By S. M. Hali
Former Soviet Navy Kiev class aircraft carrier Baku, which was renamed Admiral Gorshkov in the Russian Navy, was purchased by the Indian Navy (IN) in 2004. Renamed the INSVikramaditya, and re-fitted at a cost of US $2.35 billion but plagued by several delays as well as cost escalations, it has set sail for final delivery and acceptance trials.
The ship’s keel was laid down in 1978 at Nikolayev South in Ukraine. Launched in 1982, it was commissioned in December 1987. The vessel appears to be jinxed as it has been hit by delays from its inception. The delay in commissioning was attributable to software bugs in its command and control system. In 1994, following a boiler room explosion, the ship was docked for a year of repairs. Although she returned to service in 1995, she was finally withdrawn in 1996 and offered for sale. IN decided to purchase it in January 2004 but price haggling delayed the finalization of the deal till December 2009.
On September 17, 2012, the IN revealed that the Gorshkov (since the vessel was not rechristened as INS Vikramaditya yet) had failed its sea trials. The refitted aircraft carrier could not reach “full speed” due to malfunctioning boilers. Some of the 44,500-ton warship’s eight boilers broke down during the strenuous full-steam trials. The IN had planned on commissioning the Vikramadityaon December 4, 2012, “Navy Day”. Because of the failed sea trials, the warship had to undergo repairs and modifications that delayed its commissioning by nearly a year.
Upgrade of the vessel was undertaken by Russia’s major shipyard, Sevmash Enterprise, where it was stripped of all the weaponry from the ship’s foredeck to make way for a Short Take-off but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) configuration involving arrester wires and tail hooks for the assisted landing; while a ski-jump has been installed on the bow.
The ship originally operated the vertical take-off and landing [VTOL] Yakolev Yak-38 aircraft. The retrofit enables IN to operate the more advanced MiG-29Ks from the deck. The ship can accommodate 18 MiG-29Ks in addition to 10 helicopters, including anti-submarine warfare [ASW] capable Kamov-28 helicopters and airborne early warning [AEW] Kamov-31 helicopters.
The aircraft carrier can reach a top speed of 32 knots and an endurance of 25,000 kilometers at a cruising speed of 18 knots. It is 283 meters in length with a beam of 511 meters. The carrier is propelled by four shaft-geared steam turbines generating 140,000 horsepower. The ship will have a crew of 1,400.
The carrier departed from the Sevmash shipyard on July 3 for four months’ trials to be conducted in the White and Barrents seas, which will involve the entire ship’s operations, its propulsion, and the functioning of the engine under stress conditions including ship-deck landing and take-off by MiG-29 K fighters before the delivery acceptance by IN.
India is already operating the INS Viraat, an ex-Royal Navy Centaur Class aircraft carrier equipped with Harrier Jump-jet V/STOL fighter aircraft and is in the process of indigenously constructing two more carriers. It is obsessed with competing with China and currently IN has an edge over China’s PLA Navy in the Aircraft Carrier capability. India should realize that possessing an aircraft carrier may be a symbol of power projection but operating a Carrier Group (CG), defending it from enemy air attacks, maintaining it and myriad other problems are a nightmare.
CGs are not restricted to a specific composition and can be modified according to threat perception and missions assigned during deployment. A typical CG comprises the carrier, which is the nucleus; a Carrier Air Wing consisting of numerous squadrons; Guided Missile Cruisers; a Destroyer Squadron with two to three Guided Missile Destroyers, up to two attack submarines; and a combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship for logistic support. Without these defence platforms, the CG is a sitting duck.
Typical carrier maintenance periods range from six to eleven months, depending upon where the ship is in its comprehensive maintenance cycle. Owing to threat scenarios, navies may defer scheduled maintenance but this will enhance risk for the crew, and in the long run, escalate the cost of operations and maintenance.
There is also a different kind of threat associated with longer deployments. Crew fatigue and morale can degrade over the course of a lengthened operation. Indian armed forces track record of buckling under stress is already rather dismal.
In view of above-named factors, it is concluded that India has acquired another white elephant only to serve its own megalomania.