The former Soviet Navy “Kiev” class aircraft carrier “Baku”, later called “Admiral Gorshkov” in the Russian navy, was purchased by India on January 20, 2004. Renamed the “INS Vikramaditya” and refitted at a cost of $2.35 billion, but plagued by several delays as well as cost escalations, it has set sail for final delivery and acceptance trials.
On a historical note, the ship’s keel was laid down in 1978 at Nikolayev South in Ukraine, launched in 1982 and commissioned in 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 Although it returned to service in 1995, the ship was finally withdrawn in 1996 and offered for sale. India decided to purchase it in January 2004, but price haggling delayed the finalisation of the deal till December 2009.
On September 17, 2012, the Indian Navy (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 “Vikramaditya” on December 4, 2012 - i.e. "Navy Day". Because of the failed sea trials, the warship had to undergo repairs and modifications that delayed its commissioning by nearly a year.
Further, according to records, the upgrading 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 kilometres 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. It departed from the Sevmash shipyard on July 3 for four months’ trials to be conducted in the White and Barents seas, which will involve the entire ship’s operations, its propulsion and the functioning of the engine under stress conditions, including landing and take-off by MiG-29 K fighters before the delivery acceptance by IN.
Against this backdrop[, India is already operating the “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. Perhaps, it desires to compete with China and currently, the IN has an edge over its PLA Navy in aircraft carrier capability. Nevertheless, 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.
The 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 that 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.
Moreover, 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.
In view of these factors, it can be safely concluded that India has acquired another white elephant just to satisfy its obsession with weapons. However, building a strong, healthy relationship between India and Pakistan is the key to maintaining peace and prosperity in South Asia. Therefore, the two countries should focus on strengthening relations through dialogue, rather than increasing their stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and host of programme Defence and Diplomacy on PTV.