The Vikrant after sailing out on her maiden sea trials off Kochi on August 4, 2021
India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, and its second indigenous ballistic missile submarine, the ‘S3’ (earlier called the Arighat), will be commissioned next year. Both platforms are indigenously designed and constructed and the result of complex programmes run for decades. They are the largest, most sophisticated platforms to be built within the country. The Vikrant is 262 metres long. If it were placed upright, it would be 80 metres longer than the statue of Sardar Patel in Kevadia, Gujarat. The 45,000-ton warship is more than three times the weight of its namesake, which served the Indian Navy between 1961 and 1997. The 110-metre-long ‘S3’, the second unit of the Arihant class of four SSBNs (Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear), equals the displacement of four Scorpene class conventional submarines built by the Mazagon Docks Ltd. The first unit of the class, the INS Arihant, was commissioned into the navy in August 2016.
These twin platforms will be the star attractions of the government celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence, which will begin from August 15 this year. They will also make a powerful visual case for the government’s ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India) thrust to create an indigenous defence manufacturing base.
The ‘S3’ began harbour trials sometime in 2020 and could head out for sea trials sometime this year. India’s SSBN programme is a classified military project so it is likely that the ‘S3’, like the Arihant, will be commissioned discreetly.
The Vikrant will give the Indian Navy a second floating, fast-moving airfield from which it can launch aircraft and helicopters to attack targets onshore, in the air, on the sea surface and below the seas. Fighter aircraft and AEW (airborne early warning) helicopters also protect warships around them from enemy ships, submarines and aircraft, and are central to the navy’s strategy of exercising sea control. Vikrant will also help the navy make a case for building a second indigenous aircraft carrier, the ‘IAC-2’, which is to displace over 60,000 tons.
The ‘S3’ will form part of India’s Strategic Forces Command, which controls India’s nuclear deterrent. It carries an arsenal of 12 K-15 short-range SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), which have a range of 1,000 km or less, or four K-4 medium-range SLBMs, which have a range of 3,500 km. It thus increases the survivability of India’s nuclear deterrent and allows for a second strike against adversaries.
Both platforms, however, are many months away from being commissioned. The Vikrant sailed out on her maiden sea sortie on August 4 from the Cochin Shipyard where she was constructed between 2009 and 2013. The sortie marks the end of the first phase of basin trials last December where the carrier’s machinery, electronics and sensors were tested in harbour. Over the next year, the Vikrant will undergo extensive machinery and sensor trials in the Arabian Sea before she can be commissioned, in or around August 15, 2022.
The crew of over 1,400 will test the carrier’s steering and rudder at various speeds—she can do a top speed of 30 knots. It will test the warship’s four LM2500 gas turbines, main gear boxes, controllable pitch propellers and the machinery management system. These are significant trials as the navy has never operated a large gas turbine-powered platform; all the three carriers it has operated—the (old) INS Vikrant, INS Viraat and the in-service INS Vikramaditya–are steam ships.
The Vikrant’s surface search radars and communication systems will be tested too, as also its combat management system. Once all these are successfully tried out, the third and final phase of aviation trials will begin. These will test the Vikrant’s ability to launch and recover fighter aircraft. The aircraft carrier will eventually carry up to 24 MiG-29K fighter jets and 26 helicopters. The Vikrant will have an aviation complex of Russian origin similar to the one fitted on the Vikramaditya. The complex, which includes the Arresting and Restraining Gear (that snag fighter aircraft coming in to land) and the Luna landing sights are yet to be fitted on the carrier. This could now be one of the most challenging parts of the project as it could take several months after the sea trials. It is, therefore, entirely possible that the Vikrant could be commissioned without its fighter aircraft.