India Conducted Dual Aircraft Carrier Drills For The First Time

The Milan 2024 exercise was also highly notable for the involvement of American, Iranian, and Russian warships.

byAngad Singh|
The Indian Navy’s two MiG-29K/KUB squadrons, INAS 300 “White Tigers” and INAS 303 “Black Panthers” embarked the carriers during Exercise Milan 2024.
Angad Singh


While the idea of the United States, Iran, and Russia all sending forces to take part in joint military maneuvers sounds like a fever dream, it became a reality last month, during an Indian Navy exercise — Milan 2024 — held in the Bay of Bengal. As well as this remarkable novelty, the drills also saw the Indian Navy’s first deployment of two operational short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) carriers and their embarked air wings, a measure of its growing ambitions as a blue-water force.

MiG-29Ks parked on the flight deck of INS Vikramaditya as exercise warships steam away toward Visakhapatnam after the conclusion of the sea phase. The nearest vessel is a Vietnam People’s Navy Pohang class corvette. Angad Singh

Milan, a Hindi word meaning ‘coming together’ or ‘confluence,’ is an apt name for the Indian Navy’s flagship multilateral exercise. Taking place more or less biennially since 1995, Milan has grown from a five-navy regional affair to a truly international event in recent years. Drawing on the Indian government’s regional maritime cooperation vision, SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region), and India’s G20 Presidency theme of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,’ which translates from Sanskrit as ‘the world is one family,’ the Indian Navy’s stated objective for Milan 2024 was “Camaraderie, Cohesion, Collaboration.”

The Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya seen through the cockpit of a Sea King 42C as it approaches to land. Angad Singh

The 2024 edition of Milan was the twelfth and largest yet, bringing in 51 naval delegations, 16 foreign vessels, and one foreign patrol aircraft (a French Atlantique 2). The Indian Air Force was also included for the first time, sending a detachment of HAL Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk 1 jets from No. 18 Squadron “Flying Bullets” to operate from INS Dega, the naval air station at Visakhapatnam on the Bay of Bengal.

A French Atlantique 2 from Flotille 23F and assigned to the French Indian Ocean Command (ALINDIEN) was the only foreign patrol aircraft at the exercise. Angad Singh
A MiG-29K is directed onto the hydraulic restraining gear on INS Vikramaditya’s flight deck to make ready for launch. Angad Singh

Significantly, the exercise included a diverse set of participants, some of which would seem extremely unlikely to the casual observer. Namely, the United States, Iran, and Russia all sent warships to operate alongside each other — the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Halsey, the Moudge class frigate IRIS Dena, and the Slava class cruiser Varyag, Udaloy class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, and Boris Chilikin class tanker Boris Butoma respectively.

The willing attendance of these ostensible rivals highlights not only the Indian Navy’s broad-ranging international cooperation but also its eagerness to be seen as a partner for countries around the world, irrespective of divergent foreign policies.

An ALH Mk 3 hovering over the flight deck of Vikrant with an Indian Navy Delhi class destroyer and Austin class LPD INS Jalashwa visible in the background. Angad Singh

Hosted by the Eastern Naval Command at Visakhapatnam, the exercise ran for nine days, divided into a five-day shore phase from February 21-23, involving subject matter exchanges, procedural and area familiarization, and sporting and cultural activities, before culminating in an international city parade to showcase the camaraderie fostered among participating forces. The sea phase then put all this to the test over the next four days, from February 24-27.

The highlight of the sea phase was of course the Indian Navy’s maiden deployment of two operational carriers and their air wings. INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Russian Navy’s Admiral Gorshkov) is a 10-year veteran of these waters, but Milan was the first major international exercise for the Indian-designed and built INS Vikrant.

INS Vikrant at anchor, with a Sea King 42C about to land, shot from another Sea King 42C headed for the flight deck. Angad Singh

The new carrier began at-sea trials back in August 2021, as you can read more about here, and was commissioned only 18 months ago. After that, it embarked its first Indian-made fighter jet in February 2023, although there are no plans for the HAL Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Navy version to be used in an operational context aboard the warship.

INS Vikrant and Vikramaditya are equipped for short take-off but arrested recovery or STOBAR operations. This means the warships lack catapults. Instead, they launch fixed-wing aircraft off a ‘ski-jump’ ramp over the bow, before recovering them using arrester wires.

A MiG-29K approaches the flight deck of INS Vikramaditya on its way to a perfect middle-wire trap. Angad Singh

The Indian Navy’s two MiG-29K/KUB squadrons, INAS 300 “White Tigers” and INAS 303 “Black Panthers” embarked the carriers alongside the usual gamut of helicopters — venerable HAL Chetaks (Indian-made Alouette IIIs) and Westland Sea Kings operated alongside Kamov Ka-31 Helix airborne early warning helicopters, indigenous HAL Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Mk 3s, and the Indian Navy’s newest rotorcraft, the Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk. Procurement of the last type reflects the Indian military’s growing willingness to acquire military aircraft from the United States, with the Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft indicative of the same trend.

A MiG-29K coming in for a missed approach on INS Vikramaditya. Angad Singh
Helicopter operations on INS Vikrant — an ALH Mk 3 is ‘hot refueled’ as a Sea King 42C lands. This Sea King, IN531, is one of the Indian Navy’s Mk 42B ASW helicopters converted to the utility Mk42C configuration. Angad Singh
A HAL Chetak being secured on the flight deck of Vikramaditya. Angad Singh

The Indian Navy also debuted a common satellite communication network at the exercise called NISHAR (Network for Information SHARing). NISHAR terminals called Mitra (‘Friend’) were distributed across all ships to ensure seamless integration of forces at sea as they practiced everything from underway replenishment and basic gunnery to advanced coordinated anti-submarine, anti-surface, and air defense operations.

“That we could do all this safely and smoothly is proof of the value of exercises like Milan,” noted a senior Indian Navy commodore as the exercise concluded aboard the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant on February 27.

The closing day of the exercise also saw an operational demonstration aboard INS Vikramaditya, with a single MiG-29K carrying out a launch, display, overshoot, and landing cycle, and a Chetak plane-guard helicopter conducting a mock search and rescue (SAR) drill off the port bow.

HAL Chetak IN455 conducts a SAR winching demonstration alongside INS Vikramaditya. Angad Singh

The carrier then joined the rest of the flotilla at anchorage off Visakhapatnam, and INS Vikrant hosted a range of helicopter operations, including ‘hot refueling’ of an ALH Mk 3 on the flight deck.

Having two aircraft carriers exercise together reflects India’s growing naval aviation ambitions. As well as having decided to buy the Dassault Rafale M as its new carrier-based fighter, India has a highly ambitious plan to develop its own Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter, or TEDBF, and plans for other new carriers are well advanced.

INS Vishal is planned to be significantly bigger than the Vikrant, at around 65,000 tons, compared to 40,000 tons for the earlier warship. It should feature a catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) arrangement, and may make use of an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) after the United States approved the transfer of this technology to India.

As well as the more advanced INS Vishal, late last year it emerged that the Indian Navy was also considering ordering another carrier to the same specifications as INS Vikrant.

The MiG-29K releases the arresting cable and folds its wings to clear the landing area as quickly as possible. Angad Singh

The new carrier and plans for a domestically developed fighter to operate from it are hugely challenging endeavors, especially if they are to be realized by the 2030s, as plans call for. After all, even the less-ambitious Vikrant suffered a string of major delays and cost overruns. Currently, only France and the United States have CATOBAR-configured carriers in service, while China — India’s great regional rival — is still working on achieving the same.

However, Milan 2024 demonstrates that the Indian Navy is rapidly developing its carrier capabilities, with a clear focus on increasing self-sufficiency in this critical area. Certainly, it will be interesting to watch the next steps in the Indian carrier saga.

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