Delay in IAC-1’s Commissioning Could Diminish India’s Maritime Prowess

By Editor 09-Oct-2020

Covid19 Furthers Beginning of Basin Trial

The Indian Navy’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC -1) is set to commence its basin tests soon following the fitting of systems and equipment at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL). Basin trials are conducted for proving of the propulsion, transmission and shafting systems which can be tested only out of waters. It will be followed with sea trials by end of this year and IAC is expected to be inducted in Navy by end of 2021 after being rechristened as the Indian Naval Ship Vikrant. An aircraft carrier is considered the most valuable sea-based asset, and offers an incomparable military instrument with its ability to project tactical Air Power over long distances, including Air Interdiction, Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), offensive and defensive Counter-Air, AEA and AEW. However the delay in the completion of IAC-1 project, which has already missed multiple deadlines, is a concern for India especially when the country is facing a standoff with China in its Northern frontiers amid Chinese Navy’s growing presence in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and growing ties with Pakistan. Even though the navy chief has visited CSL during his visit to Kochi in September, no words about his review on IAC-1 were made public. Aeromag looks at the IAC- 1 project and analyses the importance of its hastened completion with regard to the present strategic scenario.

While imagining the future of their military forces, the political and military leaders of all seafaring nations with blue-water navies and strong maritime interests, have never been skeptical about the role of naval aircraft carriers.

In order to protect its maritime interests and ensure the straits remain open to free commerce and unthreatened by neighbours, all nations try to project its naval power at sea. Despite having brown-water/littoral naval capability and Coast Guards to guard their territorial waters, the most decipherable symbol of maritime superiority for major powers has always been the aircraft carriers which are considered the strongest military deterrent force since World War II.

As the US recently displayed in the South China Sea, much to China’s  uneasiness, nothing projects raw combat power like an aircraft carrier strike group (CSG) capable of moving over 500 nautical miles (900 km) in a single day. Reports said that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy is now building its third aircraft carrier, which reportedly will be the first PLA(N) carrier equipped with a catapult system and built completely by indigenous shipyards. With the aim of having a 10-carrier Navy by 2050, China is expected to begin deploying a CSG in the IOR within the next few years.

India too needs large aircraft carriers to secure the seas of the Indo-Pacific, ensure peace, secure shipping lanes, provide security to the region, and in case of a war, unleash lethal firepower. The Indian government too has been keen on empowering its navy by providing it the best assets including the aircraft carrier.

Besides the 44500-tonne INS Vikramaditya, which is the only aircraft carrier in service, the navy is expecting the commissioning of its first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) by the end of 2021. Though it has been keen on pushing for a third aircraft carrier, intended to be christened INS Vishal, the focus is fully on completing IAC-1 project at the earliest as it is vital for the nation’s naval prowess in the present day scenario, when Chinese Navy is expanding its position in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India’s Long Term Perspective Plan envisages at least two operational aircraft carriers at any one time with the third one as hot reserve to substitute during maintenance of either. However, India will have to compromise on displaying its maritime supremacy with just INS Vikramaditya unless and until, the IAC-1 is commissioned.

Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1 (IAC-1)

The project IAC-1 has marked a golden feather in indigenous defence capabilities of India and will be a big boost to concept of Make in India and Atma Nirbhar Bharat on completion. Because it is the first ever aircraft carrier to be designed by the Directorate of Naval Design (DND) of the Indian Navy, the first warship to be built by Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) and the first warship to be built entirely using indigenously produced steel. The ship is built with active participation of private and public enterprises.

The ship, being constructed for Rs 22,590 crore, is 262 metres (860 ft) long and 60 metres (200 ft) wide, and displaces about 40,000 metric tons. It features a Short Take-Off, Barrier Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) configuration with a ski-jump. The deck is designed to enable aircraft such as the MiG-29K to operate from the carrier. It is expected to carry an air group of up to thirty aircraft, which will include up to 26 fixed-wing combat aircraft, primarily the Mikoyan MiG-29K, besides carrying 10 Kamov Ka-31 or Westland Sea King helicopters. While Ka-31 fulfills the airborne early warning (AEW) role and the Sea King will provide antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability.

What is the status of IAC-1?

Reports say that the harbour trials of the ship were completed and the basin trials, which would have checked the 40,000-tonne warship’s propulsion, transmission and shafting systems, were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The basin trials, first sanctioned by the government in January 2003, are expected to begin by the end of October.

Basin trials are conducted for proving of the propulsion (move), transmission (electricity) and shafting systems which can be tested only out of waters. It will be followed by extensive sea trials by the end of 2020. The flight trials will started only after IAC-I gets commissioned in September 2021 and the INS Vikrant, will be fully operational by 2022-2023.

In January 2020 the project was reviewed by the Empowered Apex Committee (EAC) headed by Ajay Kumar, Defence Secretary at CSL and major structural and outfitting work of the vessel was completed by February including the major milestone activities like starting of Main Propulsion machinery and trials of Power Generation machinery. IAC had successfully completed the Pre-Contractors Sea Trials dry dock work package in December 2019.

The Chief of Navy Staff, Admiral Karambir Singh, during his four-day visit to Southern Naval Command, Kochi from 14 September 2020, has visited CSL and reviewed the project. But the navy or CSL has not released any details of the project likely due to heightened stand-off with China and an active ongoing Parliament session.

Relevance of faster completion of IAC-1

The blue-waters ranging from the east coast of Africa to the Western Pacific comes under the Indian Navy’s area of responsibility as it often conducts joint exercises, goodwill missions, and HADR operations there. As 50% of India’s trade passing through South China Sea, it is important to secure India’s trade with a CSG especially when China objects the presence of foreign navies in the sea. As the Western side carries the other 50% of India’s trade and 80% of its oil supply, this side too needs to be protected.

As India is not fond of overseas basing, a carrier force remains the sole viable alternative to conduct out of area contingencies. A CSG remains the fastest means of deployment of forces whether it is in a show of force or in support of own land operations as well as for providing security to friendly countries in the IOR. With its air complement, Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) are able to control a huge expanse of the seas compared to other surface and subsurface platforms on their own. With IOR maritime scenario becoming more uncertain and complex due to Chinese presence, having aircraft carriers to guard the eastern and western fronts of India in more relevant than ever.