India will commission its first indigenous aircraft carrier in 2014. A sneak peek into the making of the big ship

By Syed Nazakat/Kochi & Delhi

A dream is being crafted on this dock in Cochin Shipyard. Groups of workers in red and navy blue are shaping a vessel that will make the Indian Navy a truly blue-water force. On the dock, welders are hunched over their torches, plasma cutters are shaping sheet iron and crane operators are guiding huge hull blocks to their slots. These men with calloused hands and half-moons of dirt under their fingernails are erasing a history of hand-me-downs. They are making India’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC).

There is a momentary hush as a huge gantry crane hoists a super-lift module to be slotted into the carrier. The crane operator deftly works the controls and gently guides the unit home. As the crane moves off, the welders take over and attach the lift-module to its neighbouring modules. After the lift-module is welded in place, plumbers and electricians hook up the wires and pipes. If all goes well, the Indian Navy will commission the carrier in 2014.

The 22 functional aircraft carriers in the world are owned by nine navies. Only the US, Russia and the UK have built carriers exceeding 40,000 tonnes. India is the fourth country to build a ship in this class. “It was our dream to equip India with an aircraft carrier,” said Commodore M. Jitendran, chairman and MD, Cochin Shipyard.

Work on the IAC started in November 2006 and 70 per cent of the hull blocks are done. Displacement tests, defining the hull form and structure, space analysis and hydrodynamic modelling have also been completed. “The IAC will be launched in 2010 and commissioned in 2014,” said Jitendran. “There will be no delays from our side.” Italian firm Fincantieri is assisting with the integration of the propulsion system and Russia’s Naval Design Bureau is helping with aviation systems.

The indigenous aircraft carrier project signifies not only an attempt to modernise the Navy, but also a shift in strategy. In the past, India had planned only to counter threats from Pakistan and China. But now it is aiming  at global reach. International maritime laws recognise aircraft carriers as sovereign territories in almost all of the ocean.

As long as a carrier does not get too close to a nation’s coast, it does not need permission from host countries for landing or overflight rights,” a Navy officer said. “A forward-deployed Navy provides the country with unique strategic options.” Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma said India’s goal for the next decade was to have a fleet of 160 ships and over 300 aircraft.

India’s naval role becomes more important because of its proximity to two strategic commercial straits—Hormuz and Malacca. Almost 40 per cent of international seaborne oil shipments pass through Hormuz. In 2006, Malacca averaged 1.5 million barrels of crude oil per day. These figures alone highlight the strategic nature of these straits.

“The IAC will be a milestone in the Navy’s history,” said former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash. “It is a symbol of power projection, which will simply resonate in other countries as it resonates in India. It [the IAC project]  shows India’s seriousness to become a true blue-water Navy.” An accomplished carrier pilot, Prakash had commanded the INAS 300 when it updated to Sea Harriers in 1983.

Aircraft carriers are designed to support multiple activities. They transport a variety of aircraft, launch and land specific aircraft, serve as a mobile command centre for military operations and house personnel involved in these activities. “We have to fit a ship, an air base and a small housing colony in the carrier,” said a senior officer of the Southern Naval Command.

Designed by the Directorate of Naval Design (DND), the IAC will be powered by four General Electric LM2500 gas turbines. The turbines will generate an optimum 88MW, giving the carrier a cruising speed of 28 knots. The LM2500 is licence-built in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. The carrier will be 260m long and 60m wide with an endurance of 8,000nm.

The 40-year-old DND has designed 40 classes of ships and is the only government organisation worldwide to design ships. Elsewhere, the work is done by public sector companies or private shipbuilders.

Takeoffs and landings on carriers are a tricky business. Commander P.V. Satish, who served on the INS Viraat, said a night landing on a carrier’s flight deck is the most harrowing exercise in military aviation. Seated at the controls of a fighter that could weigh up to 25 tons, the pilot approaches the carrier and all he can see are the tiny lights lining the flight deck. “Imagine that! In the middle of the ocean and he has to land on a 200m-long runway,” said Satish.

The IAC’s flight deck will be in in STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) configuration with a ski-jump. The ski-jump will give aircraft additional lift  during takeoff. All carrier-ready aircraft have a tailhook under their tail. Three arrestor wires fitted on to the flight deck are supposed to snag the tailhook and bring the plane to a stop. If a pilot misses all three wires, he has to take off and attempt another landing.

The IAC will have aircraft elevators before and after the ‘island’, the command and control centre of the carrier. The elevators move aircraft to the flight deck from the hangar deck. Sources said the IAC is designed to support and maintain 30 aircraft including the MiG-29K and the naval variant of Tejas, the indigenous light combat aircraft. The carrier will have two 200m runways, a helicopter deck and a 1,600-strong staff.

The team overseeing the project is currently finalising the carrier’s weapons systems. Obviously, the exact details are top secret. Carriers being ‘runways at sea’, the IAC will have systems capable of stopping attacks from enemy aircraft and missiles. There will also be a long-range surface-to-air missile system with multi-function radars and close-in weapon systems. The carrier will have anti-submarine defence systems. All defence systems on board will be integrated through a combat management system. Sources in the Southern Naval Command said the carrier would have “jamming capabilities over the expected electromagnetic environment.”

The quest for the IAC began in 1989 when the Navy wanted to replace its ageing British-built carriers with two new 28,000-ton carriers. The first vessel was to replace the INS Vikrant, which was set to be decommissioned in early 1997. French company Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN) was contracted to study designs for a 25,000-ton vessel with a speed of 30 knots.

The plans were dropped in 1991 when the defence ministry shifted focus from conventional-sized carriers to the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi class. The new class  put the carrier at around 17,000 tonnes with capability to support up to 15 aircraft. In 1997, the Navy whittled-down DCN’s model to a 24,000-ton Air Defence Ship (ADS). “But somehow it still did not fit India’s requirement,” said Deba Ranjan Mohanty, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Finally, in August 2006 the vessel was re-designated from ADS to a 252m-long IAC with a displacement of 37,000 tonnes. Because of design changes, the length was later increased to 260m and the displacement to 40,000 tonnes.

The project’s initial delay was due to the unavailability of high grade steel. Though there was an initial agreement with Japan, it fell through after Pokhran II. Eventually, the Steel Authority of India Ltd produced the required steel under just about a year.

Senior Navy officials have confirmed that another core issue was the lack of funds. Prakash said the committee on defence expenditure had asked for downsizing to the Garibaldi class because of budgetary constraints. Many Navy officials said the current budget of Rs 3,260 crore was barely sufficient.

The IAC project has had other problems, too. Cochin Shipyard officials said IAC got delayed because of the ‘plan-as-you-build’ attitude. A minor alteration in the contracted design would lead to modifications of dozens of modules. But the Navy blames the shipyard for the “cost growth”. Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, director, National Maritime Foundation, said delays occurred because the shipyard did not have basic equipment to build the carrier. This was solved by a special allocation of Rs 200 crore to Cochin Shipyard by the defence ministry.

Bhaskar said, “There was no clarity at the highest national level what kind of aircraft carrier India needed. There was a lot of confusion within the defence ministry about the nature of the carrier. Moreover, India is lagging behind in shipbuilding. We do not have good dockyard facilities and shipbuilding technology.” Perhaps this is why the IAC project is a matter of pride. Said Mohanty: “It is about achieving a long cherished dream and about a belief that, despite many odds, we can build a world class warship.”

In a bid to boost its blue-water credentials, the Navy is expected to operate three aircraft carriers by 2017. It is acquiring the Kiev-class Admiral Gorshkov (renamed INS Vikramaditya) from Russia and is planning a 50,000-ton IAC 2 with CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) capability. CATOBAR will help IAC 2 to launch conventional aircraft. Only three countries have CATOBAR-capable carriers—the US (Nimitz class super-carriers and USS Enterprise), France (Charles de Gaulle) and Brazil’s (Sao Paulo).

Senior Navy officers said the order for IAC 2 was likely to be placed in 2010, after the launch of the first carrier.   “The fate of IAC 2 will be decided by the performance of the first carrier,” said a senior Navy officer.

On its part, Cochin Shipyard is using a modular approach to reduce construction time on IAC. If all goes well, after the initial launch the carrier will spend a year in the refit dock where all major components and underwater fittings would be fixed. Then it would be relaunched for outfitting.

The Navy has another external issue on its hands. The Defence Research and Development Organisation’s Tejas, which has to operate from the IAC, is behind schedule. The DRDO is thinking of installing the indigenous Kaveri engine in Tejas. But the engine has had multiple problems and French company Snecma is currently working on it.

The Navy might be forced to test Tejas with the current General Electric F404 engine. The test will ascertain its flight characteristics and whether its structural strength is sufficient for carrier deployment. When Tejas is fitted with Kaveri, the Navy will start operating it from a carrier. Reports said the Tejas naval variant was supposed to be ready for carrier trials by 2013.

Far away from the military planners, strategists and ‘Eyes Only’ files, the worker on the ground seems to have gauged the project’s significance better. Said a steelworker at the shipyard: “What is important for us is that we are doing something nobody else in India has done.”


Class: Vikrant Class

Likely name: INS Vikrant

Displacement: 40,000 tonnes

Length: 260m

Beam: 60m

Draught: 8.4m

Propulsion: 4 General Electric LM2500 gas turbines

Speed: 28 knots

Endurance: 8,000nm

Aircraft: 30 fighter jets which may include the MiG-29K and naval variant of Tejas. The MiG-29K will have air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided electro-optical bombs. It is a multi-role carrier-based fighter designed to provide air cover for carrier groups. Tejas is a lightweight, multi-role supersonic combat aircraft.

Armament: Not fully known. Expected to have long range missiles with multi-function radar and jamming capabilities

Design: Directorate of Naval Design, Indian Navy.

Crew: 1,600

Cost: Rs 3,260 crore


The vessel’s voyage

1989: Plans are on to replace INS Vikrant and INS Viraat with two new 28,000-tonne aircraft carriers.

1989: French company DCN contracted to study designs for a 25,000-tonne vessel.

1991: Indian Navy scraps plan for large carriers owing to budgetary constraints.

1995: Plans are on for a 17,000-tonne vessel capable of supporting up to 15 aircraft.

1997: Design refined to a 24,000-tonne Air Defence Ship.

2002: Navy proposes a carrier of 37,000 tonnes.

2005: Cochin Shipyard starts cutting steel for the carrier.

2006: Vessel’s designation changed from ADS to Indigenous Aircraft Carrier.

2009: Keel for the carrier laid by Defence Minister A.K. Antony on February 28.

2010: Expected launch.

2014: Expected commissioning.


Life On An Aircraft Carrier

By Captain Deepak Bajpai

Life on an aircraft carrier is a 24-hour activity. You may get tired, but never bored. On carriers, days begin early. After the first morning briefing, the personnel break for tea or they take a short walk before another round of briefings. For every take-off and landing there are a series of briefings.

Carriers like the INS Viraat have everything the crew needs on board, even if it may not be to their exact tastes. There are multiple kitchens called Hover Inns located one deck below the flight deck; these serve around 2,000 meals a day. There is also a fitness centre and indoor sports facility. At times the runway is turned into a volleyball court. While at sea, the crew is kept on its toes. So me people do not like sea duty because of the hectic schedule.

Every crew member has a sleeping compartment; some share it with 10 to 20 others. They sleep in single bunks called racks. Each one gets an upright locker for stowing clothes and personal belongings. Everybody in the compartment shares a bathroom. Officers enjoy more space, but that is limited, too. Most of the crew have little opportunity to see the outside world. A sailor working on the lower decks might go for days without ever seeing the sun. 

A crew member whose compartment is on the lower dock will have a tiring time if he leaves anything behind. To get back to his locker, he has to go down hundreds of nearly vertical steps and narrow corridors. He has to climb them up to get back to his station. So sometimes they become school kids! They pack all their gear in a bag and leave for the flight deck for the day.

 I remember the first time I landed a fighter jet on the carrier. Till the last moment I was holding my breath wondering how was I going to land on this tiny platform in the middle of ocean. In the inky blackness, the only guides were the ground staff. As the plane hit the deck, I felt a great sense of achievement. I still cherish that moment. 

Bajpai is director of Naval Air Staff at the integrated headquarters of the defence ministry. He commanded INAS 300, the carrier-borne fighter squadron, and was stationed on the INS Vikrant and the INS Viraat.

 Interview: M. Jitendran, chairman & MD, Cochin Shipyard

 Commodore M. Jitendran was taking a chance when he took premature retirement from the Indian Navy and joined the Cochin Shipyard. A postgraduate in naval architecture from IIT Kharagpur and St Petersburg, he is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, London. Despite the global financial meltdown, the last fiscal saw the yard’s turnover crossing Rs 1,200 crore, a huge jump from Rs 228 crore in 2003-2004. The yard also delivered two of India’s largest double hull Aframax tankers. In an interview with THE WEEK, Jitendran spoke about the challenges of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) project. Excerpts:

What is the status of the IAC?

The work is going on in full swing. We have completed more than 70 per cent of the fabrication of hull blocks. The concept design for the carrier with approximately 37,500 metric tonnes displacement, defining the overall ship dimensions, evolution of hull form, general arrangement drawings, structure, stability, weight and space analysis and hydrodynamic model tests have been completed.

The project is behind schedule.

Yes, we are three months behind schedule. We had to deal with the non-availability of high-grade steel. The issue has been sorted out and we expect to bridge the delay in the coming months. We will deliver the carrier on time.

A Parliament committee said that in comparison to the US Nimitz class and INS Vikramaditya, the IAC stands nowhere in terms of dimension, displacement and aircraft carrying capacity.

We are working on an evolving design. The Navy has shared only the basic design with us. They are constantly working on the features of the carrier to make it the best of its size in the world.

For the last two decades Cochin Shipyard has been working on INS Viraat. Has that helped?

We are proud of our regular work on INS Viraat. We have performed major overhauls on her. It has given us deep insight on carriers and has honed skills of our engineers.

What kind of competition are you facing from  foreign shipyards?

There is immense competition from yards in the Far East and south-east Asia for commercial shipbuilding. Their cost and schedules are very challenging. So far, we have been able to match their performance and win orders globally. The shipbuilding industry in India has been ignored and there is very little awareness of its potential. We are 10 to 20 years behind in shipyard planning and infrastructure compared to shipbuilding countries like Japan.

What are your plans to enhance the yard?

We have planned a Small Ship Division project. It is essentially to create additional capacity for undertaking commercial ship construction concurrently with the IAC project. The yard also plans to diversify into niche hi-tech products. Our endeavour is to become an internationally competitive yard and to make India a dominant shipbuilding and ship-repair centre in the region.

India‘s biggest ship owner, the Shipping Corporation of India has, signed an MoU with the yard. What are the advantages?

 It is a win-win situation. The joint venture was a way of dealing with the global situation. It will help us to build ships at economical prices and plan a capacity expansion. It would guarantee business for both companies for several years.

 (THE WEEK, January 17, 2010)


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