Vikramaditya: The Cursed Carrier?

They say that borrowed clothes never fit. This seems to be true in the case of aircraft carriers as well.

The INS Vikramaditya was originally a Kiev-class carrier and underwent extensive refurbishment to suit the Indian Navy’s needs. While this was a cheaper option compared to buying a new one, the cost-cutting trick may have proved far costlier than expected.

The INS Vikramaditya (earlier called the Admiral Gorshkov) caught fire while entering the port in Karwar, in Karnataka. In the subsequent fire-fighting efforts, the fire was controlled, but a naval officer, Lt. Cdr. D.S. Chauhan lost his life due to smoke inhalation. The Navy has ordered an inquiry into the incident and has been tight-lipped so far. In a statement, it said,” “One officer dead during fire fighting ops onboard aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya in Karwar, Karnataka. Navy has ordered a Board of Inquiry to probe the incident. The fire was controlled by its crew preventing any serious damage to the warship’s combat capability.”

In 2012, during high-speed trials, 7 of the 8 steam boilers had failed due to faulty thermal insulation, causing a loss of pressure and severe loss of propulsion. This fault was rectified by the Russian Navy on the Indian Navy’s request for help.

About the INS Vikramaditya

The INS Vikramaditya is a modified Kiev-class aircraft carrier and was purchased from the Russian Navy in 2004 after years of negotiation at a final price of USD 2.35 billion. This deal was inked after years of negotiation, since the Russians repeatedly kept increasing the cost, citing unexpected delays and cost overruns. They wanted USD 2.9 billion, but then the two parties settled for the above-mentioned figure during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. Over the next decade, it underwent refitment, refurbishment, and updates to a number of key systems. The carrier was inducted into the Indian Navy in June 2014.

Once the vessel was in Indian hands, the refurbishment work could begin. And they had a Herculean task at hand. That’s because the 45,000-tonne Admiral Gorshkov was a missile cruiser whereas the Indian Navy wanted an aircraft carrier. This included the following modifications :

  1. The cruiser’s weaponry and front deck had to be stripped completely to make way for a ski jump and aircraft elevators
  2. The boilers were modified to run on diesel instead of marine oil to improve performance
  3. All the wiring had to be replaced, and this turned into a seemingly-bottomless money pit (took almost 3 years)
  4. A naval prototype of the MiG-29K was tested in take-off and landing scenarios
  5. All the Russian communications equipment had to be replaced by Indian units
  6. 1,750 out of 2,500 compartments of the ship were re-fabricated
  7. The elevators were upgraded, and two restraining stands were fitted, allowing combat aircraft to reach full power before making a ski jump-assisted short take-off
  8. Three arresting gears were fitted on the aft part of the angled deck, and navigation and carrier-landing aids were added to support fixed-wing “short take-off but arrested recovery” (STOBAR) operations
  9. 234 new hull sections were installed to achieve the desired shape, and the total steel added to carry out these modifications amounted to 2500 tons
  10. Extensive revamp of sensors was carried out, with long-range air-surveillance radars and advanced electronic warfare suites fitted
  11. An aft mast was installed to accommodate various communication antennae
  12. She was fitted with four license-built AK-630 CIWS (Close In Weapons System), and a Barak 1 SAM (Surface to Air Missile, now updated to the Barak 8)system stripped from the decommissioned INS Godavari
  13. The official expected life span of the ship is 40 years and is unlikely to require any major repair work for at least a decade
  14. Additional space had to be made for 16–24 Mig-29K/KUB fighters and 10 Ka-31 or Dhruv helicopters

This list of modifications does not include the updates made to the crew living quarters and the galley. All the major water supply and treatment systems, the refrigeration systems underwent updates to conform to the latest standards.

An aircraft carrier is basically a floating air base, which is why every single component is designed around flight operations and maintenance. The Vikramaditya has been designed as a STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) carrier capable of operating both conventional fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, with up to 34 aircraft. The carrier is designed to operate the K and the twin-seater KUB versions of the Mig-29 along with the Ka-31 or the Dhruv helicopters.

Coming back to the accident that led to the fire. It is believed that a steam pipe connected to one of the boilers in the engine room exploded, rupturing a fuel line and causing the fire. The engine room was filled with acrid fumes, must have spread throughout most of the ship, hampering firefighting efforts. Lt.Cdr. Chauhan lost his life and nine others were injured.

A dark history

This is neither the first nor the last time the INS Vikramaditya has proven to be a cursed carrier. Here’s why:

The ship is similar to the Admiral Kuznetsov class of vessels, frequently proven to be notoriously ill-fated

The Chinese carrier Liaoning (the erstwhile Varyag, a Kuznetsov-class carrier, a sister ship of the Kiev-class Vikramaditya), was recognized by the PLA Navy as a failure, “full of structural constraints and congenital defects”

Two out of the four Kiev-class carriers have been converted into museums in China, hinting towards their vintage. The fourth one was purchased by India and the first one was scrapped.

On 10 June 2016, while undergoing a scheduled major refit of INS Vikramaditya, two people were killed by a toxic gas leak that occurred during maintenance work in the Sewage Treatment Plant compartment of INS Vikramaditya at Karwar. Two other people were injured and taken to the naval hospital.

On 28 February 2017, a MiG-29K aircraft that took off from Vikramaditya had to make an emergency landing at Mangalore International Airport due to hydraulic failure.

Burning questions

Again, a number of questions need to be answered first, before making an incorrect assumption (like the Chinese did) that the primary cause of the mishap was human error.

If this is the state of affairs in peacetime, how can we rely on the INS Vikramaditya during war?

It took 20 years for the Navy to induct the INS Vikramaditya. But couldn’t we have purchased a used carrier instead of retrofitting a cruiser for flight operations?

How long will we continue to rely on shoddy Russian equipment to defend India’s freedom?

This latest accident is just one more addition to a long, somber list of mishaps occurring out of faulty Indian defense procurement processes, it seems.

Jai Hind

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Happily Entwined

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Automobile Engineer. Content Writer. Biker. Defense Enthusiast. Indian.

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Adreesh Ghoshal

Adreesh Ghoshal

Automobile Engineer. Content Writer. Biker. Defense Enthusiast. Indian.

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