Naval Air: From CATOBAR To STOVL Then STOBAR And Back Again


August 3, 2013: Although India has been operating aircraft carriers for over half a century and is expanding its carrier force, it is facing a lack of experienced carrier personnel because it will, for a while, be operating three different aircraft handling systems. The earliest Indian carriers used the World War II era CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) system that is still widely used by the United States. India used this system until the 1980s, when it began switching to STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing). Now the Harrier STOVL jets are on their way out and being replaced by two new carriers that use the STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) system that substitutes a “ski jump” flight deck to replace the catapult. India is now looking into returning to CATOBAR for additional carriers it will build. CATOBAR allows aircraft to take off carrying more weight (of fuel or weapons) than STOBAR or STOVL. But that will mean deck crews and pilots will have to be trained to use what is now an unfamiliar system for Indian carrier sailors.

Meanwhile, there are other problems to deal with. A year ago India announced that its first locally designed and built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, will be at least three years late. This was not unexpected. The latest delay was caused, in large part, because the Indian firm hired to build a complex portion of the engine, the gearbox, proved incapable of the task and a foreign company had to be brought in. There have been many other problems. While construction began four years ago, it was soon delayed because Russia was late in supplying the high-grade steel needed for the hull. Then in late 2011, the Vikrant was floated out its dry dock early because the facility was needed for another project. Construction will go on, with pipes, conduits, and other fittings installed. Later in 2012 Vikrant returned to another dry dock to have its engines and other major equipment installed, although some of that equipment will be late because of problems with suppliers. Originally scheduled to enter service in 2014, the Vikrant is now expected to enter service in 2018, and cost about $5 billion.

Because of the increasing number of delays, this 40,000 ton vessel won't be ready for sea trials until 2017, at the earliest. The INS Vikrant has a ski-jump deck, like the INS Vikramaditya (a rebuilt Russian carrier that should be ready by early next year) and is designed to carry 29 jet fighters and 10 helicopters.

At the moment India's sole operational aircraft carrier is the 29,000 ton INS Viraat. It emerged from 18 months in a shipyard (for maintenance and upgrades) three years ago. This work could have been avoided by the timely arrival (four years ago) of the INS Vikramaditya (the refurbished Russian carrier Gorshkov). If that had happened, the INS Viraat would have been retired in 2012, after 53 years' service (for Britain and India). But now the INS Viraat, with its engine and hull refurbished, and its electronics upgraded, will probably serve for another decade. Thus by 2017, India should have three large carriers in operation and some bitter memories of their experience with the Russians over the rebuilt Gorshkov. Meanwhile, the INS Viraat, late of the Royal Navy, will carry on until at least 2017, and possibly 2020.



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