INS Vikrant’s Brief History: India’s First Indigenous Aircraft Carrier
- During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Vikrant was commissioned as the Indian Navy's first aircraft carrier and played an important role in imposing the naval blockade of East Pakistan.
- The ship was armed with sixteen 40-millimetre (1.6 in) Bofors anti-aircraft guns, but these were later reduced to eight.
- At various times, its aircraft consisted of Hawker Sea Hawk and Sea Harrier (STOVL) jet fighters, Sea King Mk 42B and HAL Chetak helicopters, and Breguet Alizé Br.1050 anti-submarine aircraft.
Vikrant (from Sanskrit vikrnta, “courageous”) was an Indian Navy Majestic-class aircraft carrier. During World War II, the ship was laid down as HMS Hercules for the British Royal Navy, but it was put on hold when the war ended. The carrier was purchased by India in 1957, and construction was finished in 1961.
Vikrant displaced 16,000 t (15,750 long tons) at standard load and 19,500 t (19,200 long tons) at deep load. She had a total length of 700 feet (210 metres), a beam of 128 feet (39 metres), and a mean deep draught of 24 feet (7.3 m). She was propelled by two Parsons geared steam turbines, which drove two propeller shafts and were powered by four Admiralty three-drum boilers. The turbines produced 40,000 indicated horsepower (30,000 kW), allowing for a top speed of 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph).
During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Vikrant was commissioned as the Indian Navy’s first aircraft carrier and played an important role in imposing the naval blockade of East Pakistan.
By the mid-1970s, the necessity for a successor for the INS Vikrant and its aging Hawker Seahawks had become apparent. INS Vikrant was a ship of late middle age at the time, having been built more than 30 years before and equipped with actual WW2 machinery, including her boilers, electricals, and elevators. There was, however, nothing on the horizon. Only the United States and France built true aircraft carriers, and neither would construct one for us since we couldn’t afford them by a long shot.
The British Invincible class was briefly contemplated, but the $ came into play once more. To give you an idea, when we ordered the Sea Harriers and received our first 5000-tonne Kashin class guided-missile destroyer in c.1980, they both cost us Rs 60 crores each – about US$ 60mm in that era’s money. It demonstrates how much the Soviets subsidized us.
The Falklands War and the subsequent arrival of HMS Hermes saved us. The Sea Harriers were clearly highly modern, albeit short-range aircraft, while the Hermes was only marginally more modern than INFmam Vikrant, with a lifespan of only around 2000. So, with a lot of effort, we managed to keep the old gal running and preserve the uncommon and valuable talent of carrier operations. Given the high cost of keeping a carrier and its aircraft in excellent repair and functioning, we considered switching to helicopter carriers and abandoning fixed-wing fast jet operations completely around 1990.
The French proposed a PAH.xx (can’t remember the numbers) through-deck helicopter carrier concept. It was similar to the Japanese Navy’s diesel-powered Hyuga, which could offer anti-submarine and anti-ship sea control over a large region. That, too, went over the stern during the 1990-1992 financial crises. But fate intervened in the form of the Kiev class Admiral Gorshkov’s availability. Gorshkov was thoroughly inspected in 1993-94 when she was in good mechanical condition, and it took us a decade to decide to purchase her!
So, for the third time, we were only able to purchase a second line carrier in order to maintain naval aviation and force projection. We began work on IAC-1 (Indigenous Aircraft Carrier Nos 1) at the same time. Initially, in a preliminary evaluation manner, and then, beginning in 1999, in a definite one.
It is difficult to design a carrier that is not just a massive warship but also has an interesting structure. And we had our own set of challenges to face. By definition, a carrier has a massive hollow box running through nearly two-thirds of the ship’s length, breadth, and height, and therefore cannot contain structural pillars! This means that the massive gas turbine air intakes and even larger offtakes (exhausts) will have to go beneath the hangar deck and then twist to the starboard side. Of course, all of your deck equipment – the bridge, self-defense guns, and electronics – must be packed onto an island on the right or around the flight deck’s edges and corners.Adding to the design issues are the survival requirements and stability with XX compartments inundated.
Gas turbine uptakes and downtakes, unlike diesel or steam turbines, are so large – hollow and unobstructed – that they pose a major stability risk in the event of flooding. The Americans, I suppose, assisted with the engine room arrangement. We designed the ski jump ourselves. A ski-jump is a mathematically sophisticated design with a change in angle every so many cm, despite its basic appearance. The angle, curvature, and length of a ski jump must be adjusted for the weight, take-off speed, and power loading of the aircraft planned to maximise take-off weight.
The ship took 15 years to build, including 9 years after its launch in 2013. This sounds like a lot to us, and it is. However, such major strategic endeavours require patience and perseverance. Hopefully, the next time around, we’ll be more agile. I hope we don’t waste the learnings and skilled workers by building a Vikrant Mark II. The current government is more hawkish than any we’ve seen before, and I’m hoping for the best.
Admiral RH Tahiliani, Commodore YN Singh, Rear Admiral Prakash Gour, Vice Admiral SC Chopra, and those who are still with us, such as Rear Admiral SK Gupta MVC, Admiral Arun Prakash, must be smiling with pride.
It will be a glorious day for Indian aviation, Indian ship designers and builders, and, of course, the Indian Navy when this gigantic ship commissions on the historic day of 15-8-22. Salute to India.