Expert Explains: Indian Navy’s long & illustrious road to an Indigenous Aircraft Carrier

When countries achieve epochal technological breakthroughs of national and international significance, the world takes notice. This year, tentatively in August, on the eve of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, we will witness such a breakthrough coming to fruition, when the Indian Navy (IN hereafter) commissions its first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, the IAC-1, or the Vikrant.

With IAC-1 out on its latest phase of sea trials, it is relevant to reconstruct IN’s long journey towards fulfilling its 60-year old aspiration of operating an indigenous Aircraft Carrier, and celebrate the exemplary perseverance of Naval policy-makers and leaders, both past and present, responsible for bringing us to where we are today.

The Vikrant Era

The requirement of an aircraft carrier by the Indian Navy was felt ever since her initial years. The Naval Plans Paper 1/47, conceptualised by Cmde Martin St L Nott, Cdr (later Adm) A K Chatterji and Lt Cdr (later Vice Adm) N Krishnan, was the first document that articulated the strategic requirements and game-changing tactical potential of aircraft carriers.

Based on its recommendations, major platforms such as HMS Achilles (rechristened HMIS Delhi), HMS Avenger (rechristened HMIS Magar), and three ‘R’ Class Destroyers, HMS Rotherdam, Redoubt, and Raider (rechristened HMIS Rajput, Rana, and Ranjit, respectively), were acquired from the UK.

In line with the Plans Paper’s recommendations, and given the state of the Indian economy after independence, acquiring HMS Hercules in 1957 was a financially prudent and operationally necessary move for a young 10-year old India. Thus, on April 30, 1957, approval for the purchase of HMS Hercules was accorded by the Cabinet Defence Committee. April 1957 onwards, she was refitted to Indian specifications by M/s Hartland & Wolf at Belfast, Northern Ireland.

After careful consideration, in 1959, IN also ordered 24 Armstrong Whitworth Sea Hawk FGA Mk 6s, to serve in the fighter-bomber role. The Sea Hawks would go on to form the INAS 300, or the ‘White Tigers’, the IN’s first naval combat squadron. Lt KGN Menon, Sub Lts AG Jog, KASZ Raju, and Santosh Gupta, were the first pilots trained to fly these Sea Hawks, under Lt N Lockett, RN.

INS Vikrant was commissioned on March 4, 1961 with Capt P S Mahindroo as her first CO. Subsequently, on March 21, 1961, the INAS 310, or ‘the Cobras’, the IN’s first ship-borne ASW and Reconnaissance squadron, comprising French Alizes, was commissioned at Hyeres, France. Both the squadrons played a stellar role during the 1971 Indo-Pak War, when Vikrant, under the command of Capt Swaraj Prakash, MVC, wreaked havoc on the Eastern front and covered herself with glory.

India becomes a ‘Two Aircraft Carrier Nation’

In the 1970-80s, the need for a second aircraft carrier was most acutely felt to ensure force-level stability based on the sound reasoning that the carrier will be the pivot of fleet operations with its airborne, anti-submarine warfare capability for air defence, strike role, and most importantly, as an advance mobile task force.

The GoI officially announced to Parliament on April 24, 1986, that an agreement had been signed with the Government of the UK for the acquisition of an aircraft carrier. INS Viraat, ex-HMS Hermes, was commissioned on May 12, 1987, with Captain Vinod Pasricha NM, as her first CO.

The period 1987-97 is significant in Indian maritime/Naval history, because for these 10 years, India was the only developing country to have a multi-carrier force, comprising the INS Vikrant and Viraat, until the former was decommissioned on January 31, 1997.

Viraat’s participation during Op Pawan in 1989, and more importantly, during Op Parakram in 2001, wherein she was instrumental in establishing debilitating Sea Control across the North Arabian Sea, was a potent demonstration of how far IN’s capabilities had evolved in exploiting its carriers. Until her de-commissioning in 2017, Viraat continued to provide Air Defence with her Sea Harriers and anti-submarine protection with her Seaking helicopters.

n 2005, the foundations of what would be called the IAC-1 were established by steel cutting — an act signifying the start of production.

Welcome Vikramaditya!

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russia started reducing the size of its Navy due to financial constraints, and offered the Gorshkov to India. The acquisition of Gorshkov formed part of the joint Indo-Russian Protocol on Military Technical Cooperation signed in December 1994.

Ten years later, in January 2004, the two governments signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) concluding a contract for the repair and refurbishment of the Gorshkov. Of the two aircraft on offer, the IN short-listed the Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) MIG 29 K aircraft for the Gorshkov. This aircraft would take off from ski jump just as the Sea Harrier, but land using the arrester wires, like the Sea Hawk.

INS Vikramaditya was commissioned on November 16, 2013. Over the years, the carrier has taken part in multiple naval exercises, and tremendously added to IN’s blue-water capabilities. January 11, 2020 brought an important milestone. The indigenised developmental Light Combat Aircraft-Navy (LCA-Navy) aircraft flown by Cmde Jaideep Maolankar of the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC), carried out a successful arrested landing on the Vikramaditya. This development further bolstered our aspirations to design and built indigenised aircraft for the carrier.

IAC-1: Our Very Own

While Vikramaditya was commissioned on November 16, 2013, and INS Viraat embarked on her final years, thereafter being decommissioned on March 6, 2017, something epoch-defining had been put in motion in the background, precisely, at the Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL).

As far back as in 1979, IN had thought of building a Helicopter Carrier at home. Accordingly, the Directorate of Naval Design (DND) prepared a concept design. Subsequent decisions of a Sea Control Ship (SCS), scaled down to an Air Defence Ship (ADS), due to funding constraints, and finally a full-fledged aircraft carrier with a ski jump was approved by the GoI in late 2002.

Throughout those stages, the DND was meticulously engaged in preparing and adjusting the design of the intended vessel. Finally, a functional design of the approved carrier was created between 2002 and 2004.

In 2005, the foundations of what would be called the IAC-1 were established by steel cutting — an act signifying the start of production. The keel of this ship was laid on February 28, 2009, and the ship was launched on August 12, 2013 by Smt Elizabeth Antony, wife of the Hon Raksha Mantri. The 40,000-tonne IAC-1 is currently undergoing trials.

Reflections: IAC-1

The IAC-1 journey had not been an easy, straight-from-the-design-table story.

Firstly, the concept itself has undergone a number of changes due to a host of reasons such as, but not limited to, funding constraints, geopolitical considerations, and the need for self-reliance. The path traversed in this arduous and seemingly slow journey had not been easy to negotiate, but the advantages gathered in establishing the ecosystem (through lessons learnt and efforts at indigenisation of systems, as well as creation of infrastructure) have been immensely enriching.

Secondly, the enormity of size and complexity of IAC has been a challenge for naval designers. Before this project, the IN and Indian shipyards have had experience in constructing warships displacing up to 7,000-8,000 tonnes. This is the first time the IN and an Indian shipyard have designed and constructed a warship of the order of around 40,000 tonnes displacement. This project has exponentially bolstered institutional knowledge and understanding.

Finally, what makes the IAC-1 a true mascot of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is that even by conservative estimates, almost 75% of the equipment fit on board has been sourced indigenously. The ship has also been designed with a very high degree of automation for machinery operation. All these facts speak of the long way the IN has come to achieve its ambition to becoming a Builder’s Navy.

To sum up

An aircraft carrier holds a position of strategic and technological eminence amongst ships, and is rightly considered the pinnacle in the domain of warship design and construction. For India, the development of an indigenous aircraft carrier has also been a 60-year-old national aspiration. It is the many years spent in designing ships that gave our naval architects and designers the confidence to embark upon this prestigious project.

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The IN’s 60-year-old ‘tryst with destiny’ will come full circle with the commissioning of its own, indigenous aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.

Given that India’s economic progress and security are deeply interlinked to the security of the Indian Ocean region, which is vital for Security and Growth for All in the Region, the INS Vikrant, and the method of its coming into being will add enormous strength and credibility to IN’s Blue-Water capability.

These are personal views of the author and do not represent the official position of the Indian Navy or the Government of India.

Cdr Ankush Banerjee was commissioned on January 1, 2008. He served on board INS Jalashwa and Jamuna, before being posted as an instructor to CELABS, and thereafter at Indian Naval Academy. He is currently serving as Officer-in-Charge, Naval History Division. 

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