Wednesday 27 May 2020, 01:05 AM
INDIAN NAVY’S QUEST FOR AN INDIGENOUS AIRCRAFT CARRIER
By IANS | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 6/16/2013 12:00:00 AM

Adm. Arun Prakash, (Retd.)

Historical Backdrop

   It was indeed fortunate for our Navy that at the moment of India’s independence, those charged with planning for the nation’s embryonic maritime force included many men of vision. In 1948, within six months of freedom, a ten year naval expansion plan had been prepared, largely by British officers serving on secondment, for consideration by the Government of India.

   The plan was drawn up around the concept of two fleets; one for the Bay of Bengal and the second for the Arabian Sea, each to be built around a light fleet carrier, to be replaced subsequently by a fleet carrier. This grand scheme provided for four fleet carriers and 280 ship-borne strike and fighter aircraft in the next few years. This plan received approval in principle from the Governor-General Earl Mountbatten, as well as the Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, but unfortunately failed to materialize because of a variety of reasons.

   Hostilities with Pakistan in J&K in the winter of 1947 had focused India’s attention on the Himalayas rather than the oceans and the young nation’s scarce resources were being diverted to the army. Moreover, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 required all WW II naval aviation surpluses of the British armed forces to be marshalled once again for service, and there was not enough to spare for the Indian Navy (IN).  However, the main impediment that emerged was a change of heart in His Majesty’s Government.

   The reason why the British were willing to help bolster India’s naval strength was the basic assumption that the IN would form part of a Commonwealth-based bulwark against any possible intrusions by the Soviet Navy  looking for warm water ports in the Indian Ocean. However, by now India had decided to adopt a non-aligned stance and her refusal to be part of any military alliance considerably dampened British enthusiasm and support.

Arrival of the First Carrier

   The dire financial straits of the fledgling nation also posed many hindrances to the planning process for creating a navy, but the carrier project eventually survived, albeit in a drastically diluted form. In 1957, the unfinished hull of HMS Hercules, a light fleet carrier was acquired by India and taken in hand for completion in Belfast. Four years later she was commissioned into the IN as INS Vikrant.

   The aircraft complement of Vikrant consisted of the Seahawk ground-attack jet fighter, and the French built Breguet Alize turbo-prop ASW machine. Both the aircraft served us faithfully, but by the late 1970s they were old and needed urgent replacement.

   Search for a Second Carrier


   With the Vikrant getting on in years, there was serious concern in the IN that having constructed our operational and tactical doctrines around carrier aviation, we may, one day find ourselves without a carrier at sea. Apart from the operational penalties, what our planners dreaded most was the loss of flying expertise, painstakingly built up over three decades of shipboard aviation at sea. Carriers were obviously not going to be available off the shelf and a serious thought process was triggered off in Naval HQ regarding the design and construction of an indigenous ship to meet our long term needs.

   The immediate scenario however, remained bleak till 1985, when we received an offer from UK, for the sale of the 28,000 ton HMS Hermes. Laid down in WW II, this 25 year old ship had served the Royal Navy in many roles. The offer was eagerly accepted, and after a refit in the UK, this ship sailed for India as INS Viraat. She had a 12 degree ski-jump and was well adapted for short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) flying operations. Some of us had already flown from her deck during the Sea Harrier conversion in the UN.

   Vikrant was finally de-commissioned in 1997, and the IN has since been operating with just the Viraat at sea, with her complement of Sea Harriers, Sea King anti-submarine helicopters and the Indian built Chetak helicopter. Occasional visitors on board include the Kamov-28 and the Kamov-31 helicopters.

   Indigenous Endeavours

   The Indian Navy’s small Directorate of Naval Design was in the 1970s, deeply engrossed in the exciting venture of licensed production of Leander class frigates being undertaken by the Mazagon Dockyard Mumbai. From time to time, they did however consider various aircraft carrier design options. In 1979-80 a concept for the conversion of a passenger ship hull to a simple aircraft-carrier was briefly examined, but  discarded since it received no encouragement from any quarter.

   By 1987, the IN had persuaded the government to approve the commissioning of a concept study by DCN, a French company, of a sea control ship of about 25,000 tons, capable of operating medium sized aircraft. The DCN report received in 1989, covered two options; one of a conventional (catapult equipped) ship and the other of a ski-jump carrier, to be constructed at the Cochin Shipyard Ltd owned by the Ministry of Shipping. The report unfortunately came in at a time of financial stringency, and had to be reluctantly shelved by the IN.

   However, the DCN exercise was not entirely futile because it gave a fillip and inspiration to our own designers, and concept designs, first of a simple 16,500 ton “Harrier-Carrier”, and then of a larger, more versatile 20,000 ton ship emerged from the Directorate. The factors and choices for size/configuration of the ship formed a rather complex matrix, and we will not dwell on them.

The Options Available

       Apart from the dimensions of the hangar, the size of the propulsion plant, and capacity of fuel tanks and magazines, the most important determinant of carrier design is the flight deck, whose size and configuration depend on type of aircraft operations intended.

       In the 1980s and 90s, the choices of aircraft available to India were severely limited on account of political considerations. Carrier-borne aircraft of US origin, by far the most capable in the market, were then just not available to us. The Soviets, our main suppliers of military hardware at that time, had only one shipboard fighter – the three engined VTOL fighter Yakolev-36 (Forger) to offer, but experience showed that the Sea Harrier, already in our inventory, was superior in most aspects. And then there were two more options, both at different stages of development: the French Rafale-M shipboard fighter and the Indian designed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).

   However, at the end of all our studies, one factor emerged clearly: aircraft catapults were manufactured only in the USA, and since this piece of machinery was unlikely to be available to India, we could discard ship designs which were based on conventional aircraft requiring a catapult launch. This eliminated all US origin deck aircraft as well as the Rafale as viable options. Since we had already decided that the Yakolev-36 did not have much merit, our ship designers were placed in limbo once again. This is when the ingenuity of the Russians came to our rescue.

Enter STOBAR


   Towards the end-1980s, word started trickling out of the USSR of an unusual experiment being undertaken by the air arm of the Red Navy. Having shed their traditional opposition to aircraft-carriers the Soviets were planning to make a dramatic entry into the difficult field of carrier aviation. They planned to take an unorthodox approach by using a  ski-jump equipped rather than catapult.

   Having realized the limitations of their VTOL aircraft like the Yak-36, they chose three (conventional) shore-based combat aircraft and undertook extensive modifications to enable ramp take-offs and hook assisted “arrests” on board. The aircraft chosen were the Sukhoi-25 (trainer and strike aircraft), the Sukhoi-27 and the MiG-29. This mode of operation added a new term to the dictionary of naval aviation: STOBAR which stood for “short take-off but arrested landing”.

The Air Defence Ship


   With this development, our carrier design options began to acquire some clarity, and the Staff Requirements having been reviewed, the designers returned to the drawing board. However, the continuing uncertainty about aircraft availability, made their job difficult, and the first tentative design that emerged was for a 20,000 ton carrier named the “air defence ship” or ADS (this was to avoid attention of the IAF which was opposed to ‘aircraft-carriers’). The ADS would operate the Sea Harrier (already in our inventory) and hopefully the indigenous LCA whose ship-borne version was being explored.

   However, a detailed feasibility study of a STOBAR version of the LCA by its design bureau revealed that a safe ski-jump launch and arrested recovery, though feasible, would make extra demands on this small strike-fighter. Although equipped with a digital flight control system, the delta-wing configuration of the LCA (Navy) would require higher take off and landing speeds. Consequently the deck length had to be increased by about 15 meters, and the redesigned ship now displaced 24,000 tons, with a corresponding increase in cost.

    By now the IN was seriously examining the Russians offer of their 1980s vintage helicopter/VTOL carrier Admiral Gorshkov, and a choice had to be made of a suitable aircraft. The obvious options were the Sukhoi-33 (a derivative of the Su-27K selected for operation from the 67,500 ton carrier, Kuznetsov), and the Mig-29K. An evaluation revealed that both aircraft would meet our operational requirements. The Su-33, though more capable, being dimensionally larger would not only not fit in the smaller hangar of the 44,500 ton Gorshkov, but would have marginal wing-tip clearances from the island structure during deck launch. It was therefore decided that the Mig-29K would equip the Gorshkov, to be renamed   INS Vikramaditya in Indian service.

   The downstream impact of this decision was instantly felt by the ADS programme, and a fresh design exercise was initiated to assess the implications of MiG-29K STOBAR operations on the ADS design. According to the planners, the ship’s basic complement would be a squadron each of MiG-29s and assorted helicopters. The option of operating the upgraded Sea Harriers was also catered for, till the LCA (Navy) received its full operational clearance. The workshops, magazines, deck and lift configurations as well as crew spaces had to be re-worked.

   The staff requirements having been finalized in 1999, the ADS emerged, in its final form, as a 37,500 ton vessel, to be powered by four gas turbines which would give it a top speed of 28 knots. The 830 foot long angled flight deck would have a set of three arrester wires aft rated to handle aircraft of up to 22 ton all-up weight. A set of jet blast deflectors and hydraulic chocks would be installed to provide a 600 foot deck run for launch of the Mig-29K and LCA (Navy), from the 14 degree ski-jump launch using afterburner. The ship would carry 30 aircraft and helicopters and would be crewed by about 1400 personnel.

The Indigenous Aircraft Carrier

  The project having received financial approval of the Government of India in January 2003, and first steel was ceremonially cut in Cochin Shipyard Ltd on 11th April 2005, when the ADS was re-designated as the “IAC” or indigenous aircraft carrier.  Consultancy would be acquired from Italy and Russia.

There are no illusions that this is going to be a complex undertaking, and on account of certain imponderables the shipyard plans to execute the contract in two phases. It is expected that the uncertainties, especially those relating to equipment that needs to be imported would have been resolved by the time work starts on Phase II. The financial estimates for the IAC have therefore remained somewhat flexible so far.

   As a practicing adherent of ship borne aviation for the past 45 years, the IN aims to fulfill its long term operational commitments in the IOR by deploying two carrier task forces at sea, while a third ship is under maintenance or refit. This would be the embodiment of a concept mooted in our plans as far back as 1948.

   The arrival of the Vikramaditya and her squadron of Mig-29K fighters in 2013 would certainly add considerable combat power to the IN, and the Service looks forward to the IAC joining the fleet in the next decade. At the same time, as Viraat’s retirement draws closer, NHQ is giving serious thought to the design of the next carrier the    IAC-2.

    Building an aircraft carrier for the first time is no doubt going to be a challenging task for India’s warship designers and builders.  The commissioning of this ship in the next decade would be not only be a defining event for our industry but also a concrete manifestation of the determination and resolve with which we have pursued the vision of becoming a “builders navy”.

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INDIAN NAVY’S QUEST FOR AN INDIGENOUS AIRCRAFT CARRIER

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