The 21st of August was a red-letter day for the Nation and the Navy following the successful completion of the maiden sea trials of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier Vikrant. The sortie was met with justifiable elation and maritime pride across the nation. Vikrant was put to sea once again to progress her trials.
Naval Aviation goes back to 1953 with the commissioning of the first Naval air station at Kochi INS Garuda. The air squadron INAS 550 was also commissioned at Garuda and the squadron flew Sea Land and Firefly aircrafts. As far as carrier based fighter flying is concerned, in 1959 the first fighter squadron INAS 300 with Sea Hawk was commissioned in UK. In the mid-eighties, the squadron inducted the Sea Harrier, which was the primary deck, based fighter of the Navy until they were replacement by MIG 29K in 2016.
India’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was commissioned in 1961. INS Vikrant was a CATOBAR (Catapult-Assisted Take –Off but Arrested Recovery) Light Carrier flying the Sea Hawks, Alize aircrafts and Alouette helicopters. Vikrant and her air wing played a crucial role in the Bay of Bengal in the 1971 war with Pakistan in carrying out strikes on ports and targets ashore, and in blockading East Pakistan.
With the induction of Sea Harrier and decommissioning of Sea Hawk, she underwent major modernisation in late 1980’s to be converted to a STOVL (Short Take off, Vertical Landing) carrier. The catapult and arrestor gear were removed and a ski jump was fitted. She was also upgraded to operate the Sea Harrier and the Sea King multi role helicopter
The Navy looked for a second carrier in the 80’s to have at least one of them operationally available to ensure that air strike and defence capability was always available and also that pilots flying from the carrier deck could be up to date with the most recent technology. Post the Falkland war the UK offered to sell the HMS Hermes to India and in 1986 the Navy inducted INS Viraat (ex Hermes) after she had under gone major refit and repairs. Thereafter for close to a decade the Navy operated two aircraft carriers until the decommissioning of INS Vikrant in Jan 1997.
As age was catching up with Vikrant, a case for her replacement was initiated in Mid 90’s. The actual work on the present Vikrant/IAC 1 started in 1997 with the Naval Design Team being tasked to design the carrier. The project was authorised development and construction in 1999. Initially it was termed as an Air Defence Ship of about 30,000 ton in STOBAR (Shot Take-off But Arrested Recovery). After a number of iterations and the selection of the fighter aircrafts to operate from her deck, the designation changed to Indigenous Aircraft Carrier displacing about 45000 ton designed to operate the MIG 29K fighter aircrafts. Formal sanction of the project was received in 2003. The initial sanction was for 2300 cr. which included investment in infrastructure at Cochin Shipyard to construct the IAC, and for design and start up works. The Navy was tasked too take up the case for final sanction once the design was frozen and the actual cost were known. The project was initially sanctioned at a cost of 19000cr. The cost was finally revised to 23000 cr.
The keel of the ship was laid in 2009. One of the reasons for the initial delay was the decision to construct the ship with marine grade steel developed and produced in India. Indigenous marine grade steel DMR 249 was developed which has been used in her construction and now is being used for all naval ship construction in the country. The IAC Project can lay claims to a number of innovations. IAC is the most complex shipbuilding project ever undertaken in India. A number of machinery and sub systems have been developed indigenously. The ship’s combat management system has been developed by Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division. It is the first combat management system developed by a private company for the Indian Navy. Indian companies have supplied the entire electrical cabling.
INS Vikrant is now being put through her paces with a series of sea trials for the ships machinery and system. The aviation complex and the flight deck will also be test for her to operate all the embarking aircrafts. The experienced gained in commissioning of INS Vikramaditya will come in handy and it should be a smooth sailing as far as trails of the ship.
The Navy has now taken up a case for IAC 2. Initial studies for IAC 2 has been done by the Navy. It is to a CATOBAR carrier of about 65000 ton conventionally powered with electric propulsion with an air wing of about 50 aircrafts which would include fighters, Anti-submarine Helicopters and AEW aircrafts. The case has been taken up but is yet to receive government approval. There are major advantages of a CATOBAR carrier. The carrier can operate heavier aircraft, which can be launched with full all up weight in weapon and fuel of the aircraft with the assistance of the catapult in all wind conditions. The case for acquisition of aircraft carrier has always faced opposition. Issues raised are the cost, vulnerability of carriers to modern day missiles, the operational necessity and from the Air Force, to name a few.
If we are to be counted in the Indian Ocean and desire to be a regional power, then India needs a Navy with the requisite maritime/ military capability and capacity. The challenges in the Indo Pacific continue to grow and India will continue to face issues and challenges on the land borders. Therefore, it is imperative that India capitalises on its geographic location in the Indian Ocean giving it the unique ability to dominate the Sea Line of Communication (SLOC) and steadily invest in maritime capability.