The Indian navy ship Vikramaditya successfully completed testing recently and, after final adjustments and painting at Sevmash Dockyards in northwest Russia, was due to be handed over to a Indian navy crew of 1,326 that is eagerly awaiting the November 15 handover ceremony, just before the Dubai show. The carrier is expected to serve India for 30 to 40 years and, during that time, it may be a regular visitor to the waters around the Arabian Peninsula.
The ship first took shape back in 1978 when the Black Sea dockyard in Nikolaev started a fourth hull of the heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Project 1143.4. Commissioned in 1987 as the Admiral Gorshkov, she served with the Russian navy for five years and then another five in reserve. A further five years passed before the Kremlin gave the cruiser to the Indian government under a promise that the new owner would pay for restoration and modernization. The initial contract was for $617 million–a sum later found to be woefully inadequate to complete the work. Eventually, the contract value rose to more than $2 billion. For that money the cruiser was rebuilt into a carrier under Project 11430.
The Vikramaditya is one and a half times larger than the Indian navy’s current flagship, the Viraat. The latter was originally the HMS Hermes and saw a long and eventful career with Britain’s Royal Navy before India purchased her in 1987. The Vikramaditya’s full displacement is 45,000 metric tons, compared to the Viraat’s 28,700 metric tons, with a length of 283.5 meters compared to 226.5 meters (930 feet versus 743 feet), and a width of 59.6 meters versus 48.8 meters (195 feet versus 160 feet).
The two ships carry the same number of aircraft, 30, but the payload on the Vikramaditya is far greater. The MiG-29K fighters that it carries have an all-up weight of 24.5 metric tons, compared with the smaller Sea Harriers on the Viraat at 11.9 metric tons.
On September 21, the Vikramaditya returned to Severodvinsk after three months of trials in the White and Barents Seas. Keen to demonstrate the full compliance of the ship to the advertised performance, including the speed at full throttle, the Russian navy crew–headed by senior commander Alexander Shevchenko and commanding officer Igor Ryabko–accelerated the carrier to 29.2 knots on the night of July 27. On the request of the Indian commanding officer, Commodore Suraj Berry, they did it a second time when heading for Severodvinsk harbor and kept the top speed for an hour. By so doing the Russians demonstrated that the last year’s trouble (when the ship could make only 27.8 knots due to the leaking heat-insulation of the eight steam boilers) is over now. Due to this and a number of smaller technical failures, the ship had to spend another year in Russia during which these and other drawbacks were being remedied.
The main purpose of this year’s sea trials was “to give our Indian comrades confidence in the ship’s reliability,” said Igor Leonov, the Sevmash Dockyard’s manager responsible for the customer acceptance program. “The crew must be confident in the ship and her ability to function and fight even in most harsh environments. All figures in the specification have been met and demonstrated during the sea trials including functioning of the boilers, machinery and radio electronic equipment,” he added.
The testing involved flights from the deck of Kamov Ka-27PS/PL and Ka-31R helicopters and MiG-29K/KUB fighters owned by the Russian navy and industry. Ilyushin-38, Beriev A-50, Sukhoi-33 and MiG-31 airplanes flew from coastal airbases to perform checks for correct functioning of the Vikramaditya’s radio electronic equipment (including the Podberezovik and Fregat radars with target detection ranges up to 500 km and 250 km, respectively) and her self-defense capability. There were no Indian-owned flying vehicles involved in the testing (these intended to form the ship’s air wing are safely ashore, awaiting customer acceptance of the ship); a group of Indian pilots were on the Virkamaditya to watch MiGs and Kamovs fly with their Russian colleagues at the controls.
During the test campaign, Kamov helicopters performed more than thirty flights, not counting numerous liaison, patrol and SAR missions. MiG flights were the most spectacular part of the trials: 57 sorties were made, including 47 culminating in deck landings. On twelve occasions the MiGs came to rest on the deck at night.
During a week aboard the ship, AIN witnessed four takeoffs and landings, including one at night. The most memorable scene was a MiG running along the deck towards the 13-degree sky ramp at full afterburner, with its Klimov R-33 engines’ exhaust flames turning the darkness of night into daylight, with their roar seeming to be loud enough to be heard as far as Goa, where the ship will be based when in Indian navy service.
RAC MiG director general Sergei Korotkov commented: “The completion of the flight trials from the carrier’s deck marks a milestone in the life-cycle of the ship Project 11430 as well as the MiG-29K/KUB program that our corporation has been carrying out in the interests of the Indian navy.” RAC MiG’s next step in realization of the program will be a training course for the Indian navy pilots in the techniques of ship-borne operations.
The MiG-29K/KUB are attributed to the “4++” generation of Russian jet fighters; they are intended for the air defense of a carrier task group, establishing air superiority over the theatre of sea-land operations, destroying land and sea-going targets with precision-guidance munitions in all weather, day and night. The MiG can act in an aerial tanker role using body stores. The maiden flight of the customized Indian navy MiG-29KUB occurred in January 2007, followed by the first flight of a deliverable aircraft in March 2008.
In 2011 RAC MiG delivered the last airframe in the initial batch of 16 aircraft to the Indian navy under the contract, which was signed in 2004. Last year, the manufacturer delivered four addition aircraft in the frame of the follow-on order for 29 more navalized MiGs. Having positively assessed the MiG-29K/KUB performance–as demonstrated in Indian service (since early 2010)–Russia decided to buy a quantity for the navy of its own. Twenty-four examples were ordered last year, and are due for delivery between 2013 and 2015.
The MiG’s mtow is seven tons lighter than the Su-33 that today equips the Russian navy’s only carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov. Pilots say the big Sukhoi is more of a joy to fly, whereas the more modern MiG-29K/KUB provides better value for naval chiefs. The Su-33 is a pure interceptor for air defense of the carrier group; it was production from 1993 to 1998. The MiG can do both air defense and strikes on sea-going and land-based targets. It is able to use a number of precision-guidance munitions such as missiles and guided bombs with radar, thermal imaging and laser heads. Its crew stations are equipped with large diagonal multifunctional displays. Fly-by-wire controls provide better handling qualities as compared to the original MiG-29, which had mechanical linkages. The designers, however, stayed with the central stick in a belief that it is more convenient for naval pilots making landings on the carrier’s deck.