INS Vikramaditya promises to change the balance of power in the Indian Ocean
The weather forecast for the Russian White Sea port of Severodvinsk predicted chill winds and sub-zero temperatures,but November 16 was a heartwarming day for Indias navy and for the thousands of Indians who follow its fortunes. Defence Minister A.K. Antony commissioned the giant aircraft carrier,INS Vikramaditya,marking the culmination of a 13-year-old saga. It was in October 2000 that the Russian aircraft-carrying cruiser,Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov,was gifted to India under an inter-governmental agreement.
The Indian government finally gave its approval for repair and modernisation of the ship in January 2004. Designated Project 11430,according to Russian custom,the ship was handed over to the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk in April 2004,so that the process could start. The ship had to be converted from an aviation-cruiser used for vertical take-off and landing to an aircraft carrier capable of launching and recovering supersonic fighters in the catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery mode. Operating MiG-29K fighters from the ship meant that several facilities and electronic aids had to be added for surveillance and control. Idle for two decades,the ship required extensive repair and the replacement of all equipment on board,including the engines. The modernised Gorshkov was to be delivered to the Indian navy in 2008 at a cost of $974 million.
But the progress of Project 11430 was neither easy nor straightforward. Within a few months of starting work,the Russians started sending ominous messages about the under-estimation of work,its unexpected complexity and anticipated delays in completion. This led to an extended series of negotiations in which India,caught in a bind,succumbed to the Russian demand for a 250 per cent increase in costs and a four-year delay in delivering the ship. It is likely that in the final reckoning,the project will have overshot even these estimates for two reasons: first,the lack of aircraft-carrier expertise in a shipyard that had only built nuclear submarines till then; second,the inefficiency and corruption that afflict the Russian military industry.
But this will soon be behind us as the ship leaves Russian waters for its new home port,Karwar,on the western coast of India. The Indian navy faces two immediate challenges: the smooth integration of this huge warship,with its new systems,in terms of shore-support and maintenance,and the evolution of new doctrines to exploit the immense operational capabilities that this ship offers. Carrying a mix of supersonic,fourth generation MiG-29K fighters,Kamov-28 anti-submarine and Kamov-31 airborne early-warning helicopters,the Vikramaditya promises to transform the maritime balance of power in the Indian Ocean.
This 44,500 tonne behemoth,with its formidable air-group,will be able to exercise sea-control over a three-dimensional bubble of 400-450 mile radius. Any hostile ship,aircraft or submarine enters this zone of control at its peril. The ship has the capability of projecting power over a hostile shore,using the MiG-29K to deliver kinetic strikes with guns,rockets or stand-off missiles. Or it could project power by heli-borne deployment of special forces and troops. In disaster-relief situations,Vikramadityas huge decks,hangars and domestic services could accommodate and feed thousands of refugees. Its electricity generation and water purification plants and medical facilities could provide for a small town.
Contrary to the misconception that carriers require a large escort force,a ship like the Vikramaditya actually affords protection to other units or merchant convoys in its vicinity. Calling the ship a game-changer is not mere hyperbole. Unlike its smaller predecessors,the Vikramaditya-MiG-29K combination could confront any shore-based air force and expect to prevail.
Inevitably,there will be comparisons between the manner in which two emerging powers,India and China,have managed projects. There are remarkable similarities: acquisition of a decommissioned Soviet-era aviation ship,its repair,modernisation and induction into service. While China undertook the Varyag/Liaoning project in-house,we had to outsource Gorshkov/Vikramaditya to Russia. The success of the Liaoning project cannot be attributed only to Chinas sound defence-industrial base and vibrant shipbuilding industry. The long-term strategic vision and foresight of the Chinese leadership and a corresponding deficit in India must be recognised.
When they are put out to sea as operational aircraft-carriers,both the Liaoning and the Vikramaditya will be observed with great interest by maritime professionals. The Chinese navy,with the bigger ship,an untried aircraft and with no background of carrier operations,will be stepping out cautiously. In contrast,the Indian navy,with an experienced naval aircrew and half a century of carrier operations behind it,should be deploying the Vikramaditya with confidence and panache.
The writer is a retired chief of naval staff