INS Vikramaditya: The Game Changer

The largest, biggest and the costliest platform of the military arsenal joined the Indian Navy with a price tag of $2.3 billion and brought down the curtains on uncertainties, and unforeseen and agonising delays extending over nine years

Issue: 6 / 2013By Rear Admiral (Retd) Sushil RamsayPhoto(s): By Indian Navy

Finally, on November 16, 2013, Defence Minister A.K. Antony commissioned the Indian Naval Ship Vikramaditya at the Sevmash Shipyard, a formidable Russian nuclear submarine building centre, situated on the shores of the White Sea. The largest, biggest and the costliest platform of the military arsenal joined the Indian Navy with a price tag of $2.3 billion and brought down the curtains on uncertainties, and unforeseen and agonising delays extending over nine years.

The glittering ceremony planned so meticulously was almost dowsed in subzero temperature and literally bedecked the flight deck with a mantle of snow! The glorious moment in the annals of Indian Navy was witnessed by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozyn, who is also in charge of defence and space industry, Admiral D.K. Joshi, Chief of the Naval Staff, and Ajai Malhotra, Ambassador of India, among a host of senior government and naval dignitaries from the two countries.

INS Vikramaditya is the modernised and refurbished version of an original Kiev class aircraft carrier which was first commissioned into the Russian Navy in 1987 as Aviation Cruiser Baku. Post the dissolution of the former USSR, it was rechristened as Admiral Gorshkov and remained in service until 1995. During August 1995, a multidisciplinary group of senior naval officers was deputed to Murmansk and St Petersburg to thoroughly survey the state of Admiral Gorshkov and assess the feasibility for its refurbishment and modernisation as a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) or catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy. After an exhaustive examination of the ship over three weeks, the team leader was called to brief the empowered high level Indian delegation which had arrived at Moscow to formulate the first ever long-term perspective plan on military-technical cooperation (LTPP-MTC) between India and Russia. It was indeed noteworthy that based on the positive inputs from the team leader, the modernisation and acquisition of Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian Navy was included in the first LTPP-MTC itself. After almost nine years of negotiations, the initial $1.5-billion contract for retrofitting the aircraft carrier and buying 16 MiG-29K, K/UB deck-based fighters was signed in 2004. Since then its delivery has been delayed by over five years and it has seen several time and cost-overruns in the last nine years.

INS Vikramaditya, the floating airfield, has an overall length of about 284 metres and a maximum beam of about 60 metres, literally stretching to a distance of three football fields. Standing about 20 storeys tall from keel to the highest point, the sheer sight of this 44,500 tonnes mega structure of steel is awe inspiring. The ship has a total of 22 decks. A complement of 1,600 personnel mans this virtually a ‘floating city’. The ship has the ability to carry over 30 aircraft comprising an assortment of MiG-29K/Sea Harrier, Kamov-31, Kamov-28, Sea King, ALH-Dhruv and Chetak helicopters. Vikramaditya, which literally translates into ‘strong as the sun’, and has the motto ‘Strike Far, Strike Sure’ is all geared to be blooded as an awesome combat arm of the Indian Navy. The Navy is confident that flight operations will soon begin on the ship, symbolising that it is fully operational.

The Defence Minister described the transformation of the rusting and defunct aviation cruiser built during the Soviet era to this modern aircraft carrier as an “engineering marvel, which has tested the professionalism, capability and perseverance of the Indian Navy and the Russian industry”.

In its long journey to India, the Vikramaditya will be escorted by at least five Indian warships that have already made their way to locations that will fall en route. Onboard Vikramaditya will be over 1,600 personnel, including a 183-member Russian crew who will assist in training as well as operating the vessel.

Indian Navy and the Aircraft Carriers

INS Vikramaditya is now Indian Navy’s second aircraft carrier, supplementing the venerable INS Viraat. With INS Vikrant, being built in Cochin Shipyard, due to be commissioned by 2017, the Indian 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 Navy planners argue they must deploy an aircraft carrier on each seaboard, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

While the Vikramaditya would still operate as part of a Carrier Battle Group (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. “The Vikramaditya will dramatically increase the reach of Indian Navy, creating a sanitised bubble of 300 nautical miles (550 km) around the battle group, essential for conducting distant area operations in Indo-Pacific,” stated former Naval Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta.

With modern warships having a multirole (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.

According to former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash, “The Indian Navy faces two immediate challenges: the smooth integration of this huge warship, with its new systems, in terms of shore-support and maintenance, and the evolution of new doctrines to exploit the immense operational capabilities that this ship offers. Carrying a mix of supersonic, fourth-generation MiG-29K fighters, Kamov-28 anti-submarine and Kamov-31 airborne early-warning helicopters, the Vikramaditya promises to transform the maritime balance of power in the Indian Ocean. Calling the ship a “gamechanger” is not mere hyperbole.”

Asian Aircraft Carrier Race

While the Indian Navy has continuously reposed its faith in operating aircraft carrier since the 1960s and even operated two carriers for a short duration, the other nations in the Asian region have had a mixed experience in the domain of aircraft carrier operations and naval aviation for their respective navies. Since last year when China’s lone aircraft carrier Varyag/Liaoning, a discard from the Ukraine that was refurbished entirely through the indigenous efforts was commissioned but as of now not carrying aircraft, except for testing and training purposes, development of similar platforms within the region has become a topical subject for the naval planners and strategists. The debate essentially revolves around the efficacy and relevance of the aircraft carriers in the maritime security domain.

The other notable development was the discreet launching of the Japanese 19,500-tonne Izumo, which should be ready for induction in two years. Experts have opined that Japan’s success in producing such a vessel may diminish the Chinese challenge to Japanese control over the disputed Senkaku islands, Diaoyu to the Chinese. No one doubts that Japanese shipyards, after decades producing some of the biggest, most sophisticated commercial vessels, could turn out still more in the Izumo class - and go up in class to full-fledged aircraft carriers.

The other aircraft carrier inducted in the region is HTMS Chakri Naruebet, the first aircraft carrier and the only Thai-owned ship built by the Spanish Izar (formerly EN Bazan) for the Royal Thai Navy. In February 2005, Izar shipyard Navantia again changed its name. Under a contract signed by Spain and Thailand in July 1992, the aircraft carrier Chakri Naruebet made in El Ferrol shipyard Navantia in Spain and Thailand were assigned to the Navy in March 1997. With a design similar to the Spanish aircraft carrier Principe de Asturias, the aircraft carrier deck equipped with a “ski jump” to 12 degrees to allow similar Harrier fighter aircraft takes off. The main function of this carrier is monitoring the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and protection missions, search and rescue, but can also be used as command and control and air support for the fleet of warships. This aircraft carrier is equipped with six aircraft AV-8S Matador (Harrier) former Spanish Navy that can operate in short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL).

In summation then, if indeed there is an aircraft carrier race in the region it will remain confined to the developments on this front in India and China, the two emerging powers of the region. In the assessment of Admiral Arun Prakash, former CNS, “When both the Liaoning and the Vikramaditya are put out to sea as operational aircraft carriers, both will be observed with great interest by maritime professionals. The Chinese Navy, with the bigger ship, an untried aircraft and with no background of carrier operations, will be stepping out cautiously. In contrast, the Indian Navy, with an experienced naval aircrew and half a century of carrier operations behind it should be deploying the Vikramaditya with confidence and panache.”