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India’s new flagship: Russia hands over modernized aircraft carrier to New Delhi

The Indian Navy has received the 44,500-ton Vikramaditya aircraft carrier at the Russian shipbuilding complex in Severodvinsk. The much awaited carrier was fully refurbished for US$2.3 billion, and will now become India’s game-changing flagship.

Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Indian Defense Minister AK Antony attended the handing over ceremony at the Sevmash shipyard of the northern Arctic port city, along with other senior government and naval officials of the two countries.

During the ceremony, a Russian flag on the vessel was lowered, and the flag of the Indian Navy was raised in its place. This was followed by a traditional Indian ritual, in which a coconut was smashed against the ship’s side. The ship’s new captain, Suraj Berry, and the deputy director of Russia’s arms export agency Rosoboronexport, Igor Sevastyanov, signed the final handover papers.

Rogozin called the carrier “a mighty contribution to security of India,” adding that India remains a privileged strategic partner of Russia. The ceremony comes just two days ahead of the meeting of the Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on military-technical cooperation.

The aircraft carrier "Vikramaditya" of the Indian Navy (former Northern Fleet aircraft carrier "Admiral Gorshkov"), which was repaired and re-equipped at the OAO "PO Sevmash".(RIA Novosti / Sergey Mamontov)

Originally commissioned in 1987 as a Soviet Kiev-class aircraft carrier, the ship was deemed too costly for the Russian military budget and was deactivated in 1996. The aircraft carrier - then called ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ - caught India’s attention, and, following years of talks, a Russian-Indian deal for the ship was signed.

In order to match the demands of the Indian Navy, the carrier had to be fully modernized and converted from a hybrid carrier/cruiser to a pure carrier with a ski-jump ramp to fit multirole MiG-29K (Fulcrum-D) fighters.

The refurbishment work, which eventually saw over 70 percent of the ship and equipment replaced, was overshadowed by several delays and cost increases, leading to a diplomatic exchange and tightening of supervision. It became apparent in the process that the Russian shipbuilders underestimated the cabling work costs, and the initial $974 million price tag grew to about $2.35 billion. Some construction flaws also had to be fixed following the 2012 tests.

The purchase of INS Vikramaditya has been crucial for the Indian Navy, as its British-made INS Viraat, originally commissioned by the UK’s Royal Navy in 1959 as HMS Hermes, has been scheduled for retirement. India’s first indigenous Vikrant-class aircraft carrier has also been experiencing delays. It was launched two years behind schedule in August, with the expected service entry date being 2018.

Now that Vikramaditya is set to be escorted from Russia’s north to the Indian Ocean, India becomes one of the few nations in the world to have more than one aircraft carrier in service - the others being the US, the UK, and Italy. With two ships of that class, India will have the capability to promptly project force on both sides of the Hindustan Peninsula in the increasingly militarized region. Previously, India’s retired carrier INS Vikrant played a key role in enforcing the naval blockade on East Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.

INS Vikramaditya at a Russian shipbuilding yard in Severodvinsk.(RIA Novosti / Sergey Mamontov)

As for Russia, which currently has one aircraft carrier (Admiral Kuznetsov), it has “no need for [another] ship of the same class,” Rogozin said on Saturday. Calling the fact of having more aircraft carriers “a geopolitical issue,” the Russian deputy prime minister stressed it is “not the issue of the country’s defense capability.” Meanwhile, Russia awaits the delivery of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers from France.

The new Indian flagship was redesigned by Russian shipbuilders to carry 16 MiG-29K fighters and up to 10 Ka-27 and Ka-31 helicopter gunships. With the ship’s length being 284 meters and her beam nearly 60 meters, INS Vikramaditya stretches to an area as large as three football fields and has 22 decks for housing more than 1,600 crew members. It has been estimated that the ship can operate up to 45 days without replenishment, while having the capability to cover 1,400 kilometers a day and maintaining a “surveillance bubble” of a 500 kilometer radius.