Originally Published 2013-12-02 10:26:24 Published on Dec 02, 2013
New aircraft carrier Vikramaditya will undoubtedly have a major role to play as force multipliers and strategic game changers in the region, but as a ship without even the basic defences against air borne threats, it will be extremely vulnerable, obviating its usage to its potential to the maximum.
Will the aircraft carriers be the game changers?
" Leaving behind the intense controversy over delays, price escalation and compromises on all except the quality, the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya was finally commissioned on 16 Nov 2013, joining the Indian Navy as its second carrier to share the operational burden with an ageing Viraat that should have been retired long ago.

In a tempting offer, the Russian Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov was "gifted" to India under an inter-governmental agreement though it proved expensive in the longer run. Laid down in 1978 in Ukraine and launched in 1982, the commissioning of this vessel was delayed till 1987 because of software bugs in its new command and control system. Subsequently in 1994, its boiler room exploded. After extensive repairs, the ship returned to service in 1995 but in 1996, she was withdrawn due the resource constrains. Finally, the ship was sold to India in January 2004 "free of cost" except for $974 million for refits and overhauling. The delivery time was 2008.

In 2008, the Russians claimed $1.2 billion additionally, stating error in the calculation of the refit and wiring of the vessel. After the intervention of the Russian Government in December 2009, the two sides sealed the deal at $2.3 billion with 2012 as the delivery date. But the saga of controversies continued, with media reporting that during the 90-day final sea trials, three (some reports stated seven) out of eight boilers malfunctioned, delaying the commissioning date once again. Quixotically, while the MiG 29 K aircraft, that were meant to operate from this ship, had already arrived, the ship came much later.

Not quite free from controversy, the ship now operates without an air defence system or even a CIWS (Close in Weapon System) - both essential for survival from the air threat. The CIWS ( likely to be AK 630) is expected to be added during the first major refit in 2017 with the fitting of the Barak 8 air defence system held in abeyance due to a CBI enquiry against the Barak 1 - which is due to be closed this month.

While the Navy is happy and more likely relieved to get its rightfully due carrier from the Russians, the question that arises is that how will this platform effect the strategic destiny of the country and become a "game changer" or will it prove to be just another warship in the Naval inventory? As some critics would say - a white elephant.

Since India's independence, the Indian Navy has aspired for three carriers even though soon after Independence the first long term 15-year plan for the Navy envisaged four fleet carriers and two light carriers! But finances for such acquisitions proved difficult to manage and finally the numbers were reduced to two light fleet carriers in the revised six-year plan which was officially approved. As per the plan, one of the carriers was supposed to be procured by 1954 while the next one was due in 1956.

Finally, India purchased INS Vikrant (formerly HMS Hercules), a Majestic class carrier from UK that was commissioned on 4 March 1961, and after a long operational innings was finally decommissioned in January 1997.

The second carrier INS Viraat, a Centaur class 28,700 tons aircraft carrier, was purchased in April 1986 after considering many offers, especially the Italian Garibaldi class. Having undergone four mid service refits and other short refits, it is expected that its service could be used up to 2020 (some say its 2018) by which time this ageing ship would be at the edge of its tether.

After decommissioning, a replacement for INS Vikrant was sought through indigenous efforts and following a roller coaster ride regarding the size and tonnage of the ship, the carrier was finally decided to be around 40,000 tonnage. Started in 2008 at Cochin Shipyard, (the first steel was, however, cut in April 2005) and the keel was laid in February 2009, the IAC 1 (Indigenous Aircraft Carrier) was finally launched on 12 August 2013 at Kochi after a delay of nearly four to five years. Sea trials are expected to begin sometime in 2016. The new carrier, also named Vikrant, clearly displayed the influence of Italian Andrea Dorea class (now called Cavour class) but hurdles have dogged the new project. The programme has been fraught with integration worries.

Endowed with a long coastline of 7517 km and as a security provider for the entire Indian Ocean Region, India's strategic responsibilities and its aspirations are naturally high. India's rationale for having at least three aircraft carriers is that one carrier needs to be positioned at the western seaboard, one in the eastern and the other in the south or preferably kept as reserve. However, it must be understood that the carriers, even though they are potent instruments of maritime power projection and equipped with air power, are vulnerable individually and are too precious to be operating alone. Hence, carriers are normally protected by other ships like destroyers, frigates and submarines which form a "screen" around the all important carrier. Such a formation operates in tandem as a composite unit termed as a "Carrier Battle Group" (CBG). As per the future vision of the Navy, it requires three carriers, but operating them simultaneously would demand enormous resources and "additional platforms" which would be difficult to sustain over an extended period.

Undoubtedly, the operation of a number of powerful CBGs in the Indian Ocean will serve the purpose of deterrence and can be used for myriad operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to coercive gun boat diplomacy and ultimately for war-fighting. While the current accent is on littoral warfare which demands the usage of faster, smaller and more lethal ships, it cannot be denied that as a forward command platform and a mobile advanced air base like the aircraft carrier can carry out "standoff operations" along with numerous other roles admirably.

One fundamental philosophy adopted by the Navy in its future strategy is to acquire capabilities that would enable it to influence events ashore; to undertake "Military Manoeuvre from the Sea". The CBGs would be ideal platforms to do so.

Of equal importance is the fact that the carrier can serve to enhance the strategic reach and sustainability of the Indian Navy. With the amalgamation of the South China Sea region along with the Indian Ocean within in the area of "influence" for the Indian Navy, the two carrier groups presently and three later will effectively reinforce the concept of being the security and humanitarian assistance provider in the region, stretching from the Indian Ocean to the South China seas.

Hence it can be concluded that Vikramaditya (and the other Indian Naval carriers) will undoubtedly have a major role to play as force multipliers and also as strategic game changers in the region, but as a ship without even the basic defences against air borne threats, the ship is extremely vulnerable which will obviate its usage to its potential to the maximum, which again will restrict its role playing.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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