What do you do when you want a new aircraft carrier for your navy within a decade, but your options are:
- Your local shipyards can get one ready after 20 years,
- There is no readymade carrier which you can buy,
- There are second hand carriers which you can buy but won’t be able to get more than 20 years life out of them
- Order a new carrier from the Italians or the Spanish as they are currently building their own light carriers.
The Indian Navy faced this situation and wasn’t satisfied with any of the above options. They were already operating the second hand INS Viraat which had served them for 15 years and had completed nearly 50 years of total service. It just had a few years of life left and was becoming increasingly obsolete. With no other option, Indian Navy authorized the building of a carrier locally. But the construction would take 10 years to start, and once it started it would take 10 years to build the carrier and would be ready by 2017 as it would be India’s first attempt at building their own carrier. But India couldn’t wait 20 years for a new carrier and something had to be done to fill the gap when INS Viraat was scheduled to be retired by 2010. The blessing came in disguise of Admiral Gorshkov, which was a Soviet era carrier-cruiser laid to rust after a fire broke out in it just a few years after it entered service.
In the ‘90s, Russia offered the entire ship to India for free and offered to refit it and modernize it. This suited Indian Navy’s requirements because, even though the carrier was technically second hand, it would undergo a massive refit which would replace 75% of the existing components and add new improvements and structures like a ski-jump. This would mean that after its refit, the Admiral Gorshkov would be 85% new.
The almost new ship would be christened INS Vikramaditya. Built according to Indian specifications, it would serve as the flagship of the Indian Navy. The ship was formally inducted in 2014 and is a part of the Western fleet. It is currently operationally deployed and the MiG pilots are conducting takeoffs and landings for the final deployment of the air wing. This will enable Vikramaditya to be combat capable by 2015. So what is there in INS Vikramaditya that makes it so powerful and special for India?
I’ll start with its air wing which is the heart of any aircraft carrier. It can operate a maximum of 24 MiG-29K and 12 helicopters like Ka-28/31, Dhruv, Seaking and Chetak. But the typical air wing which will be deployed consists of 16 MiG-29K and a mix of 12 helicopters. The Seaking can be used in Search&Rescue, transport and Anti-Submarine warfare roles. The Ka-28 is an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopter and the Ka-31 is an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platform which provides over the horizon coverage. The Dhruv and Chetak are light utility helicopters.
The main strike force will be the MiG-29K which is a medium multirole fighter which can perform Air superiority and ground attack missions. The MiG-29K will enable the Vikramaditya to conduct strikes on enemy shipping as far as 1000 km away using drop tanks and Kh-31/Kh-35 Anti-Ship missiles, rockets and bombs. It can also conduct combat air patrols hundreds of kilometers away as the MiG can carry buddy stores to refuel other MiGs in flight. Its primary air to air armament will be the R-73 and R-77 missiles. It offers more capability to the Indian Navy than the Sea Harriers. One MiG can do the mission of 3 Sea Harriers.
The one advantage of the fact that it is a modified Kiev class carrier-cruiser is the presence of a large island. This may look as if it is a waste of deck space, but it offers enormous space for extensive command & control facilities, radars, sensors combat systems and self defence weapons. Currently, Vikramaditya is left defenseless against air attacks due to the delay in procuring Medium range SAMs and Close In Weapon Systems (CIWS). It is scheduled to be fitted with the Israeli Barak-8 SAM during its first refit in 2017. Until then, it will have to depend entirely on its escorts for protection against aerial threats. It does have countermeasures and jammers which are used to confuse the enemy missiles and aircraft in case of an attack.
There is no news about the actual battle group that Vikramaditya will be sailing with during its deployments. But I have my own theory about the ships that will constitute the Carrier Battle Group (CBG). Since Vikramaditya is Indian Navy’s most valuable asset, it will be escorted by their best destroyer, the Kolkata class. Since a CBG usually consists of 3-4 warships supporting the carrier, a Shivalik class frigate and a Kamorta class ASW corvette or alternatively a Talwar class frigate, will form the remainder of the group. These escorts will have long, medium and short range Surface to Air missiles (SAM) to protect the battle group from aerial attacks and cruise missiles. They will also field the BrahMos Anti-Ship Missile (AShM) for the destruction of surface threats at long ranges. All the ships are equipped with sonars which enables them to detect and protect themselves from enemy submarines. ASW helicopters will operate off the escorts and the carrier. However, the deadliest weapon will not be visible as the INS Chakra, India’s nuclear attack submarine will certainly be a part of this group. It will give the much needed underwater protection to the Carrier Battle Group. Until the Kolkata class is fitted with Barak-8, a Delhi class destroyer will take its place in the battle group.
The current battle group of Vikramaditya
INS Vikramaditya has received sharp criticism from India’s CAG which stated that the objective of the Indian Navy to induct an aircraft carrier has not been achieved and highlighted that the ship was a second hand one. Since the report is coming from a higher level, people are keen to agree with it and criticize the acquisition plans. But my question is , if this deal wasn’t the right one for the navy, could you tell me from where else could the Indian Navy have acquired a 45,000 ton carrier with the ability to operate around 30 aircraft including the conventional MiG-29k and not just Sea Harriers which offer limited power projection? The answer is clear. Nowhere else. The Europeans are building light carriers of 20-25,000 tons which can operate only STOVL aircraft like Harriers and F-35B. The Americans won’t sell any of their carriers and that’s all there is to say. It was rumored that USS Kitty Hawk was offered to the Indian Navy and it mostly isn’t. Even if it was true, India would have limited use for a 50 year old supercarrier which would cost a bomb to operate.
Now, how is it that I am saying that the INS Vikramaditya is perfect for the Indian Navy. Even though it overran initial budget estimations, it was the only option for the Indian Navy and it is worth every dollar of the 2.5 billion $ which India paid for its flagship. It fulfills the Indian doctrine of being able to project power using an aircraft carrier. India doesn’t need an ultra-expensive, ultra large carrier like the US, as the Indian doctrine doesn’t dictate global presence and involvement in all of the ‘hot’ zones around the world. The Indian Navy needs a carrier to enable it to project power in the Indian Ocean and safeguard the Indian interests. Vikramaditya does that, and does it very well. Looking at the situation in a practical manner, the only major naval presence in the Indian Ocean are India and USA. Being an ally, US isn’t competing with India in projection of naval power and is working together with India to ensure peace and stability in the Indian Ocean. The real threat comes from the increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. Vikramaditya is more than enough to serve as a deterrent as the Chinese navy just has a theoretical blue water navy which can’t deploy carrier battle groups or nuclear submarines in faraway regions and sustain them usefully. Their carrier doesn’t have a proper air wing and is years away from attaining combat clearance. So apart from the US naval presence, INS Vikramaditya, with its battle group will be the king of the Indian Ocean.
Note: Images © MOD India, Indian Navy, Sevmash, Russian Navy
If you enjoyed this article, do rate it below.