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#1288, 4 February 2004
 
Flying the MiG-29K onto the Gorshkov
Wg Cdr R Sukumaran
 

A long delayed deal has now been inked. The Indian Navy is set to acquire the 44,900 tonne Admiral Gorshkov. It belongs to a class known in the former Soviet Navy as a helicopter cruiser.

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The Gorshkov will have a maximum speed of 30 knots and an operational range of 13,800 nautical miles (about 26,000 km) at 18 knots. It will have a ski-jump angled at 14.3 degrees, about two degrees steeper than the Viraatâ??s. The Gorshkov will carry a complement of 24 MiG-29K and six Ka-31 helicopters. A maximum of 34 aircraft can apparently be operated.

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The MiG-29K is essentially a development of the MiG-29SMT, a vastly improved version of the MiG-29, with increased internal fuel capacity and fly-by-wire controls.? It has been modified for carrier operations with strengthened undercarriage with the airframe lightened and clipped to occupy less hangar space than the standard MiG-29.? The wing-fold pivots have been moved inwards towards the fuselage and this together with the folding tail unit ensures that it occupies less the deck space. Eleven MiG-29s will be able to park on the deck. The rest will be housed in a hangar below the deck. The MiG-29s will carry the latest air to air missiles (AAMs), like the RVV-AE active AAM, the R-73 short range AAM and also a variety of air-to-surface armaments. It will have a pulse-Doppler radar and opto-electronic sensors, besides an active data-link.

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The MiG-29K will replace the Sea-Harrier, which the Indian Navy operates onboard the Viraat.? The Sea-Harriers will soon go out of service, unless they are upgraded to Sea-Harrier II standard. This seems unlikely since the aircraft is nearing the end of their service life.

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The Gorshkov will take about four to five years to become operational. There will be a period when both the Gorshkov and the Viraat are in operation, but each only will operate its own type of aircraft ? MiG-29s on the Gorshkov and Sea-Harriers on the Viraat. The Sea-Harriers would not be able to operate on the Gorshkov, since its ski-jump is too sharply angled and the undercarriage would not be able to take the strain of rotation. The MiG-29s would have difficulty operating from the Viraatâ??s short deck and it lacks the arresting gear necessary for the MiG-29K to land safely.? Aircraft carriers, like other ships, need maintenance. When the Gorshkov proceeds to refit, the MiG-29s will have to stay ashore, as there would be no ship available for them to operate from.

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In any case, the Gorshkov and the Viraat are the products of two entirely different ship-building philosophies. Their entire design approach and operational assumptions are qualitatively different. The equipment fit required to operate the two aircraft would also be radically different. No navy in the world operates ships as diverse as ours, but we would be hard put to operate Russian aircraft from Western carriers and vice-versa.

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The Sea-Harrier is a VSTOL aircraft. It takes off using the ski-jump and lands vertically on deck. The Viraat was specially modified with a ski-jump to enable the Harriers to take off using a shorter to enable them to carry a greater load. However, take-off on the ski-jump imposes great loads on the undercarriage and it therefore had to be strengthened, which was required for the Sea-Harrierâ??s predecessor, the Sea-Hawk, and the F-14 and F-18, that the US operates from its large carriers.

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The Gorshkov like the Viraat in its pre-Harrier incarnation will have arrester cables to grab the tail-hook that the MiG-29K will extend along with its undercarriage. Landing on a carrier is a tricky affair, whether vertically in a Harrier, or conventionally, on an F-14 or a MiG-29, more so on a dark night. Both require different skills. After the Indian Nay retired the Sea-Hawk, Indian naval pilots have only landed vertically. The art of engaging an arrester cable has therefore been lost and will have to be relearned. The other question is where the training will be done. The only Russian carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, rarely puts out to sea. Besides, the Russians do not operate the MiG-29K aboard this carrier, but the Su-33. Training on the MiG-29K, will therefore precede ab-initio for both countries.

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We reach the conclusion, that acquiring the Admiral Gorshkov was the easy part. Making it operationalising it will be much trickier. In view of the impending retirement of the Viraat, thought needs being given to its replacement by the so-called Air Defence ship. This should be able to operate aircraft of Western, Russian and possibly Indian origin, should the ship-borne variant of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) become available.

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