An illustration of the Vikrant, the Indian Navy's indigenous aircraft carrier. (Indian Navy)
NEW DELHI — While India claims that its first home-built carrier, the Vikrant, will be fully operational by 2018, Indian Navy sources say that date is closer to 2020 since the ship is only about 30 percent complete.
On Aug. 12, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1) will be launched nearly four years behind schedule. The ship is being built by state-owned Cochin Shipyard Limited at Kochi in southern India.
The aircraft carrier will be floated out of dry dock, then redocked in order to mount the propulsion system. Work will then begin on the deck and the weapon systems before sea trials. And while Defence Ministry officials say those trials will begin by 2016, Indian Navy sources say it will not be before 2018-19.
“Launch merely means they will float the IAC-1 from the dry dock [to outfit the interior],, which includes laying of pipes, and after that it will be dry docked again for integration of propulsion systems,” an Indian Navy source said
Not only will Vikrant’s induction be delayed, but sources add that the total cost of the carrier will be more than US $5 billion, including the aircraft and weapons systems. When the project was approved in 2003, the ship was estimated to cost around $500 million. Sources said the construction of the carrier, minus the weapon systems and aircraft, will cost more than $2.2 billion.
Indian Navy spokesman Cmdr. P.V. Satish insisted that IAC-1 will be inducted in 2018.
“First and foremost, it needs to be understood that constructing an aircraft carrier is a very complex task. At the time of keel laying of the IAC in 2009, it was estimated that the ship would be delivered by 2014-15,” he said. “However, due to delays in arrival of some machinery from foreign sources, which are essential prior to the launch of the ship, the Phase I launch of the ship has been delayed by around three years. There have been certain other delays also in finalizing the detailed design aspects due to uniqueness of the systems. Things are now in place and we look forward to a targeted delivery by 2018.”
Indian Navy sources countered that at the time of the launch, only the hull and the outer structure will be completed, about 30 percent of the total work needed for the carrier.
After laying piping, the carrier will be redocked to mount the gear box, hydraulic systems, generator systems and propulsion system.
Work will then focus on the hangar deck for aircraft, berthing spaces for 1,400 sailors, boiler room and the flight deck.
Before sea trials, workers will install the Israeli-made Barak air defense system, multi-function radar system, A630 close-in weapon system and combat management system, the sources added.
An Indian Navy official said this ship will be able to stop attacks from enemy aircraft and will have anti-submarine defense systems. All systems on board will be integrated through a combat management system.
The Vikrant will be 262 meters long and be able to accommodate around 30 aircraft, including helicopters.
“IAC-1 features a STOBAR [short take-off but arrested recovery] configuration with a ski-jump. The deck is designed to enable aircraft such as the MiG-29 to operate from the carrier. It will deploy up to 20 fixed-wing aircraft, primarily the Mikoyan MiG-29K and the naval variant of indigenous Tejas Mark 2, besides carrying 10 Kamov Ka-31 helicopters,” the Indian Navy official said.
The Navy plans to have three aircraft carriers; a final decision is awaited on the IAC-2, which would be another homemade carrier but would displace more than 60,000 tons, 20,000 tons more than Vikrant. IAC-2 is still in the design stage but will have a catapult deck.
“IAC-2 is currently on the design board. Various feasibility options for the carrier are presently being pursued. Detailed study on the type and complement of aircraft and the ships’ propulsion options is being progressed to further narrow down design options,” Satish said.
Despite the delays and ballooning cost of IAC-1, defense planners, Indian Navy officials and analysts agree that India must build — not import — its carriers.
“Getting modern carriers in the open market is not easy. Our experience with Vikramaditya [Russian-made Admiral Gorshkov] is evidence,” said Probal Ghosh, senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation, adding that the Navy should now concentrate on IAC-2 and begin construction as soon as possible.
“Personally, I don’t think India should look toward procuring an aircraft carrier from abroad. Indigenous development with foreign collaboration, transfer of technology in certain areas where we may not have the expertise as yet would be far more prudent,” said Anil Jai Singh, retired Indian Navy commodore and vice president of the National Maritime Foundation.
Having three carriers allows one to be stationed on each of India’s coasts, while the third would undergo repairs or perform other duties such as training.
“The Navy has a clearly spelt-out capability plan which factors a balanced growth and includes a plan to have two carrier battle groups,” Satish said. “This will naturally entail having three carriers with requisite support ships to form a battle group. All the components are equally important.”