Confronted by the unprecedented growth of the Chinese Navy which has just completed a round of sea trials of its first home-grown aircraft carrier, India has stepped up the pace of completing construction of its first made-in-India carrier being built in Kochi.
Senior sources in the Indian Navy have said the Vikrant (named after India’s first aircraft carrier) will enter sea trials by May or June 2020, and be commissioned in October that year. Integrated trials of the warship within the confines of the harbour will be completed prior to the sea trials. Senior Navy officers, however, point out that it could take up to four years after the Vikrant is commissioned for the aircraft carrier to be battle-ready and fully operational in all respects.
For the moment, the Navy is relieved that delivery of key systems of the warship whose delivery had been delayed have now started coming in and are being fitted onto the warship. This includes the primary sensor of the aircraft carrier, the Israeli EL/M-228 MF-STAR active electronically scanned array naval radar.
The MF-STAR is designed to track multiple targets in the air and on the surface of the sea at long ranges. Similarly, components of the Russian-designed aviation complex meant to provide air traffic guidance, in addition to landing aids for the Vikrant’s MiG-29K fighter jets, will begin arriving within months.
The project to build the Vikrant has seen an astronomical jump in project estimates.
According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the government’s financial watchdog, the Defence Ministry had first planned the construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier in 1999 at a cost of Rs. 1,725.24 crore with delivery of the ship in eight to 10 years.
By 2002, the Navy defined its requirements which were for a larger aircraft carrier displacing more than 37,000 tonnes. This raised the project costs to Rs. 3,261 crore with delivery of the ship expected in December 2010.
But by March 2014, the cost estimates of the project were again revised. This time, they went up to a whopping Rs. 19,341 crore, or more than $3 billion. Delivery of the ship was meant to happen in December this year. This deadline will clearly be missed.
By contrast, China began sea trials of its first home-made aircraft carrier, a 70,000-tonne warship, earlier this month. Construction of the ship began in November 2013. By contrast, the keel of India’s Vikrant was laid in February 2009, and though she was sailed out for the first time in in 2011, completion of the project is still years away.
Worried about the rapid development of the Chinese Navy, the Indian Navy also wants the government to sanction a substantially larger aircraft carrier in addition to 57 new-generation maritime fighter jets which it would embark. The total project cost for this warship with its complement of new aircraft, if it were sanctioned, would be in the range of $4 to $5 billion.
The Defence Ministry hasn’t sanctioned this project at the moment despite repeated attempts by the Indian Navy, which insists that air cover for India’s areas of interest must be based around aircraft carriers which are mobile airfields.
“Our goal is to get a favourable air situation over the area that you are targeting. Nothing should get through,” said a senior officer who added that it was not enough for India to “just have bases in the (Andaman and Nicobar) islands.”
At the moment, the Indian Navy operates a single Russian-built aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, which it acquired in 2013. The Navy has consistently argued that it needs a minimum of three aircraft carriers to ensure that at least two such warships are available for deployment at any given time.