With snowflakes sprinkling the dignitaries gathered on Saturday at the Sevmash Shipyard in Severodvinsk, Russia, Defence Minister A K Antony inducted aircraft-carrier INS Vikramaditya into the Indian Navy. The 44,500-tonne warship will now sail to its home base in Karwar, India, from where it will partner the smaller, 24,000-tonne INS Viraat, currently the navy's flagship. Sixteen years after INS Vikrant was decommissioned, the navy will again boast two aircraft carriers.
"Carriers have been part of the navy since Independence and have effectively served the country over five decades. The induction of Vikramaditya, with its integral MiG-29K fighters and Kamov-31 helicopters, not only reinforces this central policy, but adds a dimension to the navy's operational capabilities," said Antony.
Ending the acrimony over Russia's five-year delay in delivering the Vikramaditya, and the three-fold cost increase from $947 million agreed in 2004 to $2.3 billion today, he said the Vikramaditya "truly symbolised the time-tested special and privileged strategic partnership between our two great nations."
Navy chief, Admiral D K Joshi, said the Vikramaditya would provide the navy a two-carrier capability in the medium term, and bridge the period between when the obsolescent INS Viraat is decommissioned, and the indigenous INS Vikrant enters service. The Vikrant is being built at Cochin Shipyard, but will not be commissioned before 2015. Earlier, the navy had said the Viraat would remain in service beyond 2018.
Sevmash shipyard has comprehensively rebuilt the Vikramaditya over the preceding decade. It was originally built in Ukraine in 1987 as the cruiser, Baku, which could carry a complement of Yak-38 vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. Russia's naval chief, Admiral Gorshkov, believed the Baku should be a full-fledged carrier, not a "compromise carrier" that it was. In 1991, when the Soviet Union's collapse placed Baku in Azerbaijan, the vessel was renamed Admiral Gorshkov. Eventually, a bankrupt Moscow mothballed the vessel in 1995.
In 2004, India signed a contract to repair and refurbish the Gorshkov, and convert it to a full-fledged carrier that could operate the MiG-29K fighter. Since this required a runway both for take-off and for a wire-arrested landing, the Gorshkov had to be converted from a VTOL to a short-take-off-but-arrested-recovery carrier. This required a 2,500-tonne ski jump and arrestor gear to be fitted, as well as major modifications in 1,750 of the ship's 2,500 compartments. New aircraft and ammunition lifts, engine boilers, diesel generators, water-distilling and reverse-osmosis plants, air-conditioning and sensors and weapons had to be fitted, a task that took 115 months instead of the contract 52.
With eight steam boilers running on high-speed diesel, the Gorshkov can work up a top speed of 29.5 knots (55 km an hour). Her on-board generators produce 18 megawatts, enough to run a small city. She is a two-acre chunk of sovereign Indian territory that can operate 13,000 km from India.
This floating air base can be parked 12 nautical miles (22 km) from another country's coastline, i.e. just outside its territorial waters. The Vikramaditya has 30 aircraft on board, which includes MiG-29K fighters and helicopters like the Kamov-31 for airborne early warning, Kamov-28 for anti-submarine warfare, and Dhruv or Chetak utility helicopters. The versatile MiG-29K, with an operating range of 1,300 km (extendable to 3,500 km with in-flight refuelling), provides deadly reach. The "aviation complex" is controlled by the Resistor-E radar complex, which provides air traffic control services and precisely guides incoming MiG-29Ks to within 30 metres of the flight deck.
Vikramaditya translates into 'strong as the sun'. The carrier's motto is 'strike far, strike sure'.