The INS Vikrant is the first indigenous aircraft carrier design being undertaken by the nation of India. It is one of two planned vessels in the new "Vikrant-class" of surface warships and has seen construction begin in 2009. It is expected to undergo its sea trials in 2014 though program has since fallen some three years behind schedule and commissioning will most likely be post-2017). Her sister, the INS Vishal, entered construction in July of 2012 with no commissioning year set as of now. Once reliant on procurement of outside military solutions from Russia and the West, India is now attempting to take drastic steps to become a major world military power through indigenous means. The Vikrant-class carriers is one such step in that direction.
For decades, the Indian Navy made use of ex-Soviet or ex-British aircraft carriers of various types. To principle models - the first Indian aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant (R11), and the follow-up INS Viraat (R22) - were British in origin and formed the backbone of the Navy's air defense fleet. However, these became aged ships with time and technology progression, ushering in thought for their replacements. In 1989, the Indian government announced the building of two new "Air Defence Ships" (ADS) of 28,000 ton size primarily for the fielding of the BAe Sea Harrier Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft received through British procurement orders. Economic woes then struck the project dead and India's modern carrier hopes were squashed with it.
It was not until 1999 that the situation had improved to the point that the idea of an indigenous Indian carrier was brought back to life. However, by this point in history, the Sea Harriers were aged mounts (currently just 9 in service with the Indian Navy with a total of 11 available in 2012) with no viable future VTOL prospects on the horizon to which replace them with. As such, the new Indian carrier would be of a different overall design than the previously anticipated ADS vessels planned. The carrier would be outfitted with a ski-ramp at the bow and recover its returning aircraft via a conventional arrestor line configuration in what is known as "STOBAR" ("Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery") (the configuration was used successfully by European powers and the Soviets decades prior and proved the concept sound). India's purchasing of the Russian Mikoyan MiG-29K Fulcrum )navalized versions of the land-based Fulcrum counterparts) meant that the new 40,000-ton Indian carrier would field more conventionally-minded aircraft from its flight deck (as opposed to VTOL types like the Sea Harrier). Design concepts of the new Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) emerged in 2001 to which the project was formally acknowledged by the Indian government in 2003 with proper funding to see it through. The vessel class was bestowed the name of "Vikrant" (not to be confused with the preceding INS Vikrant R11 carrier of which the new INS Vikrant is named after).
The IAC program will eventually field two ships in the Vikrant-class - the INS Vikrant as the lead ship and her sister, the INS Vishal. However, while the Vikrant will be completed as a 40,000 ton design with ski-ramp flight deck, it was announced in August of 2012 that the Vishal will sport a more conventional "flat top" deck arrangement with catapult launching facilities (known as "CATOBAR" = "Catapult-Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery"). With this design initiative, the Indian Navy will be allowed to launch larger and heavier fixed-wing aircraft such as Airborne Early Warning (AEW) types which are not possible with the limited STOBAR configuration - drastically broadening the Indian Navy's power in local waters (particularly in regards to neighboring Pakistan and Pacific-Asian powerhouse China). The changes to the Vishal will make it a 65,000-ton vessel with an all-new flight deck.
In all, it is expected that the Vikrant will be able to field up to 30 fixed-wing aircraft as well as a further 10 rotary-wing designs. The Mikoyan MiG-29K Fulcrum is expected to take the fixed-wing lead but these may be supplemented (or perhaps supplanted) by the indigenous HAL Tejas (a navalized version of the land-based model) in time. Helicopter types under consideration include the British Westland Sea King and the Russian Kamov Ka-31 series. Despite the procurement of 45 MiG-29Ks from Russia, the Indian Navy has entertained the idea of launching navalized French Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters due to their inherently greater capabilities (the Indian Air Force has already committed to the Rafale to replace its aged MiG-21 "Fishbed" fighter line). Conversely, the INS Vishal will field with dimensionally larger aircraft and quite possibly led by the Sukhoi Su-33 series - navalized forms of the excellent Sukhoi Su-27 "Flanker" family.
As of this writing (2012), the Vikrant will be defensed by 4 x 76mm Otobreda dual-purpose cannons and backed by several surface-to-air missile emplacements . For short-ranged work against incoming aircraft or missiles, a digitally-controlled Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) will be installed. A Selex RAN-40L L-band early warning radar system will be part of the defensive network of sensor and systems processing.
Dimensionally, the INS Vikrant will sport a running length of 860 feet with a beam of 200 feet and a draught of 28 feet. She will be conventionally-powered by 4 x General Electric LM2500+ series gas turbines developing power to two shafts. Maximum speed in ideal conditions is estimated at 28 knots with an operational range out to 7,500 miles. Her crew complement will consist of 1,400 officers, sailors, airmen and mechanics.
Make no mistake, the Vikrant endeavor is of great importance to the Navy of India. In terms of national pride, the initiative cannot be understated. However, this being its first "true" indigenous carrier-design-and-building attempt undertaken by the country, it has seen (and will continue to see) its fair share of challenges regarding available materials, experience, technological and engineering know-how to see the project to completion in a satisfactory way. To this end, the program has already surmounted several logistical obstacles presented though supply delays have been noted. Until the Vikrant gains further traction in its quest to become India's first home-grown carrier, the Navy will make due with its aging INS Viraat and fleet of outgoing Sea Harrier aircraft. The rise of the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet and commitment of the US Navy in the Pacific should do well to push the Indian initiative along.
UPDATE 10/03/2013 - The INS Vikrant was formally launched on August 12th, 2013.
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