Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Aircraft Carrier Vikramaditya

You can tell that a country's proud of a ship when it releases a new postage stamp to celebrate the ship's commissioning. India just did that to celebrate its controversial aircraft carrier Vikramaditya.
Critics of the "new" ship call it "too old," "too late and expensive," and "too weak to match its rivals." It certainly was not the bargain that India had hoped it would be, but it is, nevertheless, a large step in capability for the Indian navy at a price that is justifiable, or close to justifiable.

The ship has an extensive history. It was the Soviet ship Baku from 1982 until 1991, when it needed a new name: Azerbaijan had become an independent country, so its city of Baku became a foreign capital, as far as the Russians were concerned. It would never do to have a capital ship named after someone else's capital city. Consequently, Baku was renamed Admiral Gorshkov. It continued to serve the Russian fleet until 1996 when, for financial reasons, it was decommissioned. In 2004, It was offered to the Indians at what seemed an unbelievably good price: free, on the condition that any necessary repairs and reconstruction be done at a Russian shipyard and that a billion dollars of Russian fighter planes be bought for it.

As I said, the offer seems unbelievably good. No one should have believed it unless he was hopelessly optimistic, corrupt, or some combination of the two. In the end, the ship did receive extensive modifications that changed it from a Kiev class heavy aviation cruiser to a pure aircraft carrier. However, the ship arrived five years late (December 2013) and cost $2.3 billion, exclusive of the air wing.

Is that cost excessive? Well, that depends, in part, on whether an equivalent aircraft carrier could be bought for less money. There is no such carrier. The equivalent carrier that the Indians are currently building, the new Vikrant, may be $3.8 billion by the time it is finished. Like the Vikramaditya, it will arrive five years later than planned.

Realistically, the alternative to buying Vikramaditya was to defer India's dream of a two-carrier navy into the indefinite future. Without Vikramaditya, India's sole carrier in the near term would be the antique INS Viraat, still creaking on with its eleven surviving Harrier planes. In 2018, Vikrant would take Viraat's place, but the two-carrier navy would have to wait until whenever a second Vikrant-class carrier could be built.

On the other hand, if a second carrier could be brought into service now, to serve alongside Viraat, then a two-carrier navy could be achieved immediately. Its strength would only be increased when Vikrant replaces Viraat in 2018. This is the only acceptable option for India. Its navy's experience since 1957, when it obtained its first carrier, is that carriers are essential to the nation's security. India has used a carrier effectively in two wars with Pakistan. The upgrade to two carriers responds not only to Pakistan, which continues to be hostile and volatile, but to a resurgent China, which has recently launched its first carrier, Liaoning, and plans to build more. Buying Vikramaditya gives India a chance to keep up with its regional rival in the number and capabilities of its carriers.

Many critics argue, nevertheless, that Vikramaditya stands up poorly against Liaoning. The critics have a point. Although Liaoning is also a rebuilt Soviet ship, its displacement of 59,000 tons (full load) is considerably more than Vikramaditya's 45,400 tons. Accordingly, it can accommodate a larger air wing than Vikramaditya, if it uses planes of about the same size. However, China has no experience with aircraft operations from a carrier and is experimenting to gain it. In light of Liaoning's incomplete functionality, Vikramaditya is more than a match for the Chinese ship now and for some years to come.

Other critics argue that the technology for launching planes from Vikramaditya is ill-chosen. The differences between the three available technologies matter primarily because they determine what planes can fly from the carrier and how much load they can carry.

STOBAR, meaning "Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery" is the technology used by Vikramaditya, Liaoning, every other carrier built by the Russians, and Vikrant. It requires a comparatively small plane with powerful engines that will drive the plane to take-off speed over the short runway available on the carrier's deck. The plane is loaded with modest amounts of fuel and arms to keep it light enough for take off. When the plane lands on the deck, a tail hook catches a wire that slows and stops the plane quickly: that is the "Arrested Recovery" part of the STOBAR equation.
STOBAR Operations (Take Off from Vikramaditya)
STOBAR Operations (Landing on Vikramaditya)
The carriers that Britain is building now, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, use another technology, VSTOL, or "Vertical or Short Take Off Or Landing." The planes required for this technology are actually able to take off or land vertically. However, to increase the amount of weight allowed for the plane at take off or landing, it will usually have a short take off, similar to that in STOBAR, and a short "rolling" landing without need for arrestor wires. If the plane is coming in light, with its weapons expended and much of its fuel used, it has the option to land vertically, like a helicopter.

VSTOL Operations (F35B Vertical Landing on USS Wasp)
VSTOL Operations (F35B Short Take Off and Rolling Landing Planned for HMS Queen Elizabeth) 
The third technology is CATOBAR, "Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery." In it, a plane is attached to a steam-driven catapult that quickly takes it from a standing start to take-off velocity. A recent advance in the technology is EMALS, in which the steam-driven catapults are replaced by magnets that grip the plane and hurl it into the air. CATOBAR launches allow planes to be larger and heavier than short or vertical take-offs do, so they allow a wider range of airplane types and heavier loads to be launched than other launch technologies can manage. On the other hand, CATOBAR is the most expensive and complex launch technology and so only two nations have current experience building CATOBAR carriers, the United States and France.
CATOBAR Operations (Landing and Take Off on Charles de Gaulle)

India is considering making its second home-built aircraft carrier, after Vikrant, a CATOBAR carrier. If it had gone directly to building that ship, however, rather than building its own STOBAR carrier first, it would have multiplied its difficulties past all reason. Arguably, Vikrant is right at the limit of India's shipbuilding abilities. India has had to create the tools to build the tools to build Vikrant, such as a plant to create the right types of steel. Five years late and considerably over-budget, even as a STOBAR carrier, Vikrant would have been impossible to complete as a larger CATOBAR carrier.

Vikramaditya is probably not the dream ship that the Indian Navy could fantasize having. It is more like a used car with a good chassis and a rebuilt engine. There are times and places that such a car is the best solution for a buyer on a schedule and a budget. In addition, the ship has two notable virtues. First, it is the largest ship ever to enter the Indian navy, 16,700 tons more than the INS Viraat; second, its new MIG 29K planes have much greater speed, range, and power than the old, subsonic Harriers on Viraat and are probably competitive with the best planes in the Pakistani air force. Perhaps the postage stamp with Vikramaditya was justified.

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