The rebuilt Russian Kiev Class aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya completed the last of her tests on engineering, propulsion and flight operations systems Sept 20 and is now ready for official handover to the Indian Navy under her new name, INS Vikramaditya which will take place in an official ceremony in Nov 2013 at Russia's Sevmash Shipyard.
Originally built in Ukraine in the 1980’s for the Soviet Navy the ship was christened Baku after the capital city of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Azerbaijan’s independence, Baku was renamed Gorshkov after Soviet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov who pushed the expansion of the Soviet surface fleet, including the building of aircraft carriers. The ship however, did not serve Russia very long and was decommissioned and put up for sale in 1996. Eight years later a buyer was found; the Indian Navy.
Gorshkov as built was a hybrid aircraft carrier/heavy missile cruiser with massive SSN-19/P-700 Shipwreck anti-ship missile launchers affixed to her bow rather than flight deck space. The flight deck of Gorshkov was patterned after the angled landing deck of conventional aircraft carriers where Soviet KA-25/27 Kamov helicopters and YAK-38M Forger VTOL jet fighters very similar in appearance to the British Harrier jump jet were launched and recovered.
The Indian Navy requirements however, were for a conventional ‘through deck’ aircraft carrier where the entire top deck was utilized for launch and recovery of supersonic jets. Part of the contract with Russia was for Gorshkov to be rebuilt according to Indian Navy design modifications. The forward missiles and gun mounts were removed and a ‘ski jump’ installed to give the ship a STOBAR capability.
After nine years India is finally to take delivery of the ship. The negotiation of the sale, redesign and reconstruction of the ship account for most of the delay, however there were engineering issues with the ship ranging from a miss-estimation of needed internal cabling and in Jun 2012 by a major engineering problem surrounding ‘earth-friendly’ materials used to insulate the ships boilers, causing another year of delay.
Vikramaditya is now ready however and is to be officially handed over in Nov 2013 at the Russian Sevmash Shipyard to her Indian Navy crew. Her air group is expected to consist of 16 MIG-29K Fulcrum fighters as well as KA-28 anti-submarine (ASW) helicopters and KA-31 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters. Thought had been given to equipping the carrier with the US Navy E-2 Hawkeye for airborne early warning; however that would have required catapults in place of the ski-jump configuration.
The carrier does retain the originally designed ‘island’ configuration and with space for further development of more modern command & control capabilities which would put Vikramaditya on a par with comparable sized carriers of France and Britain’s forthcoming Queen Elizabeth Class carriers.
Though lighter and smaller overall than China’s carrier Liaoning, (itself the former Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov Class carrier Varyag), Vikramaditya will have comparable armament and a similar sized air wing to its Chinese counterpart. China has not so far shown to have fully realized the potential of Liaoning and the ship has not been to sea often or for very long when it has put to sea.
The Indian Navy on the other hand, has been operating carriers and naval aviation for decades acquiring a great deal of experience. China has no such ‘brown shoe’ experience yet. Despite a great deal of alarmism in the Navy wing of the Pentagon and among ratings driven 'arm chair admirals' on American cable news networks, China’s aircraft carrier program is looking increasingly to be an extreme case of ‘hot air’.
Acquisition of INS Vikramaditya will allow retirement of the British built Centaur Class aircraft carrier INS Viraat after nearly 30 years of service with the Indian Navy. Viraat was originally launched in 1953 as HMS Hermes.
Soon to follow entrance into service will be the INS Vikrant, designed and built entirely in India and similar in size and air group to INS Vikramaditya. Each ship will be the core of a battle group defending each of India’s two coasts. In wartime, the ships would defend the coasts and India's maritime trade, or carry up to 30 warplanes each in 'strike mode' against targets on land or at sea.