NEW DELHI: The final countdown for the commissioning of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) as INS Vikrant has now begun, with the 45,000-tonne warship built at a cost of almost Rs 20,000-crore being delivered to the Navy by the Cochin Shipyard on Thursday.

In a related development, first two of the 24 submarine-hunting MH-60 `Romeo’ helicopters, armed with Hellfire missiles, MK-54 torpedoes and precision-kill rockets, arrived from the US at Kochi, with a third slated to come next month.

All 24 choppers, also equipped with multi-mode radars and night-vision devices, will arrive by 2025 under the Rs 15,157 crore ($2.13 billion) contract inked with the US in February 2020. The MH-60Rs will operate from the IAC as well as other frontline warships.

The 262-meter long and 62-meter wide IAC, which has the capacity to carry 30 fighters and helicopters, will be commissioned in the second half of August. She will then be christened INS Vikrant after India’s first aircraft carrier that was acquired from the UK in 1961, which played a major role during the 1971 war and eventually decommissioned in 1997.

Powered by four gas turbines totalling 88 MW power, the IAC has an overall indigenous content of 76%. It will have a crew of 1,700, including women, and an operational endurance of around 7,500 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 18 knots.

But while the Navy has conducted extensive sea trials of the long-delayed IAC over the last one year, the aviation trials of the MiG-29K fighters and helicopters like Kamov-31 and MH-60R from her deck will only kick off later this year. In effect, the carrier – which was first sanctioned by government way back in January 2003 — will become fully operational only by mid-2023.

In sharp contrast, China already has the world’s largest navy with 355 warships and submarines as compared to India’s 130-warship force, and also `launched’ its third aircraft carrier, the over 80,000-tonne Fujian, last month. It is also fast building a fourth carrier, while cranking up its presence in the Indian Ocean Region.

Fujian has CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) configuration to launch fighters as well as heavier aircraft for surveillance, early-warning and electronic warfare from its deck.

The US, in turn, has 11 “super” 100,000-tonne nuclear-powered carriers, each of which carries 80-90 fighters and aircraft. The Indian government, however, is yet to even give the preliminary approval to build a third carrier, which will take well over a decade.

Moreover, both the existing 44,500-tonne INS Vikramaditya, inducted from Russia for $2.33 billion in November 2013 with 45 MiG-29Ks for another $2 billion, as well as the IAC have only angled ski-jumps for fighters to take off under their own power in STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) operations. This limits them from operating heavier aircraft.

As was earlier reported by TOI, with the indigenous twin-engine deck based fighter at least a decade away, the Navy is now also fast-tracking the acquisition of at least 24-26 fighters to operate from the IAC. The two contenders are the French Rafale-M and the American F/A-18, in what will be a multi-billion dollar government-to-government deal.

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