Ajay Banerjee aboard Vikrant
On October 26, 1949, the Defense Minister’s committee assessing the Indian Navy’s requirements approved the concept of having two “light aircraft carriers” of our own.
The plans for the new independent India were derived from impact carriers manufactured during World War II. In April 1942, four months after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the United States launched its first attack on Tokyo using an aircraft carrier. The ‘B25’ bombers were launched from the deck of the USS Hornet to carry out what strategic circles call the ‘Doolittle Raid’ – named after its leader, Lt. Col. James Doolittle.
In a few days, on September 2, the first locally manufactured 45,000 ton carrier, Vikrant, will be commissioned at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) in Kochi, Kerala. Although the Navy has operated three aircraft carriers since 1961, all were imported second-hand.
Vikrant is the first to be conceptualized, designed, developed and built in India. From the realization of the drawings to the construction of the warship by integrating the engine, the aeronautical complex and the radars, everything has a first. These are technologies that no country shares with another country. It’s not just the culmination of a two-decade effort to create a transporter, it addresses the heart of 1949 thinking – having your own transporters.
Vice Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral SN Ghormade says, “Vikrant’s mobility, resilience, integral air power and reach would be a force multiplier.
A marvel, no less
Designed with automation for operations, Vikrant expands the Navy’s arc of combat. Its engines are the latest and super powerful. Carriers have hangars to hold fighter jets and helicopters. Vikrant has aircraft elevators (for transporting jets from the hangar to the deck) with a load capacity of 30 tons each, designed to operate without interfering with flight operations on the deck.
“The Vikrant is a marvel, five to seven times larger than any Indian-made warship to date,” said Madhu Nair, CSL’s President and CEO. Some 76% of the budget (around Rs 20,000 crore) was spent on Indian equipment and manpower. Among others, TATA, L&T, Wartsila and Kirloskar Pneumatics, as well as public sector Bharat Electronics Limited, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Mishra Dhatu Nigam (MIDHANI) shaped the progress.
Imagine a scenario: it is dark over the sea. A MiG 29-K fighter, having completed a task, returns to Vikrant about 400 km away. The pilot “locks” onto the ship’s aviation complex using a secure link, maintaining what naval aviators call a “zip-lip” procedure or complete radio silence.
As the pilot descends, ‘Luna 3E’, an Optical Landing System (OLS) aboard the warship, guides the pilot to a specified ‘descent path’. To explain, OLS is like an Instrument Assisted Landing System (ILS) used at airports. The fighter plane will approach the bridge at 240 km/h. A set of three ribbed steel “stop wires” – each 1 inch thick – appear on the 60-meter-wide bridge. The jet’s landing gear has a tailhook that is ‘arrested’ in cables and brings the plane to a stop within 300 feet of touchdown. To take off, there’s a 14-degree angled ramp shaped like a ski jump to give it lift.
“Fighter aircraft trials will begin in November,” says Admiral Ghormade.
Expand the watch bubble
Vikrant’s ‘RAN-40L’ radar, supplied by European major Leonardo, is a maritime aerial surveillance and early warning system capable of tracking and detecting aircraft or drones up to 400 km away.
Several screens in the control room – called the bridge – show the ship’s captain the threats. “Sea control is an integral part of the carrier and the accompanying battle group,” says Commodore Vidhyadhar Harke. He should be the captain of the ship when commissioned.
Vikrant will also obtain data from its sensors and images from Predator drones, Boeing P8-I surveillance planes and the Rukmini naval satellite. Lieutenant Commander Ajay Singh, in charge of air operations, says: “The surveillance bubble would be larger and more effective.
Some weapons and equipment were imported. The long-range surface-to-air missiles (LRSAM) are Israeli while Russia provided the aircraft complex and the MiG 29-K jets. The integration of the propulsion system was carried out by the Italian Fincantieri. The ship’s four engines, LM 2500 gas turbines, come from the American company General Electric, but HAL played a role in the integration of the engines. Integration of all weapon systems would be through an indigenous combat management system (CMS).
A long trip
The central government in 2003 sanctioned the design and construction of an “indigenous aircraft carrier”. Navy warship designers made the designs. The first symbolic steel cutting took place in 2006, with delivery of the ship scheduled for 2012. Problems arose. The steel did not come from Russia. Indian defense companies were on the “entity list”, banned from global trade after the 1998 nuclear tests.
Government-owned Steel Authority of India, Navy and DRDO have teamed up to produce indigenous warship grade steel “DMR 249A and DMR 249B”.
New Delhi has taken time to get the right kind of engines, gearboxes, pre-launch equipment like diesel alternators, in addition to materials like steel and cables etc.
The Ministry of Defense in September 2007 informed Parliament: “The final delivery of the vessel may be delayed compared to the previous delivery in 2012.” The vessel’s keel was finally laid in February 2009. “The complexity of the project and the fact that it is the first ship of its type to be built in India has led to longer lead times,” navy officials said at a press conference last week.
Contemporary technology in 2 carriers
The commissioning of Vikrant is the first time that India would operate two carriers with contemporary technology – similar long-range radars, fighter jets, sensors and a corresponding aircraft complex.
India was able to operate its first carrier in 1961. HMS Hercules, purchased second-hand from the UK, was renamed INS Vikrant. He played an important role in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War on the Eastern Front before being decommissioned in 1997.
India’s second carrier, HMS Hermes, also bought second-hand from the UK, was renamed INS Viraat. Inducted in 1987, she was decommissioned in 2017. In November 2103, Admiral Gorshkov was refitted and partially refitted to be converted into an Indian specification carrier and renamed INS Vikramaditya. The two carriers from the United Kingdom operated together between 1987 and 1997, but both were over 35 years old at the time. From 2013 to 2017, India again had two carriers. However, Viraat was then on an extended life cycle.
Asian Carrier Race
Vikrant’s commissioning comes as India and China rush to expand their naval strength. China has two operational aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong. In July, it launched another, Fujian, which is scheduled to go live in 2025.
A US Department of Defense report warns that the “People’s Republic of China continues to build a multi-range force”. There are plans for six carriers by 2030, he said.
The Indian Navy’s plan for a third aircraft carrier has so far not been approved.
Asian countries are rushing to project their power at sea. The Japanese have JS Izumo, who can fly fighter jets. He adds JS Kaga, while South Korea plans to launch a large-deck amphibious warfare vessel by 2030.
How the ship works
Its four LM 2500 gas turbines each have an output of 30,000 horsepower
- The cockpit is 260 meters long and 1,34,000 square feet, almost the equivalent of two football fields
- After takeoff at summer “ok”, a MiG 29K jet will take only three seconds to take off from its deck
- The transporter is 15 stories high, or 61 meters high. It’s a floating city, a walk through all the corridors is 8 km
- It can sail for 45 days without refueling. Its top speed is around 55 km/h.
- Its onboard power generation of 25 MW, for air conditioning and other electrical needs, is the same like a small hydroelectric dam
- 1,700 personnel including 110 officers.
- Each crew member has a bunk bed in an air-conditioned compartment.
- Separate accommodation for women.
- The reverse osmosis system on board purifies seawater into drinking water.
- The treatment plant treats all waste to a level that is safe for marine life.
- A giant automated maker rolls out 2,000 chappatis an hour to serve 600 people at one time.
- The ship is equipped with a dedicated hospital with scanner and ultrasound,
- X-ray machine, operating room and dental clinic.
Industrial suppliers include those in Ambala and Jalandhar
More than 500 Indian companies and 100 MSMEs have contributed to the realization of Vikrant. The main products on board come from industries located in Ambala, Jalandhar, Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Daman and Diu, Hyderabad, Howrah, Indore, Kutch, Kota, Kanpur, New Delhi, Panaji, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Silvassa, Visakhapatnam.