India's Aircraft Carrier Challenge
Image Credit: Wikicommons

India's Aircraft Carrier Challenge


Strategist Edward Luttwak likens warships to “black boxes” during peacetime strategic competition. Without peering inside, outsiders have a hard time judging how well designed, maintained, and operated a ship is. Combat clarifies a ship’s fitness by the most stringent standard possible, but battles are infrequent. The U.S. Navy’s last major fleet engagement, for example, took place at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Absent that severe test, observers are forced to infer the state of things within the black box. Yet navies—like all big institutions—have defensive instincts. Few naval officials relish advertising ships’ or crews’ shortcomings. Such disclosures tarnish an institution’s reputation with domestic constituents and foreign audiences. In short, it’s hard for outsiders to take the measure of a navy in peacetime. A heavy guesswork quotient prevails.

Dramatic events—fires, groundings, collisions at sea, engineering accidents—offer a rare glimpse inside the box. Seldom is the view encouraging. Exhibit A: engineering travails on board the Soviet-built aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. The flattop has undergone a major conversion since 2004, when New Delhi and Moscow inked a deal for the refit. It will join the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya. After repeated postponements, the transfer was slated for this December. Last month, however, the ship encountered major engineering problems during sea trials in the White Sea. The capacity to operate at full power for a specified period of time constitutes a key performance benchmark for propulsion plants. While details remain sketchy, the Gorshkov’s crew evidently had to take seven of eight boilers offline when they overheated during a full-power run. It appears the schedule will slipyet again, until—probably—sometime next year.

How long repairs will consume remains a matter of dispute. At fault was the insulation used to protect the boiler casings from the flames that burn within to generate steam. Indian officials rejected Russian proposals to use asbestos, which fell out of favor long ago owing to health hazards. Instead the boilers were lined with firebrick, long the standard in conventional steam-propelled U.S. warships. The bricks were evidently unable to withstand the heat generated when operating the boilers at full power. Accounts of the fault and likely repair timelines conflict. Some sources within the Russian shipbuilding industry indicated that the boilers will have to be replaced entirely—a major enterprise that would require cutting open the hull. If so, the ship’s delivery date will fall back another year or more.

Such estimates seem unduly dour. Unless the engineering watch team was asleep at the switch, they reduced the firing rate or shut down the boilers altogether when the problem appeared, and long before the heat could compromise the machinery’s structural integrity. In all likelihood, consequently, the shipyard can install new insulation without removing these massive pieces of gear. Betting against fresh setbacks to the Indian carrier program is typically a losing proposition. Still, I place my bet with the Russian boiler-design official who foretold a much shorter delay.

Who pays? is the other lingering question. The controversy took a comic turn late last month when Russian shipyard officials blamed imported, low-grade Chinese firebrick for the Gorshkov’s troubles. No less a personage than Defense Minister Yan Yujun rebutted the charges, maintaining that Chinese firms have “never” exported firebrick suitable for naval propulsion.

Engineering woes, questions about battle efficiency, diplomatic flare-ups—there’s clearly a reason navies like to keep their problems within black boxes. One hopes the Indian Navy affords this one close scrutiny as it nears service.

Haridas Ayyappan
January 7, 2014 at 22:31

I am happy and delighted by the progress being made by Indian Navy.Our navy has has become the Bulwark of our defence forces overtaking the Army and Air force which are are interested in imported weapons. Indian Navy has set an outstanding example by designing and building our own warships without relying on any other countries.Our country must be ever grateful to Russia which has stood solidly with us at times of great needs and helped our country to achieve this stature. Indian Navy should lead our country towards power and glory.

August 14, 2013 at 09:29

Sir, with all due respect while I agreee that India should concentrate on the betterment of the lives of its citizens it is also very impoortant to have a strong military to avoid being bullied by our neihjbors. Our two biggest threats today are our own neighbors. Though Pakistan is not of much consequence but China on the other hand is spending alot on its military and mordenizing it. We need a strong military because we dont want to end up like Tibet which was invaded by China. you must be aware that China has already started occupying land in the aksai chin area of ladakh. so there is no room for relaxation. No matter how civilized the world acts, it is still the survival of the fittest..

January 18, 2013 at 21:55

All the small countries should form the CONSORTIUM and build their own weapons for their defense so they are not taken advantage of by big bully nations. UN is a joke when it comes to stand against the big bullies.

January 7, 2013 at 19:08

Indians should realise that while the Russians may applear to be their trusted friends, they are also much closer to the Chinese, whom will become India's competitors.  The Chinese will likely get a full information  dump from Russia on this and any other ship they "help" the Indians build, and could even throw in some "secret" surprises to these craft that might better benefit the Chinese during an eventual confrontation..
Be careful when dealing with wolves.

Jagan Reddy
December 17, 2012 at 17:06

India is obsessed to become a super power. People and facilities can go to hell. No infrastructural development. There are no alternate routes too. From one part of the city to the main city you can only go once in a day. The traffic and absence of alternate routes or fast lanes make it impossible to move. India doen't care of all this. The few on the top just want to boast and show off with such expensive deadly toys. Is it helping the common man or woman? No. Then why these gigantic toys? Can we fight China? No. Can we swallow Pakistan like we swallowed Hyderabad or Kashmir or even Junagadh or Daman and Diu? No. Pakistan is nuclear armed and so is China. Are you going to fight America or Russia or England? No way. India is heading in all directions except  people helping matters. I hope the PM and the parlliament are reading this. Focus should shift to better the lives of the common Indians like us.

October 16, 2012 at 05:42

You are right and thats why India is already building its 3rd and 4th aircraft carrier. 90% of the upcoming Navy ships are under contruction in India only with 60% of indigenious content which is only increasing in the percentage.
Also India is developing its own fighter aircraft and attack helicopers. developing them is a very long process and every few countires have courage to even think of developing them. India is one of them.
Wtih time, Indian technology is maturing. India has a bright futuer we just have to be realistic about results.

October 15, 2012 at 05:55

Answer to your question is that India needs 3 aircraft carriers (in operation) in next 10 years. 1 is already under operation, 1 under trial and 1 under contruction. This is required to provide security to the worlds most vital and heavily used sea lanes in Indian Ocean. 
Also, with second fastest growing major economy of this world, India has every reason to build powerful defence force for protecting its territorial and economic interests and provide stability in the reason.
No country (except Pak or China for that matter and some ignorant trollers) has any issue with India's growing defence power.

October 15, 2012 at 02:06

I'll buy the argument about over-priced consignment goods. The second part is not pertinent – what makes you think that "poor people" have no right to national security? The assumption here is that an aircraft carrier is inherently a weapon of expansionism and power projection. The more worrying lacuna in India is the lack of an indigenous manufacturing base for critical equipment such as aircraft carriers. Making one's own aircraft carrier/attack helicopters/fighter jets not only teaches the workforce valuable skills, it also keeps the country safe from blackmail and dependency in defense procurement.

October 14, 2012 at 23:44

1. Any mothballed soviet A/C is better than the junk of a carrier that we're operating at present.
2. The original cost estimates of the deal (around 700-800 million $) made some sense. Later, when the costs jacked up, we were too deep in it to pull out.
3. Please quote an Asian country that isn't spending 2.5% of it's GDP on defence.
(But I won't deny that our Himalayan egos and desire for global superstardom are definitely a hindrance to our societal development)

October 14, 2012 at 10:06

I would question why India would even want a second hand Russian carrier. First, the overall design and performance was second rate, even even new. Don't you think that there are a host of reasons that the Russians mothballed these barges? Second, with a huge population of some of the poorest people on earth, why wouldn't the Indians start taking care of internal social issues rather than go on a military adventure focused on ego? For a military point of view, they are buying a very expensive "target" from Uncle Ivan's Used Naval Shipvard. Hope they get a good warrentee.

October 12, 2012 at 11:38

@John Chan:
Mate, what is it with you and trolling? Every post of yours seems to be a masterpeice in itself. You are every trollophile's delight!  :)
Btw, good luck with that floating casino of yours…

October 11, 2012 at 13:28

India is trying to play both Russia and the U.S; trying to extract as much benefits as it can from both sides.
Meanwhile India is building up its navy to dominate the Indian Ocean.
How the Indian Navy can dominate the Indian Ocean
U.S efforts to build up India in order to contain China may back fire in the end. 

October 10, 2012 at 05:51

India has changed aligiance from Russia to USA. There is no need for Russian shipbuilders to look after Indian interests now.

John Chan
October 9, 2012 at 23:02

Asbestos only can be used for external insulation for boilers, therefore the bricks used to replace the asbestos must be on the outside of the boiler, and will not face flame directly.
The modern boilers use oil as fuel, turning off oil supply can shut down fire instantly, the only way the boilers can be burnt down is indeed not only “the engineering watch team was asleep at the switch,” the whole Indian inspection team was asleep at the switch too, it seems the Indian just signs off subsystems without testing at all.
Though teasing the Russian blaming Chinese firebrick comical is one thing, but both Russian and Indian have ambition in Asia-Pacific, the boiler incident makes one wondered do they have the right black boxes to support their oversized ambition? Or are their ships a Second Pacific Squadron in replay?

October 9, 2012 at 02:54

India is building two Vikrant class aircraft carriers as well, I'll like to see some analysis on those as well.
Vikrant class aircraft carrier

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