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Powering India’s Maritime Might

INS Vikrant, India's first indigenous aircraft carrier adds India to the list of the exclusive club of countries that are able to design and build aircraft carriers. India also becomes a ‘Blue Water Navy’—a maritime force with a global reach and the ability to operate over deep oceans

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There is a back story to the commissioning of INS Vikrant on September 2, 2022. The Union government had indicated more than a year earlier in June 2021 that it would like the commissioning to coincide with India’s 75th year of independence, which is being celebrated as Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, showcasing a resurgent and progressive India with its myriad achievements.    

Indeed, INS Vikrant, India's first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-I) built at Cochin Shipyard (CSL) symbolises a turning point in India’s naval power. It is the seventh among all carriers or carrier classes in the world with a displacement of 43,000 tonnes when fully loaded.

IAC-1 adds more reputation as India becomes a "Blue Water Navy"—a maritime force with a global reach and the ability to operate over deep oceans. With it, India also enters the exclusive club of countries including the US, Russia, France, the UK and China that are able to design and build aircraft carriers.

Vikrant and R11

India bought its first aircraft carrier from Britain in 1957 which was under construction then as HMS (Her Majesty's Ship) Hercules, along with many other ships. In 1961, when the ship's construction was finished, it was commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Vikrant with the ensign number R11. IAC-I carries the same ensign number, R11 which marks the rebirth of INS Vikrant. Used to identify warships, the ensign number is also referred to as the pennant number.

The current INS Vikrant is 260 metre long whereas the older INS Vikrant was 210 metre in length and had a displacement less than half of the newer model. The older INS Vikrant throughout its career used a ski-jump and a catapult-assisted system to operate its fleet of aircraft. 

The older INS Vikrant saw a lot of action during the 1971 war with Pakistan when it handled the naval blockade of East Pakistan. The ship served for 36 years before being decommissioned in 1997. It was kept as a museum ship for more than 10 years before eventually being sold and disassembled in 2014-15.

Name and fame

The Sanskrit word Vikrant, meaning brave, is found in several scriptures, including the Bhagwad Gita. ‘Vikrant’ describes the bravery of several generals from the Pandava army.

INS Vikrant also displays the Rigvedic slogan "Jayema Sam Yudhi Sprudhah," which means "I conquer those who battle against me". Regarding the word Vikrant, "Vi" implies something unique or exceptional and "krant" means to move or progress in a particular direction. 

The Indian Navy said, "The induction and rebirth of Vikrant is not only another step toward enhancing our defence preparedness, but also our modest tribute to the sacrifices rendered by our freedom fighters for the Independence of the nation and our heroic troops during the 1971 war."

When fully operational, the gigantic aircraft carrier will not only be a formidable deterrent, but also serve as a floating air base on blue waters and as an Indian sovereign territory in the middle of the oceans.

Design and construction 

As the previous INS Vikrant approached decommissioning in the late 1990s, plans for a new indigenous aircraft carrier began to take shape. After decommissioning INS Vikrant, India relied on INS Viraat, which had been serving the Indian Navy for almost ten years after serving the Royal Navy for 25 years as HMS Hermes.

Meanwhile, design and construction of the indigenous aircraft carrier-I (IAC-I) were approved in January 2003. For CSL, a public-sector shipbuilding enterprise under the Ministry of Shipping that built IAC-1, it was the first warship construction project.

The first significant milestone for IAC, also known as Project 71 (P71), was the ceremonial steel cutting in April 2005. In fact, there are four major events in the life of a ship: keel laying, launching, commissioning and decommissioning.

The keel-laying ritual happened on 28 February 2009 which derives from the tradition of placing one core timber that serves as the ship's backbone. When a ship is launched, it is transferred from the construction site to the sea. 

The IAC-1 was launched on 12 August 2013, with 80 per cent of its structure completed and all key machinery, including turbines, alternators and gearboxes were installed.

In a pontoon-assisted precision manoeuvre, the IAC was launched into the Ernakulam channel. It was relocated from the building dock to the refit dock, where the next outfitting phase was completed. The IAC was undocked on 10 June 2015.

Trials and delays

IAC-1's propulsion and power generation equipment and other systems were tested in port as part of basin testing in November 2020. However, the sea trials were postponed due to the second wave of Covid-19. Finally, on 4 August 2021, the first phase of sea trials began, with the IAC-1 departing from Kochi and returning after four days. The second and third phases of sea trials took place in October 2021 and January 2022, respectively.

These trials tested the propulsion machinery, electrical and electronic suites, deck equipment, life-saving appliances and the ship's navigation and communication systems.

On 10 July, the fourth and final phase of the sea trial was completed after integrated testing of the main equipment and systems, including some complex aviation equipment. On 28 July, the ship was delivered to the Navy.

Capacity and capability

INS Vikrant is 262 metre long and 62 metre broad, with a flight deck, equal to the size of two football fields. When fully loaded, the aircraft carrier displaces approximately 43,000 tonne and has a maximum designed speed of 28 knots with a range of 7,500 nautical miles or around 14,000 km.

The 18-story-high ship has about 2,400 compartments and is designed for 1,600 crew members. It also features specialised quarters for female commanders and sailors. The aviation hangar is the size of two Olympic-size pools and can house up to 20 aircraft. There is a well-equipped kitchen that can prepare a variety of dishes, including a machine that can produce 3,000 rotis per hour.

The medical complex onboard INS Vikrant includes a 16-bed hospital, with physiotherapy clinic, intensive care unit, pathology setup, radiology wing with a CT scanner and X-ray machines, dental complex, isolation ward and telemedicine services.

The carrier's air wing will be composed of 30 aircraft, including Russian-origin carrier-capable MiG-29K fighter jets and airborne early warning control helicopter Kamov Ka-31, US-origin MH-60R multi-role helicopters and homegrown Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. Vikrant uses the short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) model, which includes a ski-jump for launching aircraft and three arrester wires for onboard recovery.

Commissioning and post-commissioning

INS Vikrant has 76 per cent indigenous components and has been manufactured at a cost of around Rs 20,000 crore. The Navy has said that between 80 to 85 per cent of the funds have been reinvested in the Indian economy because of its complete indigenous construction. To build this, CSL employed 2,000 people and 13,000 people got employment indirectly.

At the time of commissioning, the Navy said the deck integration trials of fixed-wing aircraft and exploitation of the aviation facility complex will be carried out post-commissioning of the ship in line with the standard practices being followed by other advanced countries having experience in building aircraft carriers.

Flight testing for the INS Vikrant is scheduled to begin in November and the carrier is likely to be fully operational by mid-2023.

Vikrant and Vishal

After the commissioning of IAC-I, India has two aircraft carriers, including INS Vikrant, whereas India’s most prominent rival China has three aircraft carriers including two carriers in service. India’s top military commanders have been advocating for a third aircraft carrier.

However, IAC-II will be called INS Vishal and will have a displacement of roughly 65,000 tonne and will cost around Rs 140,000 crore, matching the UK's Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. The plan is to have two carriers in service at any given moment while the third is under maintenance.

China and huge manufacturing cost

In the case of India, when it comes to building and operating aircraft carriers, China and the huge manufacturing costs are two major factors. The carrier strike group or operational aircraft carriers, is made up of destroyers, frigates, submarines and support ships. Despite the protective cover and their own defence systems, aircraft carriers may be attacked and destroyed. 

However, the decision to build IAC-II is not only driven by political, economic and strategic factors but also by India's desire to position itself as a global maritime power. The decision is also motivated by China’s quick move with its carrier programme. As of now, China is working on its third aircraft carrier and it is anticipated that it will have five aircraft carriers by 2030.

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Magazine Issue 5 Nov 2022