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01 Sep 2022

INS Vikrant: Inside India's first indigenous aircraft carrier

INS Vikrant: Inside India's first indigenous aircraft carrier
Indian Navy
Originally posted on BBC News

On Friday, India will commission its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, Vikrant, at a ceremony in the southern state of Kerala. The BBC's Jugal Purohit took a tour of the vessel ahead of its induction into the Indian navy.

It is a moment that was 13 years in the making.

On Friday morning, the 45,000-tonne Vikrant will get the prefix INS (Indian Naval Ship) after a formal commissioning ceremony, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The vessel - 262m (860ft) long and almost 60m (197ft) tall - is the first aircraft carrier India has designed and built on its own. It has the capacity to hold 30 fighter planes and helicopters.

India's other aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, can carry more than 30 aircraft. The UK Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth can carry about 40 and the US Navy's Nimitz class carriers can accommodate more than 60 aircraft.

Vikrant, which cost around 200bn rupees ($2.5bn; £2.1bn), was expected to be inducted into the navy by 2017. But the second phase of its construction was beset by delays.

But the ship's commissioning is still a historic moment for India, which will now join a select group of countries capable of building such a vessel. It's also a shot in the arm for Mr Modi's plans to boost domestic defence manufacturing.

The name 'Vikrant' (which means courageous) is also special - it was what India's first aircraft carrier, bought from the UK and commissioned in 1961, was called. The first INS Vikrant was a major symbol of national pride and played an important role in several military operations - including the 1971 war - before being decommissioned in 1997.

Once commissioned, the new Vikrant will sail across both Indian and international waters, accompanied by a fleet of frigates, destroyers and submarines to protect it.

Inside the ship

Vikrant is currently at the government-owned Cochin Shipyard in Kerala state - where the ship was built and where the commissioning ceremony will be held.

Once it's in service, it will eventually be the workplace - and home - for 1,700 crew members.

But at the moment, there are technicians everywhere you look - fixing cables, polishing the interiors and making sure everything is in shape for the commissioning.

Teeming with the crew and journalists and visitors, the insides of the ship feel like an unending complex of noisy workshops..

"From here, the gas turbine engines can be operated, which is how this floating city moves," Lieutenant-Commander Sai Krishnan, a senior engineering officer, says. The four engines on board together build up 88MW of power - enough to supply a city, he adds.

There are three galleys, or pantries, which have coffee-vending machines, tables and chairs, and places to keep large utensils.

"If you combine these galleys, close to 600 personnel can have their meals at the same time," an officer says.

The ship also has a 16-bed hospital, two operation theatres and intensive care units.

In the hangar, two Russian-origin aircraft - a MiG-29K fighter and a Kamov-31 early warning helicopter - are placed towards the rear end.

"Think of this like a parking space, with a team that looks after maintenance and repairs. From here, special lifts take the aircraft to the flight deck for flying operations," says Lieutenant-Commander Vijay Sheoran.

The navy plans to test intensive flying operations from the ship later this year.

"Our flight deck size is nearly 12,500sqm - almost as big as two-and-a-half hockey fields - and we can operate 12 fighter planes and six helicopters at once," says Lieutenant-Commander Siddharth Soni, the flight deck officer.

The big picture

Though India will now have two aircraft carriers - INS Vikramaditya and Vikrant - many navy chiefs have said publicly that it needs at least one more. But the government hasn't given funds for this yet.

Retired Vice-Admiral AK Chawla, who until recently had supervised Vikrant's progress, says the choice is between acting now or being left out. He cites the example of China, which has expanded its maritime power by "building aircraft carriers at an amazing pace".

"You can't build carriers overnight, it takes time and, therefore, it's very important that we have more ships like Vikrant which can protect our fleet, travel far and knock out enemy ships before they can get to the aircraft carrier or to other ships," he says.

Between 2012 and 2022, Beijing has commissioned two aircraft carriers and started work on a third. It also has the world's largest navy in terms of numbers - although the US is still ahead in terms of capabilities.

Madhu Nair, chairman and managing director of Cochin Shipyard, says the ship's construction - even though hit by massive delays - has made them more confident.

"I don't say 13 years is the best, we can definitely do better. But we must also understand that we were doing it for the first time, so I am not unhappy."

With 76% of the ship's parts sourced indigenously - around 500 Indian firms were roped in - both the navy and the Cochin Shipyard say the Vikrant's cost is an investment in boosting India's defence capabilities.

The shipyard is now investing in a new dock - to be ready by 2024 - to build India's next aircraft carrier, Mr Nair says.

"I hope that the approval for building the next carrier comes in. If it does, we will be ready for much faster deliveries."

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