A welcome addition to the naval quiver - Hindustan Times
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A welcome addition to the naval quiver

Sep 01, 2022 08:37 PM IST

While the nation can take pride in having successfully designed and built its first aircraft carrier, attaining the desirable degree of combat worthiness of Vikrant will be a work in progress for a few years

The commissioning of the first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier, Vikrant, on September 2 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kochi is a significant punctuation in India’s pursuit of self-reliance in the military domain. Within the spectrum of naval ships — the flattop, as the carrier is known — has a special salience, and hence a celebratory tenor to this ceremonial event is warranted.

At 45,000 tonnes, Vikrant is the largest naval ship to be designed and built in India, and with this accomplishment, the country joins a select band of six nations that have demonstrated such capability: The United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, Russia, Italy, and China. (PTI) PREMIUM
At 45,000 tonnes, Vikrant is the largest naval ship to be designed and built in India, and with this accomplishment, the country joins a select band of six nations that have demonstrated such capability: The United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, Russia, Italy, and China. (PTI)

All civilian and naval personnel who have worked in earnest since 2005 (when the steel was symbolically cut) to bring Vikrant to this moment — when the Tricolour and a new naval ensign will be hoisted and the ship formally inducted with the prefix INS (Indian Naval Ship) — must be commended for their perseverance. Seventeen years is a long gestation period for any platform, but more on that later. It merits mentioning that the final phase of Vikrant was completed under Covid-19’s shadow, but that it was not allowed to become a constraint is a special feather in the cap for the staff of the Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL), and its diligent leadership.

At 45,000 tonnes, Vikrant is the largest naval ship to be designed and built in India, and with this accomplishment, the country joins a select band of six nations that have demonstrated such capability: The United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, Russia, Italy, and China.

To the credit of the Indian Navy, the early leadership resolved that the “Cinderella” service would invest in naval ship design, and, accordingly, a dedicated cadre of naval architects was nurtured. Beginning with the Leander-class frigates of the early 1970s that were acquired from the UK and gradually transformed into an indigenous Godavari class, it has been a steady path of consolidation — from the commissioning of Nilgiri in 1972 to Vikrant in 2022.

Designing and building the first warship of any class is a complex learning curve, and in the case of Vikrant, the CSL was embarking on such a project for the first time. Built at a cost of almost 20,000 crore, the project began in May 2007, and the ship’s keel was laid in February 2009. Subsequently, the vessel was launched (into the water) in August 2013. Nine years later, the ship is ready to be commissioned as part of the Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) campaign. While the pursuit of indigenous capability is laudable, and Vikrant is indeed a success story — the progress needs to be contextualised objectively.

Any warship has three components, from design to final operational induction. The first is to create a hull that will float, and here the quantum of indigenisation apropos Vikrant is more than 80% — primarily due to the Indian steel that has gone into building the vessel. However, when it comes to the second component — making the ship move — the indigenous component is more modest, and only up to 50% of the propulsion, because the gas turbines and related machinery are imported. Finally, when it comes to the fighting component, including surveillance (radars and sonar), the imported component is almost 70%. These areas will need sustained attention in the years ahead when India decides on the next indigenous carrier.

After commissioning, Vikrant will begin the more critical task of embarking on board its fighter aircraft — in this case, the MiG-29K, which is already operating from the INS Vikramaditya (the former Russian vessel, the Gorshkov). The credibility of a carrier is determined by the quality and quantity of air power it can bring to bear in any given radius and hence the truism that sans its integral air capability, a carrier is a mere floating hull.

The integration of the MiG-29K on Vikrant will take at least six months, and some structural challenges will need to be surmounted. The Indian Navy acquired 45 MiG-29K fighters commencing 2009, and these were earmarked for INS Vikramaditya. However, despite the initial evaluation and the modifications to the MiG-29K (which was designed as a land-based fighter), the efficacy of MiG-29K as a carrier-borne fighter was deemed to be below par in terms of its operational profile. In a 2016 report, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) was scathing and described the acquisition of MiG-29K as being ‘“riddled with problems, discrepancies, and anomalies”.

India has evaluated other aircraft, such as the French Rafale and the US F-18. Still, given the long timelines for decision-making, it is unlikely that either of these platforms will be inducted soon. Thus, India will be in an anomalous situation: While the nation can take pride in having successfully designed and built its first aircraft carrier, attaining the desirable degree of combat worthiness of Vikrant will be a work in progress for a few years. If the CAG had arrived at a determination in 2016 that the MiG-29K was not a viable platform for carrier operations, why did the higher defence decision-making apparatus of the country allow the current exigency to occur? These policy inadequacies merit objective review so that the next Indian carrier — as and when approved – is not beset by the same delays and anomalies.

But for now, Vikrant must be heralded as a welcome addition to the Indian quiver.

Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies The views expressed are personal

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