BANGALORE, India, May 17 (UPI) -- India has commissioned the navy's first squadron of 16 MiG-29K fighters to be operated from a forthcoming aircraft carrier.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony officiated at the commissioning ceremony of the fighters at the Indian Naval Air Station Hansa, near Dablom, from where the new Black Panther squadron will operate temporarily.
The first four of the 16 MiG-29Ks in the new squadron were inducted three years ago.
The navy plans to have the squadron fly from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya -- formerly the Kiev class Gorshkov -- when the vessel is commissioned in December, a report by The Hindustan Times newspaper said.
The squadron is operating from the shore-based test facility at Hansa until the 45,000-ton Vikramaditya finishes a refit at the Sevmash shipyard in Russia.
India signed a $2.3 billion Gorshkov-Vikramaditya deal that covers the 16 planes, refit of the carrier, six Kamov-31 helicopters, cost of training pilots, simulators and spares, The Hindustan Times said.
To help train and maintain the MiG pilots' skills, the navy has set up mock aircraft landing facility at the Dablom airbase, including a ski-jump take-off area and arrestor wires to catch the planes as they land on the ground.
The navy also plans to deploy three MiG maritime fighters -- 29 more are on order at a cost of $1.2 billion -- on an aircraft carrier under construction at the Indian state-owned Cochin Shipyard, The Hindustan Times report said.
The indigenous aircraft carrier likely will be inducted in the next four to five years while the navy retires its sole aircraft carrier INS Viraat within two years after more than 50 years in service.
The Centaur class Viraat was commissioned originally into the British navy as the Hermes in 1959 before India acquired it in 1987.
The Viraat normally carries up to 18 British Aerospace Sea Harrier fighters and supports amphibious operations and anti-submarine warfare.
Arrival of the Vikramaditya will end a controversial deal signed with Russia in 2004.
The ship was laid down in 1978 at Nikolayev South shipyard in Ukraine, launched in 1982 and commissioned in 1987.
Russia laid up the vessel for a year after a boiler room explosion in 1994 and put it up for sale in 1996, but the deal with India has been dogged by problems.
There were delays to refits and tussles with India over the price. The vessel then failed its sea trials in September and a new delivery date was arranged for the end of this year.
India also is in the process of phasing out its dreaded MiG-21 fighter jets -- nicknamed "the flying coffin" -- by next year.
Pilots, former pilots and families of pilots who have died in MiG-21 crashes had been pressing the government for years to scrap the aircraft.
India's air force bought 946 of the single-engine aircraft, many of them made in India under license, in the past 45 years but 476 have been lost in accidents, many fatal.