Aircraft Carrier and its chequered career
By Ilya Kramnik
Moscow. The last Soviet Project 1143 cruiser carrier, named
Baku, joined the navy in 1987, shortly before the breakup
of the Soviet Union and the closing of its vertical take-off
and landing (VTOL) programme. But when Yak-38 VTOL planes
were decommissioned, the early Project 1143 ships were also
quickly phased out of the navy.
The Baku, by that time renamed Admiral Gorshkov, was looked
to carry on as a helicopter carrier, but cuts in military
spending and an accident on board put it in for repairs that
were never completed.
In 1994, it was rumoured that the ship might be sold to India.
In 2000, the two countries came to an agreement, but the terms
of the contract were not agreed and the document was not signed
until 2004. The hope was that by 2008 India would get an upgraded
vessel and an air wing of MiG-29K fighters for a price of
The aircraft carrier was then named Vikramaditya by the Indian
Under a modernisation plan, the 48,000-tonne air-capable cruiser
was to be fitted with an unobstructed flight deck, aircraft
lifts capable of handling MiG-29s, an upgraded air-defence
system, and new electronics. Also, the Vikramaditya was to
be stripped of its Bazalt missile system and deck-mounted
100mm Gatling guns.
The refitting work started in 2000, but by 2007 it had become
clear that deadlines could not be kept - the Russian side
pleaded wrong costing and pricing. The blame was put on Vladimir
Pastukhov, Sevmash General Director. He was fired, everybody
said, for failing to fulfil the Indian order. The commissioning
deadline had to be moved to 2011.
The situation was compounded by further scandals when India
refused to accept a modernised Project 877 Kilo class submarine
and an Il-38 aircraft for alleged shortcomings in their upgradation
programme. All this also threatened to damage relations between
the two countries in military-technical cooperation.
Rumours spread that the Gorshkov might be returned to the
Russian navy, but official sources said new prices and new
schedules were under consideration. The results were never
made public, but, according to reliable sources, the two sides
agreed to move the delivery deadline to 2010 and increase
the costs, keeping in mind also a weak dollar and steep prices.
Apart from unofficial sources, news that deck-based MiG-29Ks
will be delivered to India next year is a good indicator that
the contract is alive.
At the end of July 2008, reports appeared in the media the
first batch of 12 single-seat fighters and four two-seat trainers
will be shipped in 2009.
Indian sources also say India intends to increase the number
of MiGs it will buy. An option for 30 planes is provided for
in the contract, and a decision to exercise the option could
be taken in 2008. In that case, the overall quantity could
grow to 46-50 units, enough not only for the Vikramaditya,
but also for the India's indigenous carrier, expected to be
operational by 2015.
It must be said that delays in the carrier's commissioning
have been largely due to the state of Russian industry in
the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Inadequate production facilities, wear and tear of capital
assets, and the loss of many skilled workers to other industries
and countries, combined with a lack of experience, led Sevmash
to wrongly calculate the project's costs and timetable.
To fulfil the project, Sevmash has recruited workers and engineers
from across Russia and abandoned several other projects, including
a floating nuclear plant, which is expected to be shifted
to the Baltic yards in St Petersburg. The Gorshkov project
is seen by many as a test of Sevmash's ability to build aircraft
carriers, and its success will be of key importance in deciding
whether the shipyard will be chosen to build advanced carriers
As for the Vikramaditya, according to information available
here, the main hull work is already done, with new equipment
being installed and interior re-planning under way. It is
to be hoped that the new schedule will be observed and the
former Admiral Gorshkov will put to sea again, though under
the Indian flag.
Here it is worth considering the ship's capabilities in the
light of its known characteristics:
Its displacement remains the same, or 38,000 tonnes light,
48,000 tonnes standard, and 53,000 tonnes full. The flight
deck is 273 metres long. The carrier will have a complement
of 16 MiG-29 fighters and six Ka-28/Ka-31 helicopters.
Plans also exist to use HAL Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)
and Dhruv light helicopters (naval versions). Apart from the
aircraft, the ship will carry Kashtan sea-to-air missile and
a gun systems for self-defence.
A "ski jump" ramp is provided for take-off as required
by the Indian Navy.
Like any other carrier, the Vikramaditya will be used within
a task group of surface ships. The best candidates for such
groups are Russian-built Project 22356 frigates and upgraded
Project 61 vessels supplied by the Soviet Union.
With plans to install BrahMos missiles on its surface ships,
India could form an effective and compact task force consisting
of the aircraft carrier and three to six frigates with a variety
of strike, anti-submarine and air-defence weapons.
The carrier will provide long-range anti-aircraft protection.
Backed by the other ships' sea-to-air missiles, MiG-29Ks could
make life difficult even for any formidable navy deck wing,
not to mention lesser opponents. The group's main mission
could be achieved with missiles fired from the surface ships
- three to six frigates are capable of launching several dozen
supersonic anti-ship missiles hard to intercept by any air-defence
In the longer term, the Vikramaditya could accommodate fifth-generation
planes, which the two countries plan to produce and induct
by 2017, in its hangar. With such aircraft on board, the new
carrier could remain in service well into the 2050s.
(The author is RIA Novosti's military commentator. This report
is produced by special arrangement with India Strategic).