INS Vikramaditya: India’s blue-water spearhead

Any doubts that India intended to build blue-water fleets are now gone with the Vikramaditya’s arrival. Source: AO Sevmash press office

Any doubts that India intended to build blue-water fleets are now gone with the Vikramaditya’s arrival. Source: AO Sevmash press office

By increasing India’s military reach the Russian built aircraft carrier raises the country’s diplomatic heft as a serious player in the Asia-Pacific.

It is several years late but the $2.5 billion INS Vikramaditya is finally ready to play a major role in the execution of India’s national security strategy.

When the Russian built aircraft carrier steams out to sea from its base in Karwar on India’s southwest coast, it won’t be alone – the nearly 1000-ft long, 20-storey tall ship will be at the centre of a heavily armed carrier battle group (CBG) comprising escort destroyers, frigates, missile boats, attack submarines and supply ships. Overhead, reconnaissance aircraft such as the Boeing P8 Poseidon will be looking out for undersea and surface threats.

And from higher still, the navy’s GSAT-7 military satellite – with a nearly 4000 km footprint over the Indian Ocean region – will provide India’s admirals with a God’s-eye-view of the maritime environment.

The Vikramaditya’s own air surveillance radar is capable of spotting threats over a radius of 300 km, plus its Kamov Ka-31 early warning radar helicopter can pick up enemy aircraft within a radius of 150 km and surface ships at a distance of 250 km.

But most importantly, the carrier’s 16 MiG-29K aircraft will be able to hit targets 850 km away; with in-flight refuelling that range increases to 3500 km. That means the Vikramaditya can operate at much greater distances from enemy shores while still accomplishing missions.

This standoff capability was demonstrated by India’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant during the 1971 war with Pakistan. During that 14-day conflict, the carrier bottled up the Pakistan Navy in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), allowing the Vikrant’s aircraft to destroy several Pakistani warships huddled in the harbour.

Source: Oleg Kuleshov/RG

You get the picture: if nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles bestow military might, the Vikramaditya signals military reach. The message is: no matter how far you are, we will come and get you.

“The entry of the Vikramaditya marks a paradigm shift, as it heralds a new era in carrier operations in the Indian Navy,” Rear Admiral S. Madhusudanan, Admiral Superintendent of the Naval Ship Repair Yard in Cochin, told The Hindu

Plugging the gaps

With India’s sole carrier, INS Viraat, spending more time in dry dock than at sea, and the 40,000 tonne Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) delayed until 2018, India’s naval aviation is seriously hobbled.

The Russian-built carrier will plug that yawning maritime gap. According to Rear Admiral Madhusudanan, “The way it has been rebuilt and equipped with advanced systems and machinery will ensure that the carrier will serve another 30 to 40 years.”

Secondly, because of the long delay in the Vikramditya’s delivery, India’s crack navy pilots are based at the Dabolim Air Base in Goa. This is, of course, a sad state of affairs. Carrier landing and takeoff skills acquired over the years can become degraded if pilots don’t train on a flattop.

The Vikramaditya is, therefore, the solution to a whole lot of issues that are buffeting the Indian Navy.

Ancient maritime power

The Indian Ocean is the only ocean named after a country. This is partly owing to the fact that India has been a seafaring nation since Vedic times. During the medieval era the Chola Empire and other southern Indian kingdoms colonised much of South East Asia up to Taiwan.

In the early 1700s, the legendary Maratha admiral, Kanhoji Angre, routed the British, Dutch and Portuguese navies on the high seas. For 33 years until his death in 1729, the Maratha navy remained undefeated. The British were so pissed they called him a pirate.

Source: Oleg Perov/AO Sevmash press office

Indian ships of that time were so advanced in design and durability that the British inducted them into their fleet. According to Usha Kiran Rai, an expert on shipping, Horatio Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, which took part in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was an Indian built vessel

With the Vikramaditya, the wheel is now turning and India is set to reclaim the sea power that it yielded three centuries ago. 

Carriers: Vulnerability vs value

In 1982, asked during a Senate hearing how long US aircraft carriers would survive in a major war with Russia, Admiral Hyman Rickover famously replied, “About two days.” Despite that candid admission, the US Navy’s love affair with the floating airfield has grown – it currently maintains 10 large aircraft carriers.

The Russian Navy, which largely shunned the carrier concept during the Cold War – it developed the fearsome Backfire bomber to destroy American carrier groups – has now done an about face. It has asked for six heavy carriers in the next 20-30 years.

Again, China which declared in 1971 it “will never build an aircraft carrier” because “aircraft carriers are tools of imperialism, and they are like sitting ducks waiting to be shot”, is now basing its naval strategy around these giant floating airfields.

To be sure, a multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier is an irresistible target. But there’s the rub: to attack a carrier you have to find it first. Carriers may be big fat targets – that perhaps explains the communist disdain for these most capital of ships – but they are constantly moving. You need assets in the air, sea and preferably space to locate, target and hit them.

When the 1971 war broke out, the big question at Naval HQ in New Delhi was: “Where is the Vikrant?” It took a few anxious moments before someone located it in safe harbour in Visakhapatnam on the south-eastern coast.

The naval brass had reason to be worried. Intercepts of Pakistani naval communications had revealed the Pakistan Navy had despatched its latest American-built hunter killer submarine Ghazi to sink the Vikrant.

So Indian intelligence resorted to classic misinformation. It sent a series of messages – normal procedure when a carrier is moving – that the Vikrant was sailing to a location off Visakhapatnam. This drew in the Ghazi which was then depth charged and sunk by the INS Rajput, a Russian built destroyer.

Today, a CBG’s high-density defences are so effective that when a submarine manages to slip past defences, it makes news. According to the US Naval War College, “Aircraft carriers operating in international waters, are less politically and militarily vulnerable than forward deployed land and air forces. While aircraft carriers are more vulnerable than smaller ships to detection, their size makes them the hardest ships to sink and destroy, and they are less vulnerable in every other respect.”

Chinese bogey

With American naval assets moving into the Pacific, China’s naval strategy has now become US-centric. So expect a massive spurt in Chinese naval activity.

Beijing’s aircraft carrier development has entered the boost phase. Their ex-Soviet carrier, the 67,000 tonne Liaoning, is currently the training platform for its rookie navy pilots.

VIKRAMADITYA STATS

 

60 metres: The carrier’s height – that’s as tall as a 20-storey building.

284 metres: Total length – equal to the length of 24 buses parked end to end.

2300 km of cabling: Enough to connect Chandigarh and Kochi in a straight line.

44,500 tonnes: Total weight – equal to 161 empty Airbus 380s.

The dragon’s growing maritime muscle is likely to set off alarm bells in New Delhi, but it is pertinent to mention that in naval aviation China is playing catch-up with India. “While the Vikramaditya is a new class of flattop and the MiG-29K a new aircraft for the Indian Navy, carrier operations are nothing new for the navy,” James Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, writes in The Diplomat. “The service has operated at least one flattop for over half a century....In short, Indian mariners are steeped in a naval-aviation culture that the Chinese are only starting to instill.”

India infatuated

Unlike the pussyfooting on ICBMs and nuclear bombs, India’s stance on aircraft carriers has been surprisingly unequivocal – it has owned at least one since 1961.

Clearly, the admirals realised early on that despite the country’s location in a dangerous neighbourhood, the risks faced by a carrier were small. There was also consensus that carriers would contribute to the national interest in a huge way.

Any doubts that India intended to build blue-water fleets are now gone with the Vikramaditya’s arrival.

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