Sweet Homecoming

INS Vikramaditya to finally set sail for home on November 15

A FORCE Report

St Petersburg: Even as this is being written, INS Vikramaditya, the aircraft carrier that the Indian government has a paid a fortune to acquire, will be going through its paces in White Sea and Barents Sea, off Severodvinsk, where Sevmash Shipyard is located. If things go well, then this would be the last round of sea trials, before the mammoth ship sails home to India.

INS-Vikramaditya

However, as the proverb goes, there are many a slips between the cup and the lip. And last year, the deadline for delivery of the aircraft carrier fell through one such slip. During the sea trials last year, which were supposed to have been final test of mettle, eight boilers (that power the ship) started to overheat, leading to the melting of the cardboard-based material that had earlier replaced asbestos on Indian demand. This caused damage to the surrounding bricks. As a result, instead of achieving the optimum speed of 28 knots, INS Vikramaditya could not push itself beyond 27.8 knots.

But this was not the only problem. The air-conditioning plants had hiccups too, as did the water desalination plant. The sand filter of the plant (supplied by India) developed cracks and sea water entered the plant. With the basic infrastructure of the ship croaking, the lethality of the aircraft carrier could not be tested, the ship rolled back to the yard and the delivery date was pushed forward.

Once again, INS Vikramaditya is rolling on the gentle waters of the White Sea with 2,500 people on board including 50 Indians that comprise the inspection team, to test various systems including aircraft take-off and landing equipment. The tests will continue for a month, after which the floating mini-city will sail into Barents Sea to test actual take-offs and landings on the flight decks. While the MiG-29Ks will do the honour (as these are the aircraft of choice of the Indian Navy), assisting them by simulating unfriendly, and sometimes hostile conditions would be Russian aerial platforms like Ilyushin, Su-33 and A-50 AEW&C. Apart from flying, these aircraft will also help in testing the electronic counter measures (ECM) and radio communication equipment. In addition to the fighter fleet, helicopters like Ka-28 and Ka-31 will also be tested during the trials.

Designed by the Nevskoe Design Bureau, the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya was born as a helicopter cruiser Admiral Gorshkov in 1982. But the dwindling Soviet economy and its eventual collapse ensured that the helicopter cruiser became unaffordable. An accidental fire on board the ship firmly put it out of service. Eventually, in the mid-Nineties, Russia offered it to the Indian Navy as a gift, provided India paid for its refit and refurbishing. Talks started in 1996 and the first protocol was signed in 1998. India bargained hard, and Russia gave in. Interestingly, a decade later, the tables were turned.

The current general director of Nevskoe design bureau, Sergey S. Vlasov was the chief designer of the Admiral Gorshkov. His pride is evident when he says, “INS Vikramaditya (despite the tongue-twisting name that the Indian Navy chose, all Russians have mastered its pronunciation) is a unique ship. There is no such design in the world.”

For the Indian Navy, Nevskoe carried out several modifications to the original design. The flight deck was increased and ski-jump was added. According to the design bureau, the refurbished ship has all-new electronic equipment; integrated weapons and aviation facilities, the living quarters are state-of-the-art and there is provision for fresh water production on-board for 2,500 people. While 15 types of equipment were procured through India, Russia directly bought five types of equipment from India.

That modernising and refurbishing an old aircraft carrier is much more complex than designing a new one was discovered by Nevskoe once they started work on converting Admiral Gorshkov into INS Vikramaditya. Says Vlasov, “We prepare design for the entire ship as a whole. All aspects, from navigation to optical landing system, are taken into account at the conceptualisation stage itself.” Hence, the biggest challenge was the flying deck and the arrestor gear for which modification of the design was needed. “The big things were not so much of a problem,” says Vlasov. “It was the smaller things on-board which created big problems,” he smiles.

After this refit, INS Vikramaditya will have a lifespan of 20 years, even though Vlasov claims, “With proper maintenance it can serve for 30 to 40 years. It has very good steel. Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, which had similar design served for 20 years without maintenance.” In a reference to the boiler, Vlasov says that the ship will prove its reliability during the trials.

The trials will continue till October 15, after which the vessel will return to the boudoir at Sevmash for final furnishing and trimmings. The Indian Navy will then be invited to check out the aircraft carrier. After it acceptance, the ship will set sail for India on November 15.

“Some of the tests have been offered to the Indian side. They have been accepted by them and cleared. But there are a few things that we need go over again,” says Mikhail Budnichenko, general director, Sevmash Shipyard. Such is Budnichenko’s growing confidence in the platform he has helmed reconstruction of that he says, “The specification of the ship envisages the full speed of 28 knots, but my team is already discussing whether it will be able to clock 29 or 30 knots”.

Apart from brimming confidence, everyone at the shipyard is also a wee bit sad realising that finally the ship would be departing soon for its new home. Well, not a day too soon! Budnichenko does not rise to the bait. He is well past the worries, anxieties and criticism. In this first interaction with the Indian journalists, he says he is ready to take each issue head-on, without taking recourse to diplomacy or deflection.

Mikhail-BudnichenkoFirst things first. Budnichenko, who took charge of INS Vikramaditya programme six years ago, believes that the blame for the delay and dispute on the aircraft carrier has to be shared by both the Russian and the Indian sides. The price that Rosoboronexport quoted was way too low. Hence, there was no way the contract could be completed. Subsequently, the contract that Sevmash signed with Rosoboronexport was for the modernisation and refit of the ship.

“When the ship underwent thorough inspection and we carried out defect survey of the ship’s hull and the superstructure, equipment and machinery, it became clear to everybody that for the ship to be commissioned in the future — with the quality that Russia and Sevmash have been so proud of, a larger amount of work was required. For example, we replaced 100 per cent of the cables, although the initial contract suggested that all of the cables would be retained on the ship”, says Budnichenko. According to him, no one could have made the correct assessment of the cost without a close inspection, which couldn’t have been done before the signing of the contract. Adding to Sevmash’s problem was its own speciality, which was submarine-building. “We were new to this work, as we were a submarine-building yard,” admits Budnichenko.

Once Sevmash did the close inspection, it threw up its hands and Indians were rightly horrified. As protracted negotiations continued, funds were released to the shipyard in a trickle. Say Budnichenko, “Work on the ship started in earnest only four years ago, because of improper way of financing.”

But even after the work started, the ship failed the first test of water when the boiler over-heated. “It was our fault,” says Budnichenko. “We should have put our foot down when the Indians demanded replacing asbestos. Now we have put asbestos back. It is not hazardous to the crew, because it is inside the funnel.” India has banned use of asbestos, but in this case, clearly an exception has been made. Despite ensuing name-calling and bitterness, Budnichenko is grateful for the support that the Indian Navy’s inspection team has given to the shipyard, which is in the father of the bride mode now, at every stage. INS Vikramaditya will come with a one year warranty to be executed by the shipyard.

Meanwhile, even after the delivery of INS Vikramaditya to India, Nevskoe’s hands will remain full as it has to deliver two more contracts. It is building the Shore-Based Training Facility (SBTF) in Goa at naval aviation station INS Hansa. The SBTF is about 60 per cent ready. As part of the technical contract on SBTF, Nevskoe has to validate training and testing of the indigenous Aeronautical Development Authority (ADA)-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Apart from the MiG-29K, the Indian Navy wants even the LCA to operate from the carrier.

Nevskoe’s second contract is to help build the aviation facility complex for the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) which is being constructed by Cochin Shipyard Ltd at Kochi. The complex will include flying deck, hydraulic station, aviation ammunition magazines, arrestor gear and TV system. The design bureau is currently developing working design document (WDD) for the shipyard. In addition to this, Nevskoe will also provide supervision during the programme, operational and acceptance documentation.

While completion of programmes marks a closure of sorts, for Nevskoe and Sevmash, this seems to be an opening for future collaboration. There is hope that the arrival of INS Vikramaditya will be the harbinger of good tidings.