Naval Air: India Returns To The Good Old Days


February 16, 2014: On February 7th an Indian pilot landed a MiG-29K on the new Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya for the first time. A Russian pilot was in the back seat to advise but the landing went off with no problem. Indian carrier pilots had been practicing on Vikramaditya size land air strips. This was not the first time a MiG-29K landed on the Vikramaditya. That happened in July 2013 while the Vikramaditya was still in Russia undergoing sea trials. A Russian pilot handled those landings and takeoffs using the carriers "ski jump" flight deck. During the July operations the Russians also tested their Su-35 carrier fighter landing and taking off from the Vikramaditya.

The new Indian carriers is using the new STOBAR (short-takeoff-but-assisted recovery) system. STOBAR is simpler, and cheaper, to build and maintain than earlier catapult launch systems, which used a more robust assisted (with stronger arrestor wires) landing systems. The Vikramaditya will operate with 16 MiG-29K jets and twelve helicopters. India has used vertical takeoff (Harrier) combat aircraft on carriers since the 1980s. With the MiG-29 India returns to using regular fixed-wing aircraft on carriers. These aircraft can carry more weapons and fuel than vertical takeoff planes.

On November 30th, 2013, three months after Vikramaditya had finally completed its sea trials off the northern coast of Russia the carrier set off for India and arrived in early January. All this was good news, especially since the Vikramaditya saga had been one long string of disappointments for so long. India was supposed to take possession of the Vikramaditya by late 2012, but that was delayed until early 2013, and then delayed until late 2013. Some of the Indian crew have been working with the Vikramaditya for two years by then, learning about all the ship's systems.

For the trip home Vikramaditya was accompanied by an Indian frigate and a tanker carrying fuel for both ships. As they entered the Mediterranean they were met by two more Indian warships (a destroyer and a frigate) and all five ships proceeded, via the Suez Canal, to a naval base outside Karwar, a city halfway down the west coast of India. Vikramaditya is to be fully operational by July 2014.

In addition to being late, the ship was way over budget. There were also problems when it was finally completed in 2012, eight years after negotiations began. Finding and fixing problems seemed like an endless process. Even the first attempt at sea trials in 2012 found some problems with the engines (and several other items) which took over six months to get fixed. Getting the Vikramaditya to this point has been an epic saga to incompetence, bad communications, shoddy work, and inept shipyard management. Even by Russian standards the Vikramaditya project was a huge mess. In addition to being very late, the original cost has more than doubled.

Aside from the engine failure (a major flaw), the 2012 sea trials off the north coast (Barents Sea) of Russia did not reveal any other major problems. In all other respects the ship appeared to be in working order. The engine safety system, for example, detected the overheating and shut down the engines before any serious damage could be done. Other safety systems on the ship also worked well, and the Russians pointed out that there were problems with some Western equipment the Indians insisted on using. Most importantly, in 2012 the carrier experienced its first landing by a MiG-29. Any other equipment problems noted during the sea trials were fixed while the engine insulation system is rebuilt.

The 45,000 ton Vikramaditya was originally a Russian Kiev class carrier that served in the Russian Navy from 1987 to 1995, but was then withdrawn from service because the navy could not afford to keep the carrier operational. The ship was put up for sale in 1996 and in 2005. India agreed to buy it if a few changes could be made. India ended up paying over $2.3 billion to refurbish the Kiev class ship and turn it into the Vikramaditya.





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