Naval Air: INS Vikramaditya Declared Operational


May 13, 2014: On May 7th the Indian Navy declared its new aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, operational and deployed with the fleet. This was four months after Vikramaditya arrived from Russia, where it was built and refurbished to Indian specifications. That 39 day journey was the first long range (15,000 kilometers) cruise for the Vikramaditya and was not without incident. One of the eight steam boilers failed and the carrier proved unable to refuel at sea. The Indians feel they can deal with both problems.

The boiler problem is nothing new. Back in 2012 seven of eight steam boilers in the carrier power plant failed during high-speed trials. The Russians blamed India for this, as the Indians refused to allow the Russians to use asbestos to insulate the steam boilers. Instead the Russians had to use firebrick which, as some engineers suspected, was not adequate. Extensive work had to be done on the engines to rectify the problem.

Refueling at sea is a matter of practice and each type of ship requires slightly different moves to make it work. With practice the Vikramaditya crew will make it work and how that is done will be passed down from generation to generation of sailors who crew the ship. The tanker that was trying to refuel Vikramaditya at sea was also new to dealing with such a large ship. The Vikramaditya is now the largest in the Indian Navy and the largest the navy has ever handled.

There are also problems with the anti-aircraft weapons on the Vikramaditya as well as some of the electronic systems. This sort of thing does not prevent a warship from going to see and being operational. There’s always something that needs fixing or upgrading.

On February 7th an Indian pilot landed a MiG-29K on the Vikramaditya for the first time. A Russian pilot was in the back seat to observe and advise but the landing went off with no problem. Indian carrier pilots had been practicing on a 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.

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.

Meanwhile the first locally made Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, is in the water and being fitted out for sea trials in 2017 and active service in 2018. The 40,000 ton Vikrant has a ski-jump deck, like the INS Vikramaditya, and is designed to carry 29 jet fighters and ten helicopters. A second Indian carrier is in the planning stages and will be based on Vikrant but will be larger (65,000 tons) and use a catapult instead of a ski jump for takeoffs. That enables aircraft to take off carrying more weight and some kinds of aircraft (like radar early warning types) to be used. The navy wants to see how the Vikrant works out before committing to the final design for Vikrant 2.0.



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