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India’s First Indigenous Aircraft

S.M. Hali

21st Aug, 2021. 02:01 pm

India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, and its second indigenous ballistic missile submarine, the ‘S3’ (earlier called the Arighat), will be commissioned in 2022. The Vikrant is 262 meters long. The 110-meter-long ‘S3’, the second unit of the Arihant class of four SSBNs (Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear), equals the displacement of four Scorpene class conventional submarines built by the Mazagon Docks Ltd. The first unit of the class, the INS Arihant, was commissioned into the Indian navy in August 2016.

These twin platforms were the star attractions of the government celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence. They will also make a powerful visual case for the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) thrust to create an indigenous defense manufacturing base.

The ‘S3’ began harbour trials in 2020 and could head out for sea trials later this year. The Vikrant will give the Indian Navy (IN) a second floating airfield from which it can launch aircraft and helicopters to attack targets onshore, in the air, on the sea surface and below the seas. Fighter aircraft and AEW (airborne early warning) helicopters also protect warships around them from enemy ships, submarines and aircraft, and are central to the navy’s strategy of exercising sea control. Vikrant will also be the forerunner of its navy’s second indigenous aircraft carrier, the ‘IAC-2’, which is to displace over 60,000 tonnes.

The ‘S3’ will form part of India’s Strategic Forces Command, which controls India’s nuclear deterrent. It carries an arsenal of 12 K-15 short-range SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), which have a range of 1,000 km or less, or four K-4 medium-range SLBMs, which have a range of 3,500 km. It thus increases the survivability of India’s nuclear deterrent and allows for a second strike against adversaries.

Both platforms, however, are many months away from being commissioned. The Vikrant sailed out on her maiden sea sortie on August 4 from the Cochin Shipyard where she was constructed between 2009 and 2013. The sortie marks the end of the first phase of basin trials last December where the carrier’s machinery, electronics and sensors were tested in harbour. Over the next year, the Vikrant will undergo extensive machinery and sensor trials in the Arabian Sea before she can be commissioned, in or around August 15, 2022.

The crew of over 1,400 will test the carrier’s steering and rudder at various speeds—she can do a top speed of 30 knots. It will test the warship’s four LM2500 gas turbines, main gear boxes, controllable pitch propellers and the machinery management system. These are significant trials as the navy has never operated a large gas turbine-powered platform; all the three carriers it has operated—the (old) INS Vikrant, INS Viraat and the in-service INS Vikramaditya—are steam ships.

The Vikrant’s surface search radars and communication systems are yet to be tested along with its combat management system. The aircraft carrier will eventually carry up to 24 MiG-29K fighter jets and 26 helicopters. The Vikrant will have an aviation complex of Russian origin similar to the one fitted on the Vikramaditya. The complex, which includes the Arresting and Restraining Gear (that snag fighter aircraft coming into the land) and the Luna landing sights are yet to be fitted on the carrier. This could now be one of the most challenging parts of the project as it could take several months after the sea trials. It is, therefore, entirely possible that the Vikrant could be commissioned without its fighter aircraft.

If this news was meant to send shivers down the spine of Pakistan Navy (PN), India is sadly mistaken. PN’s track record against the IN is impressive. INS Vikrant, the first Indian submarine was blockaded by PN in 1965 by Pakistan’s submarine PNS Ghazi. In 1971, PN submarine Hangor destroyed IN’s frigate Khukri.  Aircraft carriers are sitting ducks against a determined foe and necessitate a whole fleet to defend them.

India’s experience with submarines is also pathetic. In August 2013, IN suffered its worst peacetime disaster this week when an explosion and fire sank a submarine with 18 sailors on board in a Mumbai dockyard. The US$ 2.9 billion Sindhurakshak was one of 10 Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines supplied to the Indian navy by the Russian defense contractor Rosvooruzhenie.

In 2014 IN’s chief Admiral D.K. Joshi resigned after two officers were killed in a fire on the Russian-built INS Sindhuratna during a training exercise at sea. The previous month another submarine, INS Sindhughosh, ran aground while returning to Mumbai harbour. In December, the INS Talwar, a Russian-built stealth frigate, slammed into a trawler off India’s west coast, sinking the boat and throwing 27 fishermen into the sea.

In February 2010 the Sindhurakshak suffered a fire while docked in Visakhapatnam city in southern India, killing a 24-year-old sailor. On 30 August 2010, INS Shankush, a Shishumar-class submarine of the IN developed technical difficulties.  While effecting repairs, the submarine’s maintenance team was washed overboard due to the rough sea state.

While PN must keep its powder dry, it need not fear IN, which is its own enemy.

The writer is a former Group Captain of PAF and an author.

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