There are few sights at sea as majestic as an aircraft carrier; more so when it’s one of your own. The green, rain-soaked landscape around Kochi in southern India struck a memorable backdrop for India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC1, designated ‘Vikrant’) when the 40,000-ton steel hulk set sail on her maiden sea sortie on 4 August 2021. Carrying aboard the hopes and dreams of a billion people, it was a moment in history with few parallels in India.
The carrier was to sail last week of July. But minor machinery issues pushed the deadline to August. If not for COVID-19 lockdowns, the ship would have sailed last year this time. IAC1 is claimed to be “the most complex shipbuilding project ever undertaken in India”. Designed by the navy’s own ship design bureau (with multiple collaborators and consultancies across the world), it was built by Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) — a public sector shipyard outside the ambit of the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) with no past experience of building any warship, let alone a carrier. Though much delayed, it ushers India into an elite league of nations that ever designed and built aircraft carriers.
““IAC1’s maiden sea sortie comes after years of sweat and toil by a shipyard that never constructed a warship. Here’s 40,000 tons of steel, stretched over 260 metres from bow to transom, with 2,000 compartments, 2,300 kilometers of cabling (little short of half the coastline of India), a flight deck spanning two and half football fields, state of the art weapons, sensors and machines spaces, power generation and distribution (PGD) systems that can power a small city. This is our fourth carrier, but the only one that’s truly ‘made in India’, not a hand-me-down. With IAC1, Indian Navy’s carrier experience has come a full circle — from tail hook to VSTOL and back to tail hook. Vikrant cements India’s place with the elite few who have built nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.”” –
The first helicopter — a Sea King Mk 42 C (IN 559) — touched down on deck on 4 August 2021. The FONA, with a team of testers from Naval Flight Test Squadron (NFTS) heralded a new chapter in Indian naval aviation. Such trial landings by helicopter are meant to chart a preliminary wind envelope for casualty/medical evacuation, should the need arise during subsequent sea trials. The tempo and intensity of operations will soon see an uptick.
Headwinds And Stormy Seas Ahead
Going forward, India’s IAC will have to deal with a wide spectrum of surface and subsurface threats — not least of which is the growing clamour in higher defence circles against the aircraft carrier. India’s first Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat has publicly espoused his thoughts that do not include a third carrier or expeditionary capability. Many senior naval officials lament the constant running down of carrier-borne aviation by senior officials of the IAF, and the navy’s slipshod efforts to silence such criticism with cogent arguments. With such an outlook driving the restructuring of Indian military into theatre commands, will navy’s plans for a third aircraft carrier (IAC2) get torpedoed? I inquired.
Vice Admiral Suresh Bangara, former Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Policy & Plans), later Assistant Chief Warship Production & Acquisition (ACWPA) and ACNS (Ops), stoutly rejects such concerns. “Setting aside budgetary allocation for big, expensive assets like aircraft carriers was never an easy decision for any country. The ‘carrier versus stand-off missiles and shore-based strike’ debate, however banal, will continue. But personalities do not drive national security decisions,“ Adm Bangara says.
He recalls how the navy navigated many challenges like dredged depth of Indian channels versus draught of ship, lack of deep water ports, capacity of docks, and ‘Goliath cranes’, slipways, etc, that put an upper limit on tonnage of the IAC, almost driving the navy at one point to cut cloth to design a 20,000-ton ‘air defence ship’ (ADS) in late 90s. “Many of those challenges were surmounted by astute perspective planning. We must elevate IAC2 (designated ‘Vishal’) to at least a ‘60,000-ton plus’ category with a sizeable air group that gives us reach and dominance. The robustness of our plans, targeted US$5-trillion economy by end of this decade, and geopolitical imperatives, make the case for carriers only stronger, not weaker. Besides, consultative mechanisms in integrated defence staff and MoD that underpin national security decisions can survive the occasional dissent, wherever it may come from“, the admiral avers.
The numbers however bear out a different story. Indian Navy’s share fell from 18% of total defence budget in 2012-13 to just over 13% in 2019-20. With an increasingly landward orientation (amplified by recent threats along the LAC and LOC), intransigence of IAF towards deck-based aviation displayed at every forum, multiple short and long-term budget challenges where MoD had to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’, India’s future aircraft carrier projects may well meet their real adversary in South Block rather than South China Sea.
With ‘Theaterisation’, and the Indian Army, not Indian Navy, facing the most dire need for force modernisation, should we downsize our expectations on the next carrier? “No way“, says Adm Bangara. The concept of ‘non-lapsable defence budget’, by which unspent budgetary allocations in a fiscal can be carried forward, could be an interim solution to funding navy’s blue water plans centred around three aircraft carriers, he feels.
What Drives The Behemoth?
The IAC1 (Vikrant) is driven by four General Electric LM2500 gas turbine engines. INS Vikramaditya (Project 11430, ex-Adm Gorshkov) runs on eight boilers (steam propulsion) that drive four shafts. Nuclear propulsion for a 40,000-ton surface ship was beyond the navy’s reach when IAC1 was blueprinted. That may no longer be a challenge as per Vice Adm Dilip Deshpande (Retd), former Chief of Material (COM) who presided over many shipbuilding projects and held key appointments in dockyards and refits.
“Defining the air group is fundamental to any carrier project. The acquisition of MiG29Ks and Vikramaditya helped us define the contours of IAC1. At that time, even finding a suitable dock for VKD’s refit was a challenge. Almost all the steel used for building warships in India was imported. Steel billets fabricated in Odisha had to be shipped across the country to Gujarat for rolling into ‘bulb bars’, only to be shipped back to Odisha for heat treatment, then back to Gujarat for trimming, before being supplied to CSL for the IAC. Today, most of the steel used in warship construction is Indian. The wires and cables on IAC (& many other indigenous ships) are world class, produced by a private Indian company in Hyderabad. Propulsion and shafting design have been weak areas, but the gear box used on IAC is made in Vadodara. Our core strength is the naval design group that has become a repository of ship and submarine design wisdom. We should focus on reducing build time by modular construction and advanced outfitting”, Adm Deshpande opines. He also feels selection of gas turbine propulsion for IAC1 was a poor choice, dictated by navy’s ‘comfort zone’ and the propensity of naval commanders for ‘push button start’ and reduced ‘notice for motoring’. “With the experience of IAC1 and Advanced Technology Vessel INS Arihant (S1 to S5), if best minds from India’s Special Boat Centre (SBC) and Directorate of Naval Design (DND) put their heads together, nuclear propulsion for India’s next carrier is a distinct possibility,“ Adm Deshpande says.
Sweating The ‘Small’ Stuff
One of the immediate observations by aviation watchers as first images of IAC1 went public was the small size of its aircraft lifts. One of the best Twitter threads on this subject sparked by Project Coordinator at Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Angad Singh can be viewed here.
Cmde Jaideep Maolankar, former naval test pilot who undertook maiden landing of LCA (Navy) on VKD makes a valuable point on Angad’s thread: “I’d rather ask why 40,000 tons does not equal to 40 aircraft“. This raises key questions behind the political and military objectives that were sought to be addressed through the IAC1 and follow-ons. Gp Capt HV Thakur, former experimental test pilot from IAF now with HAL, answered Angad’s concern with: “Lifts seem to be perfect. We don’t exactly need to design for some imported aircraft. Our present and future aircraft fit well, and perhaps we should not eat into storage space by making extras large lifts. It’s a tight fit, which is in some ways, most optimised.“ It was one of those rare moments when an IAF fighter pilot provided air defence to a naval carrier!
While we fret the small stuff, it is easy to miss the numerous physical, material and geopolitical imperatives that shaped navy’s decisions. In Indian Navy, the hand has often been forced to fit the glove (remember ALH & the blade-folding saga). At 44,500 tons, even Vikramaditya is a tight fit for the MiG-29K. At 40,000 tons (and almost 20 metres shorter), can the IAC-1 accommodate Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft and bigger fighters with the reach and payload capability a modern blue water force requires? Should the IAC2 (tonnage) be defined by selection of air group, or should the air group be selected to fit IAC2 design? It is not possible to answer such questions when decisions are often taken in an intellectual vacuum, with flash bulbs popping in our face, and departments working in silos. From what I could gather, such decisions for IAC1 were rooted not in austerity but in ‘air wing selection dilemma’ and the realities of our ports, harbours and dock capacity. One hopes the IAC2 will get more (head)room to spread its wings. With winds of Atmanirbharta sweeping across India, shifting construction of the next carrier to a more efficient foreign port is practically (and politically) ruled out. The navy may well have to find all the answers in-house.
The symbolism of IAC1 leaving Kochi on its maiden voyage against the idyllic backdrop of Chinese fishing nets lining Kochi’s harbour mouth is hard to miss. It reminds us that the adversary is keenly assessing the “size” of our dreams, and where our aspirations come from. Between the extreme polarities of “no more carriers” and “let’s catch up with China”, there is a middle path Indian Navy and the nation at large must walk with pride and fortitude. Without political direction, IAC2 may soon hit a reef if discord and shallow discourse around the need, form and fit of aircraft carrier is allowed to drive key national security decisions.