As India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, is in its final stage of construction at the Cochin Shipyard, a walk through its massive innards and an examination of what its induction would mean for the Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean.
A cool breeze blows over you, belying the sultry May weather, as you perch atop a 70-m, 300-tonne gantry crane at Cochin Shipyard. From this vantage position, everything appears dwarfed down below. Hundreds of workmen nudging the ferrous giant, India’s maiden indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, to life in the last leg of a protracted and intricate process of warship construction of unprecedented scale in the country, resemble Lilliputians with a sense of steely purpose. Vikrant’s flight deck, more than twice the size of a football field at 2.5 acres, is strewn with concrete blocks and a maze of wires criss-crossing and disappearing into makeshift worksites.
It is tempting to picture MiG-29K combat jets flying off the deck, streaking into the deep blue ocean sky in a matter of a few years! The flyco (flight control) stationed in the superstructure located on the starboard side would be on the toes, the radars atop the island carrying out flight control and guiding the missiles the carrier will be equipped with to engage aerial targets.
Readying to set sail
The beast that is the INS Vikrant towers over you with a hint of intimidation as you enter the gangway, which leads further to the expansive aircraft hangar that straddles a few levels. “The carrier is 262 m long, 62 m at the widest part and has a depth of 30 m minus the superstructure. There are 14 decks in all, including five in the superstructure,” says a yard supervisor.
Outfitting had been apace on Vikrant, named after India’s first aircraft carrier that was acquired from the U.K. in 1961, ever since its ceremonial launch in August 2013, and work is almost nearing completion on all decks below the fourth from the top which houses the hangar.
The carrier’s hull structure is in good shape and a few openings made on the flight deck to lower equipment into the hangar and to fix the restraining gears for takeoff will be capped once the work is over. Two turntables on either half of the hangar resemble those in discotheques. Aircraft ferried from the flight deck through the elevators located on either side of the superstructure will be positioned on the tables for easing them into their designated slots.
The hangar, capable of accommodating an assortment of 20 fighter aircraft and helicopters, is a hive of activity, with work progressing on the support lines along the stowage points, a four-tonne overhead maintenance crane and a fire curtain that will partition the space. The aviation facility, designed by Russia’s Nevskoye Design Bureau, is gradually coming in place, with the supply of equipment under way. “In view of the aviation facility being laid out soon, the Navy has already drafted in aviation technical crew from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya to be of support,” says Captain P.A. Padmanabhan, in charge of the Navy’s Warship Overseeing Team (WOT).
As you take the ladder to the flight deck, three markings across the aft deck, indicative of the position of arrester wires that latch on to the landing gear of approaching fighter aircraft to bring them to a halt, come to view. A 40-tonne aircraft salvage crane sits snugly next to the superstructure to haul up aircraft in case one falls overboard. “God forbid it never gets used,” a worker remarks.
All on board: “Some 200 big and small Indian industries rose to the occasion to harness the required technology and deliver the goods.” The twin-propellers that will drive the carrier. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Most fascinating right now is the work on sailor living spaces on the sixth deck from the top, where an impressive state-of-the-art sanitation space, with modern showers and vacuum toilets, has come up.
“We have 92 such sanitation spaces along the ship, of which 25 are ready,” informs a manager in charge of accommodation. The yard has drawn on the experience of creating living spaces on the platform vessels it had built for a Norwegian firm to design the crew living spaces on Vikrant.
“Aspects of human-machine interaction have been factored in while designing the spaces,” says Bejoy Bhaskar, Cochin Shipyard’s chief general manager (design and defence projects) and project director for Vikrant. Further up, on the fifth deck is the vessel’s largest alleyway, which with a length of nearly 240 m, links the forward compartments of the carrier to the aft.
“A similar corridor on INS Viraat used to be playfully called the Rajpath,” chuckles Capt. Padmanabhan.
Quest for aircraft carriers
India, with a two-decade legacy of operating carriers, started looking for a home-grown carrier way back in the 1980s when the idea of an air defence ship (ADS) was mooted. It lingered, even after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) sanctioned the project in 2002. An ‘ADS Bay’ commissioned by then Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Madhavendra Singh at the Cochin Shipyard a year later stands testimony to it.
The project went through a design spiral, with the Department of Naval Design (DND) heeding to the aspirations of the Navy, coming up with the functional design of an indigenous carrier that was at least “five times bigger than any warship it had designed before”. Already into indigenisation in a big way, the first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) as it came to be known, cemented the Navy’s credentials as a builder’s navy.
As India embarked on the effort to build its first carrier in the form of Vikrant, it is going through a learning curve. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its report in July last year pointed to serious delays in the construction. “It is evident from the PERT chart (September 2014) of Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) that while the delivery of the carrier with completion of all activities is likely to be achieved only by 2023, the Ministry and the Indian Navy continue to hold the timelines of final delivery of the ship as December 2018,” the CAG said in the report.
However, Navy officials say that at that time there were delays in procuring some equipment, which have now been sorted out. “Issues with procurement of some Russian equipment have been resolved,” says an officer, adding that the final induction will be earlier than initially estimated. The Navy wants the carrier to be fully ready to begin aviation trials by the time it takes delivery of the ship. Aviation trials are the most challenging aspect in the whole chain. As former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash says, “It will be a huge challenge to Navy test pilots. Then we will know the defects in the design.”
Mega nuts and bolts
The public sector Cochin Shipyard, with an impressive track record as a commercial shipbuilder and of carrying out all the refits and upgrades of INS Viraat, became a natural choice for the execution of the ambitious project, critical to the Navy’s philosophy of having three carriers in its fleet at any given point in time. The CCS sanctioned a sum of ₹3,200 crore which was subsequently revised to ₹19,341 crore for the new carrier, which set the ball rolling on a slew of innovations, technological advancements and capability-building within the country and operational synergy among a host of agencies.
“Vikrant, the ‘mother’ of all platforms, has 2,300 compartments designed to user specifications for crew, systems, piping, fluids, ventilations, cabling… Nearly 1,500 km of cabling, almost the distance from Kochi to Mumbai, criss-cross its innards,” informs Capt. Padmanabhan, pointing to the trunking in the compartments. The yard carried out detailed designing, developing 3D models and creating mock-ups on the old-school ‘mould loft floor’ for critical parts like anchor pocket and hosepipe arrangement besides using virtual reality to simulate extremely critical parts. Italian firm Fincantieri was roped in to provide consultancy for the propulsion package while Russian support was sought for the aviation complex given that the carrier would have an integral fleet of Russian MiG-29K fighters and Kamov helicopters, a la INS Vikramaditya, which would also ensure interoperability between the carriers.
“It was a quantum leap from about 7,000 tonnes to 40,000 tonnes. We are no more deterred by the size of a warship,” says Capt. Padmanabhan, hinting at the larger domestic carrier that’s on the drawing table.
Some 200 big and small Indian industries rose to the occasion to harness the required technology and deliver the goods, from the large gear boxes to the access implements, for Vikrant. When sourcing of steel clouded over the project, Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory, a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) lab, joined hands with the Navy to develop warship-grade steel which was manufactured by the Steel Authority of India in its plants at Rourkela, Bhilai and Bokaro. The supply remained steady since 2006. The first block was lowered to the building bay in 2009, officially laying the keel of the Navy’s dream project.
“The new construction demanded new welding consumables and processes, which we developed in collaboration with the Naval Materials Research Laboratory, a DRDO facility. We also trained about 500 welders and assigned them to the vessel,” says Bhaskar of Cochin Shipyard. Building the ship literally block by block and integrating them in what was termed as ‘grand assembly’, the yard fabricated and welded about 23,000 tonnes of steel, measuring the vessel’s weight and stability all along. “Its tonnage is roughly about 30,000 right now,” says Capt. Padmanabhan. Vikrant was given a pontoon-assisted launch, in a first in India, when limited dock space prevented further construction. The yard made a special jig to move the 104-tonne ‘A bracket’ that buttresses the propeller shafts — as long as 99 m and 69 m —on the carrier’s hull.
“Look here, one of the eight diesel alternators, each generating 3 MW power, has already been set to work,” says a Navy officer part of WOT, signalling to a large machine room on the carrier. “Together, that’s about 24 MW power, enough to light up an entire city, but the idea is to have adequate redundancy. The power system is fully automated, thanks to Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., which has put together an Integrated Platform Management System for Vikrant. The schedule for testing, trials, calibration and qualification of individual equipment — including the gas turbines that will power the carrier — is getting ready. Shafting, piping and integration of most auxiliary systems are over on Vikrant. “The outfitting is 62% complete,” says Bhaskar. Trials of all auxiliary systems are set to get under way by the year end, parallel to the construction of modern living spaces on the upper decks.”
Once operational, Vikrant is going to sport a gender-sensitive living environment and infrastructure, with provision to accommodate eight women officers. The ship will then accommodate 1,645 personnel in all, including 196 officers.
An aircraft carrier is a command platform epitomising ‘dominance’ over a large area, ‘control’ over vast expanses of the ocean and all aspects of maritime strength, says Capt. Padmanabhan, as he signals a sailor with the Falcons crest on his service overall to stop by. “Look, he’s one of the air technical sailors who have worked on board Vikramaditya and would know how best to deploy and exploit the aviation support facility on Vikrant. It’s just a matter of time before the aviation facility comes up.” True to its purpose, Vikrant, meaning victorious and gallant, has its crest depicting arrows resembling the delta wing of combat jets going in all four directions. It is capable of blunting attacks from any direction, says Capt. Padmanabhan.
Safety boards stare at you from every corner on the vessel, cautioning against letting the guard down. Workers, nearly 1,200 of them, toil day in, day out on Vikrant in two shifts to realise the ambitious dream of operationalising a potent home-grown carrier.
Force multiplier at sea
Even as debate continues over the relevance of aircraft carriers with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and cost-benefit analysis with respect to submarines, there is an undeclared carrier race unfolding in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) between India, China and Japan. India has its force structure planned around three aircraft Carrier Battle Groups (CBG). While one would be deployed on each coast in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, the third would be in maintenance and repairs — ensuring the availability of two ships at any point of time.
For now the Navy has only one carrier, INS Vikramaditya, contracted from Russia under a $2.3-billion deal and inducted into service in November 2013. INS Viraat was recently retired from service after cumulatively serving the British and Indian Navies for over 50 years. In that line, when the new INS Vikrant joins the Navy sometime after 2020, it would be the fourth aircraft carrier to defend India’s shores. Each of these carriers has grown in size, capability and sophistication adding more teeth to Navy’s power projection.
The first Vikrant displaced 20,000 tonnes and operated a mix of Westland Sea Kings, HAL Chetak and Sea Harrier jets. Viraat displaced 28,500 tonnes and Vikramaditya displaces 45,400 tonnes. The new Vikrant will displace 40,000 tonnes.
While the first two carriers operated the Harriers which are capable of short take-off and vertical landing, the Vikramaditya’s angular fight deck enables hosting of Mig-29K fighters; the modern Russian fighters will fly from Vikrant as well. In addition, the U.S. is expected to help India with the aviation trials of Vikrant.
Back at the gangway, as the sun beats down on the workers on a harsh tropical evening, some people are busy offering fresh lime juice to all. Capt. Padmanabhan bumps into Sunil Kumar, deputy general manager in charge of construction, introducing him as his “man Friday”.
“Friday?” asks Kumar quizzically.
“It means a man for all seasons.”
“Is that good or bad?” asks Kumar, as everyone around laughs off their work fatigue.
(With additional inputs from Dinakar Peri)