For the next 15 or so months, Vikrant will not be a deployable battle-worthy platform, but merely a giant floating air-deck without ‘teeth’

by Rahul Bedi

New Delhi: Even though next week’s commissioning of INS Vikrant, the Indian Navy’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1 (IAC-1), is undoubtedly a momentous and landmark achievement, it needs emphasising that the 43,000-tonne warship will only be fully operational by end 2023.

The navy’s Vice Chief of Staff Vice Admiral SN. Ghormade declared earlier this week that the navy will begin MiG-29K fighter landing trials on Vikrant in November, that would be completed by mid 2023. Thereafter, the carrier will only be fully operational by the end of that year, he told news reporters in New Delhi on July 25, but declined to elaborate.

So, simply put, for the next 15 or so months, Vikrant will not be a deployable battle-worthy platform, but merely a giant floating air-deck without ‘teeth’, potentially capable of embarking a complement of 30 combat aircraft and helicopters. The carrier’s aerial assets are aimed at eventually executing its designated role of ensuring the Indian Navy’s maritime dominance across India’s two surrounding seas, and further afield in the strategic Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to contain China’s hegemonic People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), amongst other sundry roles.

Earlier, in an official statement the Indian Navy had stated that in accordance with prevailing practices pursued by advanced countries with regard to building aircraft carriers, the deck integration trials of fixed wing aircraft and exploitation of its Aviation Facility Complex (AFC) would only be executed after Vikrant’s formal commissioning on September 2. This, it declared, would be effected once the operational command and control of the ship, including flight safety, was with the navy.

Developed by the Warship Design Bureau, headquartered in a nondescript bungalow in New Delhi’s Kailash Colony, and constructed by the public sector Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), the 262m long and 62m wide short take-off barrier arrested recovery (STOBAR) Project-71 IAC-1 has an operational range of around 7,500 nm or 13,900 km.

Delayed by nearly seven years and plagued by a six-fold cost overrun to Rs 20,000 crore in times of declining military outlays, Vikrant’s building involved some 50 local companies and manufacturers, confirming yet again the navy’s lead over the two other services in indigenising its requirements. Presently, private and public sector shipyards are locally building nearly 40 assorted Indian Navy warships, including diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), survey vessels as well as nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines or SSBNs and nuclear-power attack submarines or SSNs.

The navy claims that 76% of material and equipment used in Vikrant – like 23,000 tons of warship grade steel, 2,500km of electrical cables and 150km of specialised pipes – was sourced domestically. Other locally provided equipment included rigid hull boats, air conditioning and refrigeration plants, anchor capstans, galley and communication equipment and the platforms combat network systems, amongst other assorted kit that comprise its 14 decks and cater to its 1,600-strong crew. This includes and an elaborate medical complex, comprising modular operation theatre and dental centre, specialised cabins for its women officers and crew and kitchens to serve an assortment of cuisines.

Industry sources said that around 50% of the carrier’s ‘move’ content (propulsion) was imported, as was 70% of the ‘fight’ (weapons and fighter air and rotary-wing group). However, 90% of the ‘float’ component – that comprises the hull and overall structure – was indigenously provided, confirming Indian industry’s and the navy’s burgeoning skills in shipbuilding.

According to nave sources, CSL employed the modular integrated hull outfit and painting (IHOP) technique in constructing Vikrant that included building about 874 compartment blocks, each averaging 250 tonnes, to incorporate most of machinery for navigation and overall survivability. This included four imported General Electric LM-2500 gas turbines that collectively generate 80 MW of power (120,000 hp), which would be adequate to push the carrier up to speeds of about 28 kt or 52 km/hour.

But Vikrant’s AFC, that is the nub of operationalising its offensive capability, is being supplied by Russia’s Nevskoe Design Bureau (NDB), and is similar in design to the one installed in INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), the navy’s other 44,750-tonne refurbished Kiev-class carrier. However, the AFCs installation in Vikrant stands delayed by several years, even though a large proportion of its diverse hi-tech compartments, workshops and components had already been delivered to CSL for fitment, whilst other vital elements remained on order.

Indian Navy sources said that over the next several months, this AFC will be fully installed with the assistance of Russian engineers and technicians, whose presence in India could be delayed due to the US-led sanctions imposed on Moscow for invading Ukraine. Consequently, the navy’s end-2023 schedule in fully operationalising Vikrant as a war fighting platform could be delayed.

Even so, the other inherent drawback in Vikrant as an offensive platform is its projected fleet of some 12-15 MiG 29K/KUB combat aircraft with which the Indian Navy was merely making do presently, till it imported some 26 multi-role carrier borne fighters (MRCBF), including eight twin-seat trainers, to supplement, and in time replace the Russian fighters. France’s Rafale M (Maritime) fighter and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F ‘Super Hornet’ from the US were presently being evaluated for procurement, after both platforms had completed flight trials at the Indian Navy’s shore based test facility (STBF) at INS Hansa in Goa, that simulates a carriers flight deck.

Senior navy officers privately admitted that the MiG-29K/KUBs – of which the navy had acquired 45 for around $2 billion in two lots between 2009 and 2017 – had, over years, proven 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. Additionally, many of the fighters’ Klimov RD-33MK turbofan engines had turned out faulty, while the aircraft themselves often needed repair after deck landings that invariably damaged some of their onboard components.

Nevertheless, MiG29K/KUB’s comprise Vikramaditya’s principal air arm component, but in time not on Vikrant, although the latter had originally been designed to field these Russian fighters. Its AFC too, like Vikramaditya's was, with minor modification and upgrades, geared to manage and operate MiG-29Ks.

But in the meantime, Indian Navy planners having realised – and accepted – the fighters serious shortcomings, had opted after much deliberation to acquire either the Rafale-(M) or the F-18 ‘Super Hornet’ as an ‘interim measure’, till the concluding advent of the under-development indigenous twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) or the navalised version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft.

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. However, by most industry assessments the Defence Research and Development Organisation-designed TEDBF was not likely to be inducted into service before 2030-32, if not later.

Other than this confusing state of affairs as it may with regard to Vikrant’s fighters, it also raises the disturbing question that had not the navy planned for such a contingency in designing IAC-1 despite being fully aware of the MiG-29K’s shortcomings? Additionally, importing 26 naval fighters would cost $5-7 billion, rendering it an astronomically costly ‘interim measure’ and adding inordinately to the Vikrant’s already bloated cost at a juncture when the Indian Navy, like the Indian Army and Indian Air Force, faced a declining annual budgetary allocation, the lowest in several decades.

Furthermore, a senior security official pertinently observed that designing a carrier around the MiG-29K, that the navy internally had deemed operationally deficient, acquiring an expensive interim replacement for it, before settling on yet a third combat aircraft – the TEDBF – defied all and any organisational logic. He maintained that almost all carrier-operating navies overseas decided on their on-board fighter complement early on and, unlike the Indian Navy, persevered with it.

“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 above all managing spares, maintenance and related backup back-up for multiple fighters,” he declared, declining to be identified. Such obvious blunders also considerably devalued the navy’s hard-earned reputation as practical planners and implementer's of their equipment requirements compared to the other two services, the official observed, adding that these obvious design flaws may even end up jeopardising the Indian Navy’s demands for a third carrier.

Moreover, other naval aviators said that the Russian-origin AFC too would need some amount of modification and tweaking to accommodate either of the two fighters shortlisted for acquisition and in due course the TEDBF. “Understandably, the overall focus is currently on showcasing the indigenously built carrier, a feat which renders India the sixth country after Britain, China, France, Russia and the US to be able to design and build such a warship,” said a retired two-star Indian Navy officer.

But eventually, he declared, this euphoria and breathlessness over Vikrant needs to swiftly and frugally fast-track the carrier to its intended operational goal as an effective power projection platform and not just a sophisticated showcase floating flight strip manned by 1,600 naval personnel.