In July this year,an old game played out in the Barents Sea a new warship undergoing exhaustive trials by Russian shipbuilders prior to her induction,being shadowed by NATO ships keen to understand what it would be capable of. During the several weeks that the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier underwent trials,a Norwegian NATO intelligence vessel kept company,steadily building up an electronic dossier.
This was a follow-up to last year when a NATO maritime surveillance aircraft heavily buzzed the same ship,dropping buoys to pick up an acoustic profile.
The game is not just old,it is one that Vikramaditya has played in an earlier avatar as Soviet aircraft cruiser Baku,patrolling the Mediterranean in the late 1980s. However,the intense interest in Vikramaditya whose name literally translates as Strong as the Sun now comes from the extensive refit and modernisation it has gone through.
For a Navy that is proud of its legacy of operating aircraft carriers,the Vikramaditya is like no other ship it has had in the fleet before. It is the Navys biggest ship for one surpassing INS Viraat by 10,000 tonnes and one of the most potent aircraft carriers in this side of the world,in fact the first new ship of its class to be based in the Indian Ocean in over two decades. While India had to acquire older technology often in the past due to non-willingness of nations to share strategic assets,the Vikramaditya with its MiG-29K fighters is top of its game.
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With the ship likely to reach its home base of Karwar in January,preparations have been made to ensure that it is operationalised at the earliest. As things stand,it is coming without any fighters on board,with only a small chopper complement for utility missions. The plan is to start the first landings and take-offs of the fighters on board within two-three weeks of Vikramaditya reaching India.
At present,Indian pilots are training on simulators to operate from the confines of the small flight deck. A shore-based facility in Goa,where the fighter squadrons will be based,is set to start training MiG-29K pilots on landing and taking off from the carrier.
Part of the training will be conducted during the journey of the carrier from Russia,which is expected to take four to five weeks. The 183 Russian personnel on duty will not only help operate the ship but also train the 1,600-odd Indian sailors on board. Strategies and operational tactics to exploit the platform are already being worked on and will be fine-tuned as the ships characteristics are revealed in internal trials and war games.
The plan is to start operations as soon as possible. Certification of both pilots and air controllers has to be done before the ship can formally join the fleet, an aviation officer said.
After it sets sail from Severodvinsk,the Vikramaditya will be met by INS Deepak a tanker ship near Murmansk. Tailing the aircraft carrier will be a Talwar class frigate,fully geared for deployment in icy waters. Additional ships,including a Delhi-class destroyer,will join the convoy near Gibraltar. From here,one of the two options to come home will be decided the route through the Suez or going around the continent of Africa. While clearances from the Suez canal authorities have not been obtained yet,the Navy has been trying to get permission to use this shorter route home.
Indias first aircraft carrier,INS Vikrant,a Majestic-class ship,was acquired from the UK and commissioned on March 4,1961. The second,INS Viraat,a Centaur-class carrier,came into service more than two decades later,in 1987. Negotiations for acquiring the 44,500-tonne Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier,now Vikramaditya,started in 1994 after the ship was put up on offer by Russia.
After prolonged negotiations,the contract was inked in January 2004 and the cost was agreed at Rs 4,881.67 crore for the ship,spares,infrastructure augmentation and documentation. As per the contract,it was scheduled to be completed within 52 weeks at the Sevmash shipyard.
However,once the work began,it was realised that the scope of the project would have to be increased tremendously as parts after parts were found to be malfunctioning and needing replacement. Additional costs were agreed to in December 2009,with the ship to be delivered in 2012. The cost doubled to more than US $2.3 billion by then. A final hiccup occurred in 2012 when the boilers malfunctioned during high-speed trials,putting off the delivery date finally to November 2013.
As part of the offer to India,the Gorshkov was to be converted from a carrier designed to operate VTOL aircraft to a STOBAR (Short take off but arrested recovery) class of carriers. This involved massive redesign and modifications,including changing the flight deck to include a ski-jump and arrester gear. The changes performed were mind-boggling due to the scale of the warship 1,950 of the 2,500 compartments were modified,for one.
To accommodate the MiG-29K fighters,the mainstay weapon of the ship,a new 14-degree ski-jump was set up.
The ship finally managed to sail in 2012,after a gap of 17 years.