Prime Minister Narendra Modi today dedicated the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant — named after its predecessor, the decommissioned and scrapped Vikrant aka R11, which boasted of cutting off West Pakistan supplies to East Pakistan during the war for Bangladesh in 1971 — to the Indian Navy while the force got rid of a remnant of the British era from its ensign.
The now-abandoned St George's cross divided the rectangular flag into equal quarters (more in the last section of this explainer). The anchor sign on the right bottom part of the ensign is now the symbolic anchor with the lion capital, both in golden, enclosed in an octagon from the seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj who gave India its first navy with 60 odd battleships and 5,000 odd sailor-soldiers.
“In the past, security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean have long been ignored, but today this area is a major defence priority of the country for us and we are working in every direction, from increasing the budget for the navy to increasing its capability,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi today, as the country’s first indigenous aircraft carrier and the most complex warship to be built, INS Vikrant was commissioned into the Indian Navy.
With INS Vikrant, India joins the elite group of nations — the US, Russia, France, the UK and China — that are capable of designing and constructing aircraft carriers. Only the general Electric engine used in the ship has been procured; the rest of the parts are indigenously built.
Why INS Vikrant
Why INS Vikramaditya was not enough
Indian land being a peninsula, it needs protection in the maritime area from three directions: the Arabian Sea in the west, the Indian Ocean in the south and the Bay of Bengal in the east. The navy already has INS Vikramaditya, the remade Admiral Gorshkov of Russian vintage. Similarly, the decommissioned Vikrant was an under-constructed, Second World War-era British navy ship HMS Hercules, the construction of which was completed in India in 1961.
Now, while the navy demands one aircraft carrier each in the west, south and north, the INS Vikramaditya cannot guard all the maritime frontiers. Further, the ship has some shortcomings (explained in the section on aircraft below). This is where INS Vikrant pitches in also with superior features.
In 1999, then-Defence Minister George Fernandes authorised the development and construction of an aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, under the Project 71 Air Defence Ship (ADS). By the time, given the ageing Sea Harrier fleet, the letter of intent called for a carrier that would carry more modern jet fighters.
In 2001, Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) released a graphic illustration showing a 32,000-tonne Stobar (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) design with a pronounced ski jump. The aircraft carrier project finally received formal government approval in January 2003. It was still the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime.
By then, the design updates called for a 37,500-tonne carrier to operate the Mikoyan MiG-29K. India opted for a three-carrier fleet consisting of one carrier battle group stationed on each seaboard, and a third carrier held in reserve, to continuously protect both its flanks, protect economic interests and mercantile traffic and provide humanitarian platforms in times of disasters since a carrier can provide a self-generating supply of fresh water, medical assistance or engineering expertise to populations in need for assistance.
Evolution of INS Vikrant
In August 2006, then-Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash stated that the designation for the vessel had been changed from ADS to Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC). The euphemistic ADS had been adopted at the planning stages to ward off concerns about a naval build-up. Final revisions to the design increased the displacement of the carrier from 37,500 tonnes to over 40,000 tonnes. The length of the ship also increased from 252 m to 262 m.
Vikrant is powered by four General Electric LM2500+ gas turbines on two shafts, generating over 80 megawatts (110,000 hp) of power. The gearboxes for the carriers were designed and supplied by Elecon Engineering.
Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division developed the ship's combat management system (CMS) in collaboration with Weapon and Electronics System Engineering Establishment and MARS, Russia. It is the first CMS developed by a private company for the Indian Navy and was handed over to the Navy on 28 March 2019.
What fighter aircraft and helicopters INS Vikrant can carry
INS Vikrant features a Stobar configuration with a ski jump. India considered a number of aircraft for operation from its aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya and the planned indigenous aircraft carrier. India evaluated the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 but chose the lighter MiG-29K as Vikramaditya was smaller and lacked an aircraft catapult.
On 18 January 2010, around the middle of the Congress regime, India and Russia were close to signing a deal for 29 MiG-29K fighters to operate from IAC-1. In addition, the navy signed a deal for six naval variants of the indigenous HAL Tejas.
In June 2012, which was still during the UPA government, the Indian Navy was considering the use of the Dassault Rafale M (Naval variant) on these carriers.
During the ongoing Narendra Modi era, in December 2016, the navy announced that the HAL Tejas was overweight for carrier operations, and other alternatives would be looked at. The navy settled with MiG-29K as the primary aircraft for the IAC-1.
In late January 2017, the Indian Navy released an international Request for Information (RFI) for 57 "Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters". The main contest was between the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Dassault Rafale-M. Both these aircraft are operable on the Vikrant and Vikramaditya.
In December 2020, Boeing demonstrated F/A-18E/F operations from Indian carriers at the shore-based test facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, US.
In mid-2020, the navy announced that it was seeking 36 fighters instead of the initial 57 proposed due to budgetary constraints.
After the HAL Tejas and the Tejas Mk2 were considered overweight for carrier operations, the Defence Research and Development Organisation introduced a program to develop a twin-engine, carrier-based, multirole combat aircraft called the HAL Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) for the Indian Navy. A model of the aircraft was displayed at Aero India 2021. The first flight is expected in 2026 with induction into the forces by 2032. The TEDBF is expected to perform multiple roles like combat air patrol, air-to-air combat, anti-ship strike and buddy refuelling.
The TEDBF has also been envisioned to operate from the INS Vikrant, INS Vikramaditya and the future aircraft carrier INS Vishal.
On 6 January this year, the Indian Navy started testing the Rafale-M for operations from INS Vikrant at the shore-based test facility at INS Hansa in Goa. Some reports citing the same also indicated that the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet would be tested at the same locale in March.
Construction during BJP and INC governments
Contributions by PSUs and private sector companies
Vikrant is the first aircraft carrier to be designed by the Directorate of Naval Design of the Indian Navy and the first warship to be built by Cochin Shipyard. Its construction involved the participation of a large number of private and public firms.
The Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) and Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) created facilities to manufacture the DMR 249 grade steel in India.
Reportedly, 26,000 tonnes of three types of special steel for the hull, flight deck and floor compartments were manufactured at the Bokaro Steel Plant, Jharkhand, Bhilai Steel Plant, Chhattisgarh and Rourkela Steel Plant, Odisha. Due to this, Vikrant is the first ship of the Indian Navy to be built completely using domestically produced steel.
The main switchboard, steering gear and watertight hatches have been manufactured by Larsen & Toubro in Mumbai and Talegaon; high-capacity air conditioning and refrigeration systems have been manufactured in Kirloskar Group's plants in Pune; most pumps have been supplied by Best and Crompton; Bharat Heavy Electricals (BHEL) supplied the Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS), which is being installed by Avio, an Italian company; the gearbox was supplied by Elecon Engineering and the electrical cables are being supplied by Nicco Industries.
Fincantieri provided consultancy for the propulsion package while Russia's Nevskoye Design Bureau designed the aviation complex.
The keel for Vikrant was laid by Defence Minister AK Antony at the Cochin Shipyard on 28 February 2009.
The ship uses modular construction, with 874 blocks joined for the hull. By the time the keel was laid, 423 blocks weighing over 8,000 tonnes had been completed.
In August 2011, the Ministry of Defence reported to the Lok Sabha that 75% of the construction work for the hull of the lead carrier had been completed and the carrier would be first launched in December 2011, following which further works would be completed until commissioning.
On 29 December 2011, the completed hull of the carrier was first floated out of its dry dock at CSL, with its displacement at over 14,000 tonnes. Interior works and fittings on the hull were carried out until the second half of 2012 when it was again dry-docked for integration with its propulsion and power generation systems.
By late 2012, work commenced for the next construction stage, which included installing the integrated propulsion system, the superstructure, the upper decks, the cabling, sensors and weapons.
Harbour, sea trials; completion, commissioning
On 31 October 2019, Cochin Shipyard received a ₹3,000 crore (equivalent to Rs 32 billion in 2020) contract for Phase III of the project. This contract included funds for the harbour trials, sea trials and support for the ship during its weapons and aviation trials after its delivery.
In December 2019, it was reported the engines had been switched on. By September 2020, Vikrant had completed harbour trials while the basin trials started in October 2020 to check propulsion, electric transmission and shafting systems. On 30 November 2020, the basin trials were completed, paving the way for sea trials, the final phase of the IAC-I project.
In April last year, work had begun to integrate the long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) onboard Vikrant. On 15 June 2021, Vikrant was moved to the Ernakulam Wharf in Kochi, Kerala.
On 4 August 2021, sea trials finally began. The first phase of the sea trials was successfully completed on 8 August 2021. The second phase of the trials was conducted on 24 October 2021, followed by the third phase from 9-17 January 2022, both of which were completed successfully. On 10 July, the fourth and final phase of the sea trials was successfully completed. This phase involved integrated trials of most of the equipment and systems aboard Vikrant, including portions of the Aviation Facilities Complex.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned INS Vikrant today in a grand ceremony at Cochin Shipyard.
Earlier, INS Vikrant had been delivered to the Indian Navy on 28 July.
Flight trials of its aircraft complement are expected to be completed by mid-2023, after which the ship will be fully operational.
In March 2020, it was revealed that after its commissioning, the Navy will deploy Vikrant at Larsen & Toubro's shipyard in Kattupalli near Chennai. This was done as the planned naval base in Rambilli near Vishakhapatnam was not ready yet. The navy wants to lease a 260 m berth at Kattupalli shipyard for 8 years between 2022 and 2030 for interim berthing of the ship, by which time the naval base at Rambilli is expected to be available.
Indian Navy drops vestige of colonial era
In his address to the nation this Independence Day, Prime Minister Modi had said that his government would endeavour to identify vestiges of ghulami (slavery) in everyday life and governance and weed them out. He said, "Quite often, we do not realise, even I do not realise, what signs of slavery we carry." The indigenous INS Vikrant as well as the change in the Indian Navy ensign, therefore, can be seen as fulfilling his vision of weeding out colonialism as much as it is about Atmanirbhar Bharat or Make-in-India.
(Above) The Indian Navy ensign now
"The octagonal shape with twin golden borders draws inspiration from the seal of the great Indian emperor, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, whose visionary maritime outlook established a credible naval fleet," the navy said in a video showcasing the new ensign.
The above was the Indian Navy’s 2001 ensign, which was abandoned in 2004
The navy said the blue octagonal shape represents the eight directions symbolising the Indian Navy's multidirectional reach and multidimensional operational capability. The anchor symbol represents "steadfastness", the navy said.
The above ensign was in use between 2004 and yesterday
"Till today the Indian naval flags carried a sign of slavery, which has been replaced with a new one inspired by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said before he commissioned INS Vikrant. The old ensign had the red Saint George's Cross, linked to India's colonial past.
The St George's cross that used to be carried in some part of the navy ensign until yesterday was a 70-year-old practice.
The Indian Navy called its new ensign a "step towards liberating the mind".
Shivaji, pioneer of Indian Navy
In the 1650s, Chhatrapati Shivaji realised the strategic importance of the Indian coastline, which today extends over 7,000 km. Since Indian rulers after the Chola dynasty ignored these coastlines, foreigners like the Portuguese and British, who had begun arriving in the 17th century, began controlling what was an entry point into the Indian mainland.
While Shivaji's technology was primitive, so was that of foreigners, the Maratha ruler studied the latter's ways of building big boats and ships. At the peak of his rule, Shivaji not only had sea forts to defend the shores and control coastlines that extended through Konkan but also a fleet of over 50 ships that employed over 10,000 sailors.
While he began working on his navy in the late 1650s, in two decades, Shivaji managed to raise a massive fleet before he was crowned king in 1674.
However, as Chhatrapati Shivaji developed naval technology and weaponry, his advances raised concerns among the Mughal hierarchy. They were worried he could use waterways to reach land territories amid his already successful conquests.
In 1664, Shivaji sacked the port of Surat, which was then run by Mughal captain Inayat Khan. Meanwhile, he noticed the growing control of the Dutch on the Malabar coast and the Portuguese over Goa who was beginning to monopolise the trade. Shivaji planned to extend his conquests over the Konkan coastal belt.
The part of India that is Karnataka now had key ports like Mirjan, Honnavar, Bhatkal and Bengaluru. They traded in spice and rice big-time. Shivaji's naval forces entered Karwar. While he could not establish dominance, he managed to raid several towns with his army in 1665. He also conquered Basrur with help from Konkanis, who wanted an end to European rule.
While Shivaji's navy was not fully institutionalized, it had defined structures that were commanded by an admiral rank officer. As the Maratha ruler continued building his fleet, he had a loose hierarchy in place at the time. Everything considered, Shivaji is the pioneer of the Indian navy.