Successful Landing of TEJAS, the indigenously fighter designed and developed has made a successful external link arrested landing on the India’s biggest warship INS Vikramaditya on January 11. “With this feat, the indigenously developed niche technologies specific to deck based fighter operations have been proven,” Indian Navy Spokesperson Vivek Madhwal told IANS. This will now pave the way to develop and manufacture the twin engine deck based fighter for the Indian Navy, he said. The Navy has created an aircraft carrier setting on the ground at its air base in Goa to operate these deck-based fighters, which use ski jump to take off and are recovered by arrestor wires on a carrier or STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) in Navy parlance.

India's New Carrier - INS Vikramaditya

India faced 2 major challenges. One was slipping timelines, which risked leaving them with no aircraft carriers at all. The other challenge involved Vikramaditya’s 3-fold cost increase, as Russia demanded a re-negotiated contract once India was deeper into the commitment trap. The carrier purchase has now become the subject of high level diplomacy, involving a shipyard that can’t even execute on commercial contracts. A revised deal was finally signed in March 2010, even as deliveries of India’s new MiG-29K naval fighters got underway – but now Russia still has to make good.

INS Vikramaditya Trials

Russian naval doctrine saw the 45,000t Admiral Gorshkov as a missile cruiser with a complement of aircraft. India wanted a full-fledged aircraft carrier. Getting there required extensive modifications.

The cruiser-carrier’s guns, anti-shipping and air defence missile launchers on the front deck were removed. In their place, India installed a full runway and ski jump, widened the deck in numerous places, and installed a bigger and stronger rear aircraft elevator.

Core ship systems were also slated for modernization. New boilers were installed to run on diesel fuel, for instance, and communications were improved. One nasty surprise that might have been expected was the need to replace most of the ship’s old wiring. Adding more reliable, higher capacity wiring will help make Gorshkov a fully modern ship, but it has been very labour intensive and expensive.

INS Vikramaditya: Key Specifications

INS Vikramaditya’s weakness will be defensive. An official Indian CAG report says that INS Vikramaditya will have no aerial defences until 2017. When it does, those weapons will need to integrate with the Russian LESORUB-E combat system, which means that weapon installation won’t take place until the carrier’s initial refit. The Navy would like to field the Barak-8/ MR-SAM missile for medium-long range defence, but integration could be challenging. They also want a close-in weapon system or 2, and intend to hold a competition rather than adopting the gun/missile Kashtan external link CIWS system carried by Russia’s own Admiral Kuznetsov carrier, or buying Russia’s lower-end 30mm AK-630 external link.

Anti-submarine defences are equally concerning. The Indian Navy only has 10 Ka-28s, and only 4 of those are operational. That deficit, plus a Sea King fleet that is small, old, and needs improvements, makes anti-submarine defence a big concern. India may end up outfitting its own Dhruv light helicopter with 1st-generation locally-designed ASW gear, and basing some on the carrier. That’s a fine stopgap solution, but a questionable medium-term option for defending their fleet flagship. A global tender for larger and more advanced ASW helicopters has been delayed since 2008.

Failure to add a modern towed sonar to its surface combatant ships juts makes things worse. Anti-submarine defences will have to be improved within the fleet as a whole, if India intends to field a viable carrier force.

Gorshkov-Vikramaditya: Aerial Complement

Many of Gorshkov’s key modifications are aircraft-related, including the new arrester gear and ski jump. That’s just the down-payment on the final cost of an operational carrier, because the aircraft are bought separately.

The original cruiser-carrier’s complement was 12 Yak-38 Forger V/STOL(Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) fighters, 12 Ka-28 helicopters, and 2 Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters. The removal of the Gorshkov’s forward missiles, addition of the ski ramp, and other modifications will improve the ship’s air complement, but the nature of its original design means that INS Vikramaditya will still fall short of comparably-sized western counterparts. Carriage ranges given for the refitted Vikramaditya seem to converge around 16-24 fighters, and 10 compact Ka-28/31 or Dhruv helicopters.

In contrast, the 43,000t FNS Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is about the same size, with a 40-plane complement that leans heavily to fighter jets. The FS Charles de Gaulle will also have an advantage in surveillance coverage, thanks to catapults that let her operate E-2C Hawkeye 2000 airborne early warning planes. INS Vikramaditya won’t have that option, because it doesn’t have a launch catapult.

The carrier’s AEW complement, if any, is almost certain to use India’s Ka-31 helicopters instead. That means a smaller radar, on a slower platform, offering much less coverage.

Vikramaditya’s fighters will also be Russian. Its air wing will draw on a fleet of 45 Indian MiG-29Ks, thanks to about $1.95 billion in contracts. The initial $740 million contract for 16 MiG-29K (12 MiG-29K, 4 two-seat MiG-29KUB) aircraft plus training and maintenance was confirmed on Dec 22/04. The contract’s option for another 29 planes, rumoured to be worth another $1.2 billion, was signed in March 2010. The MiGs would be operated in STOBAR (Short Take-Off via the ski ramp, But Assisted Recovery via arresting wires) mode.

MiG’s design was reportedly selected over the larger and more-capable SU-33 naval fighter for several reasons. One is that India already operates a large fleet of MiG-29s, and has been improving its ability to maintain them in country. Another reason is that India also wants to operate naval fighters from its locally-built 37,500t – 40,000t “Project-71 Air Defence Ship” (Vikrant Class) STOBAR carriers. The SU-33s wouldn’t be an ideal choice for a carrier that size, Britain hadn’t yet put its Harrier feet up for sale, and India’s own Tejas Naval fighter project remained a high-risk option. That left the MiG-29K as India’s only rational choice, and Russia followed with an order to equip their own carrier.

Waiting For Gorshkov – A History

On Jan 20/04 India and Russia signed a $947 million deal to refurbish and convert the Soviet/Russian Admiral Gorshkov external link into a full carrier, to be re-named INS Vikramaditya. The announced delivery date for INS Vikramaditya external link was August 2008 – an ambitious schedule, but one that would allow the carrier to enter service in 2009, around the time as their 29,000t light carrier INS Viraat external link (formerly HMS Hermes, last of the Centaur class) was scheduled to retire. The new carrier would berth at the new Indian Navy facility in Karwar, on India’s west coast.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, the Vikramaditya story is sadly typical of both Indian defence procurement, and of Russia’s defence industry.

INS Vikramaditya & India carrier force timeline

Denial, Delay & Disagreement

Initial reports of delays sparked controversy and denials in India, but subsequent events more than justified them. Slow negotiations and steadily-lengthening delivery times quickly pushed delivery of the Gorshkov back to 2010, and then to 2012 or later, even as Russia’s asking price more than doubled. India’s sunk construction costs, Russian possession of the Gorshkov, the difficulty in finding a substitute carrier to replace the Gorshkov sooner than 2013, and the Chinese push with the Varyag, have all combined to give the Russians substantial leverage in their negotiations.

They exploited that leverage to the fullest. Cost estimates and reports concerning the Gorshkov’s final total now hover in the $2.9 billion range, following the revised project agreement of March 2010.

As is customary with Indian defence procurement, transparency arrived only after all other alternatives had been exhausted.

When reports first surfaced that this delivery date would not be met, India’s Ministry of Defence initially tried to deflect the issue with denials and obfuscation. In May 2007, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta said external link the ships will be delivered:

“…by late 2008 or early 2009… Our officials, who are stationed at the spot, have said that the work is going on as per schedule and we can have a month long delay once the work is completed as that part of Russia is frozen for a long time.”

Later comments on this issue included this May 1/07 quote external link:

“The work is only three to four months behind schedule and we can expect the aircraft carrier to be delivered by late 2008 or early 2009”

Neither assessment turned out to be true, and subsequent updates proved the critics external link to be correct. After the delivery delays could no longer be denied, the initial approach was to minimize their length. February 2008 news reports, however, began to give figures of up to 3-4 years before refurbishment and testing could allow the ship to enter service. Subsequent reports by Indian and Russian sources stressed 2012, or even later.

Those estimates, at least, turned out to be true. The carrier didn’t see operational service of any kind until May 2014, and it will take even longer before it’s fully ready to fight.

India’s Carrier Collapses

The delays have left India’s Navy with a serious scheduling problem, and created periods with no significant carrier force.

INS Viraat’s retirement was scheduled for 2009, but Vikramaditya’s delays forced India into another refit, leaving the country without a carrier for 18 months until August 2009. Even with the refit, Viraat is nearing the limits of her mechanical life, and shortages of flyable Sea Harrier fighters are creating issues of their own. Subsequent refits and overhauls will try to keep the carrier, whose keel was laid in 1944, running until 2018. When she did return after an unexpectedly long refit, she had just 11 flyable Sea Harrier fighters available.

India’s other option was the locally-built Vikrant Class “Air Defence Ship” escort carrier project, which received formal government approval in January 2003. It was supposed to field a 37,500t – 40,000t carrier by 2013-2014; instead, Vikrant’s operational acceptance into the fleet slipped to 2018, then 2020.

To the east, China bought the engineless hulk of the 58,000t ex-Russian carrier Varyag in 1998, towed her to China, and worked hard to refurbish her. The ship began trials in 2012. By September 2012, reports surfaced that the ship had been re-named “Liaoning,” in honour of the province where it was retrofitted. She began sailing before the end of the 2012, and the ship has launched and recovered J-15 (SU-33 derivative) naval fighters. In May 2013, China declared an official naval aviation capability. Reports have China aiming for 4 carriers in the medium term.