After haggling over the escalated price and hiccups experienced, during the conversion of the 44,500 ton Ukrainian built helicopter carrier Admiral Gorshkov into a MiG-29K capable aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy at Severodnisk in Russia, the ship will be handed over in 2013, according to the CNS Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma. The big flat top costing $ 2.3 bill(Rs 9000 crores) named INS Vikramaditya, will then begin the grueling months of engine, machinery, and electronic weapon sea trials and work up of its 1,200 strong ship's company, first to operate the ship as a war fighting machine at sea, and then to embark the fighter squadron planes, on what is called 'landing them on a postage stamp sized deck'. Carrier flying is acknowledged as the acme of professional flying, especially during challenging night landings on moonless nights in rough seas. Only 60 to 70% of pilots make the deck qualification grade. Many pilots get unnerved approaching a dancing deck, when they are expected to fly in with throttles open at over 180 kmph, and thump the 24 ton plus plane down, or open full throttle to go round if they miss one of the three arrestor wires or by chance the tail hook breaks. Arrestor landings are an exhilarating sight to watch, and sailors applaud every catapult like(gullial in Hindi) landing, with claps.
The Indian Navy, which in the past has experience of commissioning two smaller aircraft carriers INS Vikrant and Viraat accident free, has taken up the challenge to induct INS Vikramaditya with planning. It has trained pilots on US Navy's large carrier decks and on the MiG-29s in India and in Russia. Six naval MiG-29Ks with advanced digital automation systems, out of the first lot of 16 more powerful, potent and heavier than the aging Air Force MiG-29s have arrived in Goa and got assembled. Four MiG-29Ks have already been accepted and are undergoing what is called Intensive Flying Trials and Testing. The Navy's 'Top Gun' younger pilots are being readied for the big day for 'their maiden deck landing'. Some more machines will arrive in 2011 and 29 more are on order for the 37,500 ton Indian aircraft carrier under construction at Cochin, due to commission in 2015. The hull was to be launched at Cochin in 2010 itself, but an unfortunate mishap when the truck transporting the large special ship's generators from Pune suffered a road accident, and has led to a minor delay. The Navy also hopes to induct 17 BAE Hawk 123 trainers for conversion training, and Goa is contender for their basing.
But what has come as a surprise in recent months, is the many pictures and news items coming out of China to show the bigger, also Ukraine built 62,500 ton aircraft carrier the larger Kuzenetsov class Varyag that China bought from Russia for $ 20 mill as scrap in 1998, is getting ready to go to sea soon. The Varyag was launched on 4th December 4, 1988, named the Riga, and then the Varyag (Varangian) after the famous Russian cruiser. When the Chinese company Chong Lot Travel Agency from Hong Kong bought the flat top, Chinese media widely reported that the ship would become a casino in the Chinese autonomous region of Macau after fitting out at Dalian where China builds it nuclear submarines. Things have turned out differently, as the ship was first painted in the grey colours of the PLA Navy, its decks completely renewed with anti skid paint and the hull shunted around and her propulsion machinery was stealthily fitted out.
The ship's hull looks completely renewed and is immaculately painted and the Varyag looks ship shape. The funnels were seen bellowing smoke from its boilers for its steam propulsion, and the fitting out of the phased array radars antennae, which are one of the last fittings before a ship sets out to sea were in progress in mid 2010. The mystery now that remains is, what aircraft will the Chinese PLA Navy fly off the air craft carrier Varyag, and when. Some Chinese pilots have reportedly been trained in Argentina. The Chinese have been manufacturing/assembling Su-27s at Shenyang and have over 200 in their inventory. The carrier borne Su-27 which Russians fly off the Kuzenetsov was designated Su-27K (K for Korabelny, Ship-Borne), whose factory designation is T-10K and was later given the Su-33 designation by Sukhoi and the Russian Navy officially adopted the Su-33 designation for its ship-borne Su-27Ks. NATO calls it the 'Flanker-D'.
Analysts opine that the Chinese Navy (PLAN) could put the Varyag to sea in the 2011-2012 time frame and begin trials and training for her use as an operational aircraft carrier with a squadron of SU-33 aircraft. This is feasible as Su-27 planes under carriage only need to be ruggedized and strengthened and fitted with a strong tail hook, just like the Indian DRDO scientists are attempting for the Naval LCA. Another unlikely alternate is that the modernized Chinese J-11 copy of the Su-27 displayed at the Zhuhai air show could be made carrier-capable from their own manufacture, with vectored thrust and with strike at sea and ground attack capabilities. The Varyag could well be supported by either the Chinese indigenous Z-8 AEW helicopters, or KA-31 AEW helicopters just like the Indian Navy plans to operate off the INS Vikramaditya.
It would be timely to quote Robert Kaplan from his recently released book making waves, Monsoon, The Indian Ocean and The Future of American Power, wherein Kaplan expounds the arrival of the Asian Century, and goes on to quote, "The Indian Ocean is where the rivalry between the United States and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India…. India and China's aspirations for great power status, as well as their quest for energy security, have compelled them to "redirect their gazes from land to the seas". The maritime race between the Indian Navy with 40 ships and submarines and 8 P8i Boeing 737s on order and the PLA Navy with larger ambitions and plans for two more aircraft carriers, 42 large warships and a long line of nuclear and non nuclear submarines signals the maritime race between India and China has begun,
Cmde(Retd) Ranjit B Rai is former Director of Naval Operations and Intelligence and an Air Force trained aircraft controller.
The Varyag has already been fitted out with its propulsion system (sourced from Ukraine) which is identical to that found on the Russian carfrier KUZNETSOV. The Fregat-MAE air search radar too is now fitted atop the island, as is a four-antenna passive phased-array radar. FL-2000N lose-in defence systems have also been installed. She will undertake her sea trials by mid-2011, around which time the first indigenously-built aircraft carrier's hull will be launched as well in a grand ceremony in Shanghai. The Varyag will host two types of combat aircraft on board: a navalised variant of the L-15 Falcon lead-in fighter trainer, and a Chinese version of the Su-33, called the J-11AH. Ukraine has already supplied the complete data package of the Su-33 to China.