister carrier Kuznetsov which are more prone to frequent breakdowns, causing severe maintenance problems and low percentage of operational availability at sea. J-15 fighter aircraft, developed on the design of Sukhoi, Su-33 (this has been denied by China) had successfully conducted landings under simulated conditions, during the sea trials of Liaoning. A Chinese naval expert has opined, “Chinese pilots have no experience in landing on the aircraft carrier, and must practise hard to gradually master the technique. If they can land accurately and stably during excercises, they will be more likely to land successfully on the aircraft carrier on real missions.” Another Chinese military expert said that landing excercises for carrier based aircraft mainly involve three stages. The first stage is simulated training on land, the second stage is touch-and-go excercises, and the third satge is actual landing on the aircraft carrier. Two months after the commissioning of Liaoning, successful landing and take-off of the first generation J-15 fighter aircraft, was officially confirmed on November 25, 2012.

Gorshkov-Vikramaditya Status

On January 20, 2004, Russia agreed to sell the Admiral Gorshkov to India. The original price was $947 million ( 4,735 crore). The upgradation and modernisation were to be undertaken by Russia’s major shipyard, Sevmash Enterprise. The modernisation package included removal of all missile launchers and the weapon systems from the forecastle of the ship and utilising the space for creating a 14.3 degree ski-jump instead for short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) system for MiG-29K fixed-wing fighter aircraft and fitment of two restraining stands for allowing the aircraft to build full power for the “Launch”. The other major components of the modernisation package included; changing eight boilers to diesel fuel, installation of additional 30-tonne lift in the aft section along with modification of hangar space, installation of arrester gear aligned with the angle deck, navigational and landing aids, optical landing system for STOBAR operations and creating maximum launch area, between 160 metres and 180 metres on the angle deck, etc.

The deal also included purchase of 12 single-seat Mikoyan, MiG-29K ‘Fulcrum-D’ and four dual-seat MiG-29KUB aircraft at $1 billion ( 5,000 crore), six Kamov, Ka-31 “Helix” reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare helicopters, torpedo tubes, missiles and air defence (AD) gun systems. Facilities and procedures for training the pilots and the technical staff, delivery of simulators, spare parts, and setting up Suppliers’ Enterprise in India at the base port of Vikramaditya.

Modernisation and Refurbishment

The hull work on Gorshkov was completed by 2008 and the ship was ceremoniously launched on December 4, 2008, as Vikramaditya. Within two years, nearly 99 per cent of the structural work and 50 per cent of the cabling work was completed. Almost all of the major equipment, including engines and diesel generators, were installed. A prototype of MiG-29K was used to test the deck systems.

There are structural differences in the original hull design of Gorshkov to make it larger with a full load displacement. The 20-tonne capacity lift beside the ship’s island superstructure has remained unchanged. However, after-lift has been enlarged to a capacity of 30 tonnes. Three Arrester Gears have been installed on the aft part of the angled deck. New navigation, carrier landing aids and the LAK optical-landing system have been installed to facilitate STOBAR operations of the fixedwing fighter aircraft.

New oil-water separators as well as sewage treatment plant are installed to meet the international standards. In addition, six new Italian made Wärtsilä 1.5 MW diesel generators, Global Marine communications system, Sperry BridgeMaster navigation radar, new telephone exchange, new data link and an IFF Mk XI system have been installed. Habitability conditions have been upgraded substantially with new water producing plants as well as refrigeration and air conditioning systems from York International.

Current Status

The trials commenced in 2011 with main thrust on the main power generation units and the communication and electronic systems for weapons and sensors ex-India and achieved prescribed standards. All internal systems of the ship have achieved optimum standards. Prior to sea trials, the measurement of the ship’s magnetic field and centre of gravity have performed well and proved which is very essential for all naval ships for protection against mines and torpedoes. Likewise, the crucial heeling trials to estimate ship’s stability were successfully carried out.

The extensive sea trials of Gorshkov began in June 2012. The ship commanded by Russian Navy Captain First Rank with command experience of Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov and the Russian Navy crew sailed out to Barents Sea, Kola Bay, for a four-month-long sea trials schedule. The Indian side was represented by the Warship Overseeing Team, comprising the technical and specialist officers of Indian Navy. During the sea trials, the ship displayed excellent seakeeping and sea worthiness capabilities, and executed excellent manoeuvre of a 360-degree turn at a minimum radius equal to one-and-a-half hull length at 18 knots. On completion of the sea trials, the ship was scheduled for handing over to the ship’s crew who had already commenced training at St. Petersburg. The crucial aviation trials were also scheduled during this phase.

On September 17, 2012, malfunctioning of seven out of eight steam boilers of the propulsion machinery was detected which was attributed to the malfunction of the boilers on the use of Chinese made fire bricks by the Russian experts that had not been certified for use in naval applications. Earlier, the Indian side had declined the use of asbestos as insulation for the boilers for heat protection being a safety hazard for the engine room crew. Hence, the boilers’ designers had recommended the use of ceramic fire bricks. Later examinations revealed that the cause was not due to the fire bricks but poor workmanship and supervision.

The Indian side has now reportedly, relented to the use of asbestos cardboard heat lining over sealed boilers’ steel casing unit. During the trials there were several substandard components and subsystems found defective, these will also be replaced by Sevmash shipyard. There is, however, no clarity over the agreement between the two sides on resolution of the controversy over the major defects, the financial implications and methods of defect rectification, including the cardinal dates for completion of repeat sea trials during the current year to prove the failed and substandard components and systems. There is another major ticklish issue of liquidity damages levyable on the Russian side, which would require all of diplomatic skills for an amicable resolution.

In February 2010, the first batch of four MiG-29Ks were inducted into Indian Naval Air Squadron 303, “Black Panthers”. These multi-role carrier-borne aircraft are the improved version of those being operated by the Indian Air Force. MiG-29K is equipped with extended range beyond visual range missiles, smart bombs and mid-air buddy tanking facility from another MiG-29K for deep penetration role. One squadron of MIG-29K comprising 16 aircraft (including four trainers) has been ordered to be part of the air wing of INS Vikramaditya. The total number of MiG-29K being acquired would be between 40 and 50, to equip the Indigenous aircraft carrier’s air wing as well. Additional contract has been signed for 29 additional MiG-29K at a cost of $1.2 billion ( 6,00 crore) to meet this target.