The significance of carrier aviation | Explained

Why is the success of the INS Vikrant important? Who were involved in the development of DMR-249 steel? Is India on its way to get a ‘third’ aircraft carrier? Why is it important that the country should have a strong naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)?

April 28, 2024 10:54 pm | Updated 10:54 pm IST

Aircraft carriers INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant in formation 

Aircraft carriers INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant in formation 

The story so far: On March 5, both aircraft carriers of the Indian Navy, INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, showcased “twin carrier operations” with MiG-29K fighter jets taking off simultaneously from both and landing cross deck as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh looked on from onboard one of them. This demonstrated an ability that only a handful of nations can boast of. Further one of the carriers, INS Vikrant is indigenously designed and constructed. Commissioned in September 2022, INS Vikrant has been fully operationalised and integrated into the operational cycle in record time. As the two carriers sailed, they were joined by a flotilla of frontline warships of the Indian Navy, a combined tonnage of around 1,40,000 as well as aircraft.

What does INS Vikrant signify?

A carrier is a floating city. The design work on the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC)-I, later christened Vikrant, began in 1999; however 2005-2006 were probably the most crucial years for the carrier and for India’s war shipbuilding. The crucial decision was on the warship grade steel, which till then was procured from Russia. After much brainstorming, it was decided that it would be developed and produced in India, a collaborative effort between the Steel Authority of India, the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Navy. The decision on the development of DMR-249 steel was a commercial decision, Madhu S. Nair, Chairman and Managing Director (CMD), Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) said speaking to The Hindu shortly after the commissioning of Vikrant. DMR-249 steel is now being used for the construction of all warships in the country.

The construction also ushered in several new processes and spin-offs benefiting the shipbuilding industry at large. For instance, in 2002, 3-D modelling was introduced for the first time in India and a joint team of 200 personnel from the Navy’s Warship Design Bureau and CSL began work. The keel of Vikrant was finally laid in 2009, launched into water in 2013 and went through extensive user acceptance trials between August 2021 and July 2022 before its eventual commissioning.

What is the composition of INS Vikrant?

Delays notwithstanding, Vikrant is an engineering marvel. It has a total area in excess of 12,450 m2 which equals to about two and a half hockey fields. The 262m long and 62m wide ship is powered by four General Electric LM2500 engines generating 88 MW of power giving it a maximum speed of 28 Knots and an endurance of 7,500 nautical miles. Built at an overall cost of around ₹20,000 crore and 76% indigenous content, the ship has around 2,200 compartments, for a crew of around 1,600 that include specialised cabins to accommodate women officers and sailors. Vikrant houses two galleys which cater to all onboard, preparing upto 4,500-5,000 meals every day. The galleys start operation at 3 am every morning and continue for almost 20 hours a day, an official said. “It is equipped with state of the art automatic chapati making machines, capable of making 6,000 chapatis per meal, large cooking boilers capable of preparing 4,00 kgs of rice, dal, vegetables and other dishes.” Additionally, in order to cater for a variety of items on the menu, it is also fitted with combi-steamers, a dosa machine and ovens for preparing, idlis, dosa, breads and other bakery items.

Noting that among manufacturing activities, shipbuilding has one of the highest employment multipliers of 6.48, the economic Survey 2022-23 said that Vikrant alone engaged approximately 500 MSMEs, 12,000 employees from ancillary industries, and 2,000 CSL employees.

What are its capabilities?

Vikrant can operate an air wing of 30 aircraft comprising MiG-29K fighter jets, Kamov-31, MH-60R multi-role helicopters, in addition to indigenous Advanced Light Helicopters and Light Combat Aircraft (Navy). It uses the STOBAR (Short Take-Off but Arrested Recovery) method to launch and recover aircraft for which it is equipped with a ski- jump to launch aircraft, and three ‘arrester wires’ for their recovery. About 200 men start the day by preparing the flight deck for flying operations. “First we clean the entire flight deck of any debris or left overs. Simultaneously, the pilots are briefed for the missions in the briefing room,” one official onboard explained. “After all the aircraft are started up, the entire deck vibrates and generates noise in excess of 200 decibels.”

The flight deck has an independent lighting system to assist for bad weather and night operations. Once the aircraft finishes the mission, they are safely vectored back to the ship and guided for a precision landing, the official stated. “The fighters which have a hook under the belly pick up one of the three arresting gear wires on flight deck. The aircraft with a speed of more than 250 kmph is stopped within a distance of just 90m in just 2-3 seconds.” Vikrant has larger deck space and visibly larger hallways compared to previous carriers including Vikramaditya, which is of similar size. India is currently negotiating with France for the purchase of 26 Rafale-M carrier jets as the MiG-29Ks are in short supply while an indigenous twin engine deck-based fighter is currently under development. Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar had expressed confidence that they will receive it by 2034 or so.

While the present Vikrant was the first carrier built in the country, India has had a long history of operating carriers. The erstwhile 19,500 tonne Vikrant was India’s first carrier purchased from the U.K., which arrived in 1961 and played a vital role in the 1971 war. Then came the 28,700 tonne INS Viraat commissioned in 1987, formerly HMS Hermes, also from the U.K. INS Vikramaditya procured from Russia and commissioned in 2013 is India’s third carrier.

After Vikrant, what next?

An aircraft carrier is fundamental to command, control and coordination of operations from the sea and to project combat power ashore, over the seas or in the air, Adm Kumar told The Hindu, noting that the fragile maritime security situation across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and India’s stature as the largest resident naval power necessitate a strong and robust Navy. “Aircraft carriers play a pivotal role in this and concurrent availability of two Carrier Battle Groups facilitate credible presence and preparedness on both Western and Eastern seaboards.” The Navy has already moved a case for a second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-II), a repeat of a Vikrant-like carrier. The proposal was cleared by the Defence Procurement Board last September and has since been forwarded for approval by the Defence Acquisition Council, expected to be taken up once it meets after the elections.

The IAC-II displacing 45,000 tonnes will see some modifications and newer technologies incorporated in the original design of the Vikrant and will also be manufactured by CSL. It will take around eight to 10 years to build a new carrier, Mr. Nair said recently, as long as the basic design, engines and propulsion are kept intact. The Navy has shelved its earlier plans for a 65,000 tonne carrier given the whole new technology cycle involved and the resultant cost and timelines.

The proposed IAC-II has often been referred to as India’s third aircraft carrier. However, that is not entirely right. Design, construction and operationalisation of a carrier takes a long time and the IAC-II, if it comes in time, will be a timely replacement for INS Vikramaditya. Adm Kumar acknowledged this last year. “We are of the view that we will go for a repeat order with improved capabilities and in the meantime we will study whether we need to go for a larger carrier. Till a third aircraft carrier gets ready and is commissioned, the life of INS Vikramaditya may also come to the end of its lifetime. Then we would need to build another carrier,” he said on the sidelines of Aero India 2023. Therefore effectively, for the foreseeable future, the Indian Navy will have only two aircraft carriers in operation while it has long envisioned a force structure around three carriers, two at sea while one is in maintenance. Any delay in decision making could risk India losing its expertise of building and operating carriers, reminiscent of the submarine debacle of the 1980s.

While debate around carriers versus submarines continue, there is a renewed global interest with several countries now going for carriers of varying sizes. The U.S. is fielding new super carriers, and the U.K. has inducted new carriers while France and Russia have announced plans to build new ones. Japan has begun converting its helicopter carriers to operate F-35 fighter jets. Last month, China announced that it is building its fourth aircraft carrier, likely a nuclear-powered super carrier. From commissioning its first carrier, Liaoning, in 2012, launching second carrier Shadong in 2017, third carrier Fujian in 2022 and the fourth to be unveiled soon, China’s pace is absolutely unprecedented.

It is not an either/or between carriers and submarines. Each has its merits in naval warfare with profound ability to influence wars. The current global trajectory shows that, the growing carrier targeting missiles and drones notwithstanding, the days of carrier aviation seem to be bright for the foreseeable future.

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