January 25, 2011: India's sole current aircraft carrier, the 29,000 ton INS Viraat, is running out of Harrier aircraft. Two years ago, Viraat emerged from 18 months in a shipyard getting maintenance and upgrades. With its engine and hull refurbished, and its electronics upgraded, India has announced that Viraat will serve for another decade. But back in 2009, one Harrier had just crashed, and now only ten of the original 30 Harriers are operational. Since Britain recently retired the last of its Harriers, there's always the possibility of India getting some of those before they are scrapped.
India has long had problems with its carriers and its AV-8 Harrier type carrier aircraft [PHOTO]. Government investigators found that only about 40 percent of the AV-8s were available for use most of the time. It was known that many Harriers were unavailable for service because of maintenance problems, but the extent of the problem was a shocker. The inspectors also uncovered other problems that were not generally known. For example, the air-to-air missiles used by the AV-8s had not undergone practice firings since 2003. Worse, the bombs carried by the AV-8s were obsolete and there was little ammunition available for the 30mm autocannon carried by the AV-8. The electronics on the AV-8s were in bad shape as well. But worse was the sad state of the carrier helicopters, which were also old and frequently out of action for maintenance or waiting for spare parts.
The AV-8 is a STOVL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft that first entered service in 1969. That early version was used mainly by the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. It was a 11 ton aircraft (7 tons when taking off vertically) that carried about two tons of weapons. In the 1980s, a more powerful 14 ton version was developed, which could carry three tons of weapons.
The AV-8 has the highest accident rate of any jet fighter. This is largely because of its vertical flight capabilities, which give it an accident rate similar to that of helicopters. The U.S. Marine Corps has lost a third of its 397 AV-8s to such accidents in 32 years. In the last twenty years, India has lost most of its 30 AV-8s vertical takeoff fighters to accidents.
The U.S. is replacing its AV-8s with the new F-35B. The Indians have bought eight retired AV-8s from Britain, and refurbished their current ones, to keep the Viraat armed with jet aircraft for the last ten years of its service life.
India has operated carriers for decades, having initially acquired INS Vikrant from Britain in 1961. Vikrant was decommissioned in 1997. India acquired a second carrier, also from Britain, the Viraat, in 1986. When it enters service in 2-3 years, the Vikramaditya/Gorshkov will operate sixteen navalized MiG-29 fighters, plus some helicopters.
India is also building a 42,000 ton carrier, or Air Defense Ship (ADS) and will begin construction of a second one once the first one is launched. The first ADS ship is expected to enter service in 2012, and the second one in 2017. Each ADS ship will have a similar aircraft complement to the Vikramaditya.