Defence minister AK Antony on Saturday commissioned the navy’s first squadron of Russia-built MiG-29K maritime fighters, laying the groundwork for the induction of aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly Gorshkov) in December this year.
The 16 fighters in the newly-raised Black Panthers squadron will operate from ashore till such time as the 45,000-tonne carrier - currently being refurbished at Sevmash shipyard in Russia - arrives.
The navy also plans to deploy these maritime fighters - 29 more have been ordered - on the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) being built at the state-owned Cochin Shipyard.
The IAC is likely to be inducted in the next four to five years, as part of the navy’s plans to deploy two aircraft carrier strike groups by 2018. India’s sole aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, is expected to retire in the next two years.
The first four of the 16 MiG-29Ks in the new squadron were inducted three years back.
The fighter planes are a part of the $2.3 billion Gorshkov deal, covering the refit of the carrier, six Kamov-31 helicopters, cost of training pilots,
simulators and spares. India has placed a follow-on order to buy 29 more MiG-29K fighters worth $1.2 billion.
The navy has created an aircraft carrier setting on the ground to operate these fighters, which use the ski jump to take off and are recovered by arrestor wires on a carrier or STOBAR (short takeoff but arrested recovery) in navy parlance.
The shore-based test facility (SBTF) at the naval airbase at Dablom, Goa will also serve as a platform for carrying out carrier compatibility tests for the light combat aircraft’s navy variant, which will also be embarked on the homegrown IAC. Ukraine is the only other country in the world that has such a facility.
Indian naval aviators have acquired deck-landing qualifications on a US aircraft carrier on T-45 Goshawk trainers.
Carrier strike groups will a country the capability to project maritime power thousands of miles away from its shores. Such groups are escorted by destroyers, frigates, submarines and supply vessels.