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‘We’re geared up’: Navy’s centrepiece Vikrant ready for commissioning

Source : Hindustan Times

‘We’re geared up’: Navy’s centrepiece Vikrant ready for commissioning
Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) INS Vikrant parked in Cochin Shipyard harbour, ready for commissioning into the Indian Navy fleet

The captain, the fighter pilot, the doctor, the engineer, and even the cook — nearly every man on board India’s latest aircraft carrier Vikrant echoes one sentiment: They are living the dream.

His arms stretched out towards the sprawling flight deck of the largest warship ever built in India, naval fighter pilot Lieutenant Commander Ajay Singh says the best day of his career will be when he lands and takes off from the sliver of a runway on this floating airfield — a demanding job that carries high risks and is, thus, assigned to only the finest pilots.

“There’s no margin for error when you are operating from an aircraft carrier. This is an airfield at sea, it’s moving up and down in the monstrous swells, and the pilot has to do what he has to do in a limited space. For me, that thrill is unmatched and there could have been no better time to be in the Navy,” says Singh, a MiG-29K fighter pilot.

To be sure, the Navy has put Vikrant through its paces during a raft of rigorous trials at sea for almost a year ahead of its scheduled commissioning into service – Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to dedicate the first India-made aircraft carrier to the country on September 1 at Kochi.

However, critical flight trials are still to be conducted, and the integration of the carrier’s air wing will be the topmost priority for the warship’s first hand-picked captain, Commodore Vidhyadhar Harke. He is fully aware of the enormous responsibility he will have to shoulder in bringing alive the true capabilities of this 45,000-tonne warship that will form the enviable centrepiece of the Indian Navy’s indigenous sea power.

In the warship’s flight control centre, surrounded by complex equipment and displays that overlook a solitary Russian-made MiG-29K sitting on the flight deck with its wings folded, Harke explains what lies ahead. “My crew and I have to live up to the expectations of not just the Navy but the entire country. Also, the whole world will be watching us and how we evolve as a carrier battle group (aircraft carriers always move with escort warships). Apart from flight trials that will be quite complex, integrating Vikrant with other elements of the fleet will be equally critical,” he says.

But built at an estimated cost of ₹20,000 crores, the Vikrant hasn’t come cheap.

Getting more bang-for-the-buck from the warship will be essential for a country that needs to invest enormously in new military technology to stay battle-ready, but whose defence spending has not matched the needs of its armed forces that are saddled with legacy equipment.

“I am sleeping well. I have full confidence in the capabilities of my men and my aircraft carrier. We are geared up and we are motivated,” adds Harke.

A few decks below, where the smell of fresh paint wafts through the compartment and the new flooring is still covered ahead of the commissioning ceremony, Lieutenant Commander Y Harsha VR is manning the all-important ship control centre and supervising sailors seated in front of multi-function displays and controls that will allow them to track critical parameters of the aircraft carrier’s health when it’s at sea.

“For a warship to fight, it has to float and move. This is the place where it happens. From starting the engines to water generation and power distribution to the warship’s stability, we bring this mini-township to life. The moment we had all been waiting for is finally here,” says Harsha, who has now been on board Vikrant for over two years.

The Indian Navy granted Hindustan Times exclusive excess to the aircraft carrier and, in the six hours this correspondent was on board, arranged a series of briefings on varied aspects such as operations, the role of the commissioning crews, equipment, threat monitoring systems, communications and logistics.

Critical flight trials are still to be conducted, and the integration of the carrier’s air wing will be the topmost priority for the warship’s first hand-picked captain, Commodore Vidhyadhar Harke.(Rahul Singh/HT Photo)

On the fifth deck (Vikrant has 14) in one of the galleys, 29-year-old logistics officer Lieutenant Commander Ankit Saraswat says his role is to ensure that the crew of 1,700 men is well fed.

“From croissants, to quiche, and cakes to freshly-baked bread, the men will be spoilt for choice. Food helps build morale. The galleys will churn out 5,000 meals every day. We will stock 100 tonne of ration before we sail out. We have 50 cooks on board who are as excited about the journey ahead as the others,” Saraswat adds.

Even the cooks know that Vikrant has put India in a select league. Only the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China have the capability to build aircraft carriers. It has been named after the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant operated by the Navy from 1961 to 1997.

The warship’s damage control headquarters, also on the fifth deck, is the unit that will swing into action in case of fire or flooding on board.

Lieutenant Commander Akhil Sreerangan, 32, the officer in charge, says the damage control unit monitors 3,000 fire sensors and 750 flood sensors and is equipped to take remote counter measures. The systems deployed in the damage control headquarters have been made locally — Vikrant has an indigenous content of 76%, according to the Navy.

Southern Naval Command chief Vice Admiral MA Hampiholi, who was on board the warship on an inspection visit, says Vikrant represents a giant leap for Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) in defence, and it will go a long way in projecting the country’s maritime power.

Medical officer Lieutenant Commander Harsha MR says the mini-hospital is good to go and he is looking forward to “the experience of a lifetime.” Vikrant’s medical set-up, manned by five doctors and 15 paramedics, is scattered across 40 compartments including two operation theatres, a 16-bed hospital and even a room with a CT scan.

Lieutenant Shashank Yadav, one of Vikrant’s electrical officers and responsible for failure-free internal and external communications, sums up the sentiments of the young officers and sailors on board. “Few in the Navy get such an opportunity. I am lucky to be here in my very first appointment,” says Yadav.

India currently operates a solitary aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, bought second-hand from Russia for $2.33 billion, but the Navy has been arguing it needs three such floating airfields given its vast area of interest. Vikrant will be the fourth aircraft carrier to be operated by the Indian Navy — first Vikrant (British origin) from 1961 to 1997, INS Viraat (British origin) from 1987 to 2016 and INS Vikramaditya 2013 onwards.

The fighters on board the aircraft carrier will use the ski-jump to takeoff and will be recovered by arrestor wires or what is known as STOBAR (Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery) in Navy parlance.

It will operate an air wing consisting of 30 aircraft including MiG-29K fighter jets, Kamov-31 choppers, MH-60R multi-role helicopters and advanced light helicopters. To be sure, helicopters have landed on the flight deck 22 times during trials.

Vikrant is also expected to operate a new deck-based fighter that the Navy is planning to buy — it has already tested Boeing’s F/A-18E Super Hornet and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale-M.

The solitary MiG-29K on the flight deck (it is 2.5 times the size of a hockey field) is a constant reminder that conducting fighter operations from Vikrant is still work in progress. It was brought on to the warship in the form of knocked-down kits and was assembled on board.

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