BY NEELANSHU SUNIL
Aircraft Carrier, the word itself fills us with pride as India is among an elite group of 15 nations which operate an aircraft carrier. Recently India acquired its latest aircraft carrier, the soviet era Admiral Gorshkov or as the Indian Navy likes to call it INS Vikramaditya. By the early 21st century with INS Vikrant already retired and INS Viraat due to retire by 2015, the Indian Navy was in a pickle. To maintain sea dominance, it needed its aircraft carriers. New Delhi decided to approach its traditional partner Moscow for a new carrier. But here’s the catch, Admiral Gorshkov was not originally designed as an aircraft carrier. It was designed as an aircraft carrying cruiser. Which means that the Russians had to convert what was 2/3rds of a cruiser to an aircraft carrier, a feat which was last attempted in WW2. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the defence budget was drastically reduced which made it difficult for the Russians to maintain a large navy as a result the size of the Navy was reduced from a mind boggling 657 ships and submarines in 1990 to 172 ships and submarines in 2015 due to transfer of ships after the collapse of Soviet Union.
The INS Vikramaditya Deal which started at $974 million to completely overhaul the ship in 2004 when India purchased it from Russia underwent many cost overruns because the Russian Shipyard Sevmash affirmed that it was practically impossible to convert a ship the size of Admiral Gorshkov to a full-fledged aircraft carrier with a budget that small. Finally, the deal was concluded at $2.3 billion after a long and cumbersome negotiation process as the Sevmash believed that it was providing India with a completely new carrier.
But, when it comes to aircraft carriers, Russia does not have a glorious past. As it is evident from the current and sole carrier it has, the Admiral Kuznetsov is prone to breakdowns and is always accompanied by a tugboat everywhere it goes. The carrier has a chronic maintenance issue, as a result its propulsion system is completely unreliable due to defective steam turbines. This when coupled with Russia’s lack of experience in operating an aircraft carrier and lack of proper training smells of catastrophe waiting to happen. This did happen on 14th November and 5th December, 2016 when Russia lost 2 carrier based fighters a Mig-29 KUB and a Su-33 into the sea just within a span of 20 days during the Russian Intervention in Syria.
The Mig 29 crash is attributed to the plane running out of fuel while the crew was trying to fix a broken arrestor cable due to the landing of another Mig-29 KUB. Similar case happened to the Su-33. These events go on to prove the complete lack of training and inexperience on the part of the Russians. Another famous incident was the sinking of the Kursk during an exercise when a torpedo exploded causing a chain reaction which killed all on board. Subsequent investigation revealed lack of proper training of the crew.
Instead of New Delhi clinging onto its traditional ally, it should look for a country which has decades of experience in building and operating aircraft carriers i.e. the USA. While the Russians are still figuring out how to integrate the EMALS in the carrier and are still using the ski jump to launch planes from the carrier, this significantly reduces the payload capacity of the plane, while the EMALS system can easily launch a plane at full payload with ease and chances of failure are less. While the US Navy has been operating aircraft carriers since the WWII, the Russian Navy lags behind the US Navy by a long long way as it has operated either helicopter carriers or aircraft cruisers but never a fully-fledged aircraft carrier. As a result, its shipyards are not equipped to manufacture a ship of that magnitude and the only shipyard capable was transferred to Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the Americans have vast experience as they have operated aircraft carriers from the WWII till date and have the necessary infrastructure to support and build new carriers while, the Russians have plans to first build a new shipyard which can handle the ships, the magnitude of an aircraft carrier.
So instead of buying old soviet era aircraft cruisers and converting them to aircraft carriers, the Indian Navy should enter an agreement with the US Navy to jointly build an aircraft carrier and then use the valuable knowledge gained to indigenously build carriers to eliminate the problem of maintenance as the INS Vikramaditya will have to travel all the way to Russia for a refit to extend its service life as India has an agreement with the Sevmash shipyard for the maintenance of the sole carrier of the Indian Navy.
The currently under construction INS Vikrant in the Cochin shipyard is similar to the INS Vikramaditya in many ways like the similar tonnage and the presence of a ski jump. Instead of building a carrier with a ski jump, India should focus more on developing and integrating EMALS system on board the new carrier which would allow the planes to take off at full payload from the carrier deck. Although after the commissioning of the Vikrant, the Indian Navy plans on building its first supercarrier the INS Vishal which would be a nuclear powered CATOBAR carrier which would displace nearly 65,000 tonnes with the aid of the United States.