27 May 2014

India Is Trying to Get Serious About Carrier Air Power New Delhi struggling to field two modern flattops

Since China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning began sea trials in summer 2011, naval and air power observers have been closely watching the development of Beijing’s once-secretive carrier program.

Meanwhile, India—an established flattop operator—has also been making important progress deploying air power at sea.

The first official deployment of India’s latest carrier, INS Vikramaditya, passed almost unnoticed by foreign media in early May. Adm. Robin Dhowan, who took over as boss of the Indian navy in April, told reporters that the carrier was “operationally deployed,” together with the Russian-supplied fighters that comprise the sharp end of the vessel’s capabilities.

The former Russian navy carrier arrived in India earlier this year after a protracted refurbishment costing more than $2 billion. Vikramaditya represents just the first phase of a large-scale carrier program that New Delhi hopes will allow it to keep up with China.

Both navies now plan to build at least two indigenous carriers to eventually replace their former Russian equipment.

India’s largest and most costly warship to date, Vikramaditya is now sailing under a naval ensign with MiG-29K fighters flown by Indian pilots. The carrier is home-ported at Kadamba, close to Karwar in southwest India. 

Problematic history

The 45,000 ton-displacement Vikramaditya has had a troubled path to service. Built in Soviet times and originally named Baku, the carrier was meant to operate a mix of anti-submarine helicopters and short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing Yak-38 fighters.

Baku entered service in 1988. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin renamed the vessel Admiral Gorshkov … and withdrew her from service in the mid-1990s to save money.

As long ago as December 1998, officials from Moscow and New Delhi signed a memorandum of understanding to transfer the ship to India. The plan was for Russia to refurbish the vessel and convert her for use by non-STOVL carrier fighters, using the short-takeoff-but-arrested-recovery method.

STOBAR meant that the carrier would be able to operate far more capable jet fighters. It also demanded the addition of restrainers for powering up aircraft on deck, a ski-jump at the bow for takeoff and arrester gear for landing. All these modifications should have taken two years.

As of the summer of 2001, negotiations between the two parties were ongoing. The Indians were supposed to pay for the cost of modifications and refurbishment, but were increasingly alarmed at the poor condition of the ship.

As the two parties squabbled over price, the carrier languished at Russia’s Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk. At long last, the parties signed a contract in March 2004 that covered Baku’s purchase, overhaul and refit—all at a cost of $750 million. Development and production of MiG-29K fighters was also included.

Delivery was scheduled for 2008.

By the end of the 2000s, however, cost disputes were again on the agenda, and in March 2010 the contract had to be renegotiated, pushing up the price to $2.35 billion. Handover would now take place at the end of 2012.

Trials of the remodeled carrier began in June 2012. Between June and September, the renamed Vikramaditya was at sea for just over 100 days with some Indian crew on board. Then the Russians announced further troubles, the trials having uncovered malfunctions relating to the steam boilers.

Handover was postponed again, slipping to the end of 2013. In late 2012 and early 2013, Vikramaditya got a modified propulsion plant and underwent what officials described as “cosmetic repairs” at Sevmash.

By the time Vikramaditya set sail for her final trials in the White Sea in the summer of 2013, the carrier was five years behind schedule.

After being officially handed over at Sevmash last November, Vikramaditya finally arrived in India this January. The first Indian-piloted MiG-29K trapped on the carrier on Feb. 7.

As is, the Indian flattop still lacks on-board defensive weapons and is therefore unsuitable for any serious operations. The navy will add close-in weapons during the next refit. In the meantime, Vikramaditya has already participated in several war games with the Indian western fleet.

Once fully equipped, Vikramaditya should go to sea with around 24 MiG-29Ks plus six support helicopters. 

Indigenous carriers

India’s ultimate goal is to replace the veteran STOVL carrier Viraat—the former British HMS Hermes, construction of which began during World War II. Delays with successor vessels have forced Viraat to soldier on far longer than planned.

Depending on the availability of her Sea Harrier fighters—of which India is now the sole operator—Viraat might linger in service until 2020. Operational Sea Harriers, which have undergone an Israeli upgrade, now number no more than 10 aircraft.

By the time Viraat is decommissioned, however, Dhowan expects that India’s indigenous aircraft carrier program will have finally produced a working vessel. But this ambitious project has already suffered delays.

The first indigenous carrier, the 40,000-ton Vikrant, began construction in February 2009 at Cochin shipyard. She’s scheduled for trials in 2017. India had once planned to field a second carrier battle group by 2015. But Vikrant is unlikely to enter service before late 2018.

The second vessel in the class, known only as IAC 2, may adopt a conventional catapult arrangement like the U.S. Navy’s flattops. A switch from a ski-jump configuration to conventional takeoff and landing would permit the addition of important force-multipliers such as the E-2 Hawkeye for early warning and control—and perhaps also the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor.

Another option is nuclear propulsion, which would make India the third operator of nuclear-powered carriers after the U.S. and France. 

Viraat in 2007 with Sea Harriers, air force Jaguars and U.S. Navy F/A-18s overhead. U.S. Navy photo

Carrier air arm

India has a proud history of carrier air power, and its carrier air wing saw notable service during the 1971 war with Pakistan.

Today, India’s premier carrier aircraft is the MiG-29K, produced by RAC MiG. The navy acquired an initial 12 single-seat MiG-29Ks and four two-seat MiG-29KUB models under a 2004 contract, before signing for a further 29 MiG-29Ks in 2010. Deliveries of the second batch began in 2012.

The first landing by the new jet on Vikramaditya occurred in July 2012 during trials in the Barents Sea. That landing involved a MiG-29KUB with RAC MiG test pilots in control. The first take-off from the ski-jump ramp followed shortly thereafter.

Unlike Russia’s Su-33 carrier fighter, which China has copied as the J-15, the MiG-29K is a genuine multi-role warplane. Its armament includes both air-to-air and precision air-to-ground stores, as well as an all-important “buddy” refueling pod to extend flight range.

A mechanically scanned Zhuk-ME radar offers a multiple-target engagement capability with a reported detection range of 150 kilometers. Indian navy pilots also make use of the TopSight-I helmet-mounted sight provided by Thales of France, and an Israeli-made jamming pod for self-defense.

New Delhi has examined a range of other warplanes beside the MiG-29 with which to equip its burgeoning carrier air wing. The forthcoming Vikrant, too, should be equipped for STOBAR operations.

Other carrier fighter options include the Dassault Rafale M, Saab Sea Gripen and Eurofighter Sea Typhoon. While the navalized Gripen and Typhoon remain strictly theoretical projects, the Rafale has flown in combat from France’s carrier—and India has already selected the land-based model for its air force.

Official plans include the Light Combat Aircraft-Navy, but this indigenous lightweight fighter has made painfully slow progress since its maiden flight in April 2012. Indeed, the test team managed just five sorties in the first year of flying.

One apparent sticking point has been adapting the diminutive fighter for the rigors of STOBAR operations, which require beefed-up landing gear at a minimum. Nevertheless, Indian officials still hope the LCA-Navy will enter service in time to replace the Sea Harrier and serve alongside the MiG-29K on Vikrant.

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