by Ajai Shukla
INS Hansa, Goa
Business Standard, 12th May 13
With China conspicuously challenging India’s regional pre-eminence in aircraft carrier operations, the Indian Navy got a massive boost today with the commissioning of its first squadron of MiG-29K naval fighters.
Indian Naval Air Squadron 303 (INAS 303), nicknamed the Black Panthers, will operate 16 single-seat MiG-29K fighters, and four twin-seat MiG-29KUB aircraft. The twin-seat version is primarily meant for training pilots, but it also carries weapons and can be used in combat.
The Black Panther squadron, which Defence Minister A K Antony inaugurated today at the naval air base, INS Hansa in Goa, will operate from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov), which Russia is expected to finally deliver by December after four years of delay.
The Vikramaditya will operate from a giant new base that the navy is building for its western fleet at Karwar, just south of Goa. In developing the procedures and systems for operating the MiG-29K from the Vikramaditya — both new elements — the Navy will be drawing on half a century of invaluable experience in operating aircraft carriers.
A second squadron of MiG-29K fighters still remains to be delivered by Russia, which was earmarked for the first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) that Cochin Shipyards is expected to deliver by 2015. Today, the defence minister announced that the sea launch of IAC-1— which will be christened INS Vikrant — will take place in August this year. The Vikrant, which is also expected to field a squadron of the indigenous Naval Tejas fighter, will operate from the eastern coast of India.
The Navy currently makes do with a handful of obsolescent Sea Harrier fighters that are based on the INS Viraat, an aircraft carrier that served 25 years in the UK’s Royal Navy before completing another 25 in the Indian Navy. Graduating to flying the MiG-29K off the INS Vikramaditya would take the Navy into “an entirely different league”, says Admiral (Retd) Sureesh Mehta, a naval aviator who went on to head the Navy.
“The MiG-29K is heavier and faster than the Harrier and carries more weaponry. Its twin ‘marine-ised’ RD-33MK engines resist corrosion from the salty sea spray, and it goes up to twice the speed of sound (Mach-2). It operates at ranges that the Sea Harrier could not dream of, thanks to the MiG-29’s large fuel capacity and its capability to be refuelled mid-air,” says Mehta.
So potent are the new fighter’s range and weaponry that the Navy is modifying its doctrine for aircraft carrier operations. The Sea Harrier was able to defend the fleet from enemy aircraft, but its ability to attack ground targets was limited and it carried no anti-ship missiles, which had to be fired from the mother ship, the Viraat. In contrast, the MiG-29 can carry a mix of weaponry — two air-to-air missiles for shooting down enemy fighters, and also two potent Kh-35 anti-ship missiles. This will allow the Vikramaditya to launch MiG-29Ks to destroy enemy warships that are many hundred kilometres away.
“This is as good as any carrier-launched aircraft anywhere in the world,” says Captain Ajay Daniel Theophilus, the first commander of the Black Panthers.
Russia developed the MiG-29K according to design specifications that the Indian Navy developed for itself a decade ago. “Our concept proved so successful that the Russian Navy is also planning to induct the MiG-29K into its fleet,” says former naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash, himself a decorated fighter pilot.