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Russia delays delivery of aircraft carrier to India

By Narendra Kaushik
Delivery of the INS Vikramaditya [formerly the Admiral Gorshkov, a Soviet-era aircraft carrier purchased by India] has been delayed until 2013. [Reuters]

Delivery of the INS Vikramaditya [formerly the Admiral Gorshkov, a Soviet-era aircraft carrier purchased by India] has been delayed until 2013. [Reuters]

Russia’s delivery delay on a $2.3 billion aircraft carrier may prove a setback to India’s emergent “blue-water navy” strategy and in turn could affect a November state visit scheduled in New Delhi.

The INS Vikramaditya, a modified 44,570-ton Kiev class aircraft carrier built in 1982, was to be delivered to India on Dec. 4. However, the ship’s boiler malfunctions and other technical difficulties have pushed back the expected delivery just under a year. Formerly known as the Admiral Gorshkov, the Russian modified Kiev class ship was rechristened following its 2004 sale to India for conversion into a short take-off but arrested recovery [STOBAR] carrier.

India is the second-largest market for the Russia defense industry, according to analysts. In 2004, more than 70 percent of the Indian military’s hardware came from Russia, making Russia the chief supplier of India’s defense equipment.

New Delhi and Moscow military officials have plans to launch high-level strategic dialogues in October as a precursor to the state visit.

A delegation of top level officials from the Indian Navy will travel to Russia to hold discussions with their counterparts. Though the discussion is said to be a routine annual meeting, the focus could turn out to be a review of the INS Vikramaditya, which has seen time and cost overruns in the past eight years.

Ship could affect defense deals

The naval officials meeting would be followed by the Russian-Indian Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation, scheduled in New Delhi the same month.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov will visit India to discuss defense deals, according to Nana Mgeladze, press secretary in the Russian Embassy in New Delhi. Without divulging specifics, she claims “there is a big list of agreements which would be on table.”

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh plans to host Russian President Vladimir Putin in November, according to Indian diplomats.

Observers speculate that Russia may attempt to make the most of Putin’s trip and sign as many defense deals as possible. Though in recent years New Delhi has veered toward the United States, India continues to account for 50 percent of Moscow’s arms sales.

But all indications are that Russia might not find it easy to ratchet up the defense trade unless it provided some concessions for Gorshkov.

Over the years, both countries have clashed over the cost escalations and delays. The 30-year-old ship was to be delivered in 2008. It was a presumed “freebee” initially to be delivered with 16 MIG-29 fighters, provided India paid for the ship’s renovation. In 2004, Russia raised the renovation cost from $947 million to $2.3 billion, despite India’s protestations. India has since paid $2 billion in advance for the ship.

Will India get damages?

Defense officials and the media have challenged the Indian government over the deal. Retired India Military Commodore Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, former director of Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses [IDSA], expects the Indian government to seek compensation for the delay and cost escalations.

“I do hope, they learn the right lessons from the deal,” Bhaskar said, blaming “monitoring inadequacies and institutional incompetence” of the two governments for the delay in delivery and cost overrun.

Another defense expert, retired Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta, said the failure of Gorshkov is a reflection of Russia’s unreliability as a weapon’s supplier.

“In terms of technology, Russian weapons are not the same class [as they would be when the Soviet Union was in existence],” Mehta said. “Besides, Russians are not trading with us in Rupee-Ruble terms. India must reconsider its overreliance on Russia.

Andrei Dyachkov, president of United Shipbuilding Corp. in Russia admits the drop in quality of weapons.

“The fact that our quality is suffering -- this really is a problem,” says Dyachkov, quoted in the RIA Novosti, the state news agency in Russia. Russia may be aware of the anger the Gorshkov failure has generated in the Indian defense community as it seems to be working on offering concessions on the warship. Novosti reported Dyachkov saying proposals were on the table that would compensate India for Gorshkov’s failure.

An announcement could be made during the President Vladimir Putin’s state visit, sources told defenseworld.net.

The trigger

Recently, Russian language newspapers Kommersant and Izvestia reported that the ship’s boilers developed snags during a trial in the Barents Sea. Subsequently Agence France-Presse reported in September from Moscow that the warship’s handover would be delayed by nine months. The agency said three of the eight boilers of the ship overheated during the testing. The sea trials at high speed [28 knots] also showed problems in the ship’s refrigerators and nitrogen generators.

The Russians have unofficially blamed the absence of asbestos generally used for heat protection as the cause of the breakdown of boilers. Instead of asbestos, brick insulation was used as Indian officials considered asbestos coating to be a potential health hazard. Many defense officials in India think Russia’s fire brick asbestos argument could be a ploy to increase the price further.

The replacement of the damaged boilers is estimated at $30 million and would require the ship’s transfer to Sevmash shipyard, where it was upgraded earlier.

The steam-propelled ship was laid down in Ukraine in 1978. Commissioned by the Russian Navy in 1982, the vessel initially was called Baku, after a city in Azerbaijan, but was renamed Gorshkov after Azerbaijan separated from the Soviet Union.

Ironically, one of the boilers of the ship exploded in 1994, killing six people on board and forcing Russia to withdraw the ship from service. It returned to operation in 1995, but was taken out of commission a year later because it was too costly to operate. India entered into negotiations for its purchase around this time.

Former Indian Naval Chief and first Chief of Defense Staff [CDS] Admiral Sushil Kumar, who retired as naval chief in December 2001, says at least three of his successors were involved in negotiations for the warship.

“Three Chiefs batted for it and the deal was possibly signed during Admiral Arun Prakash’s tenure [July 2004 to October 2006],” Kumar said in a telephone interview. When asked why India entered into the deal despite Indian Navy’s technicians having expressed reservations about the warship’s boilers after an inspection, Kumar responded: ‘We’ve nothing except Viraat,” referring to India’s sole aircraft carrier.

INS Vikramaditya has been under trial for several months. A group of 500 Indian sailors have been on board for one year to observe the trials. The ship is believed to have already experienced a MIG-29 landing.

Setback to Indian Navy

Because India has only one aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, and needed two additional carriers, the Indian government proceeded with the deal. India needs one aircraft carrier each for its Eastern and Western flanks. Every carrier goes into dock for maintenance every two years, so a third is needed for substitution.

Unfortunately for India, the delivery of INS Vikrant, the other aircraft carrier, which is being built indigenously, also will be delayed by two years. It was to be delivered in 2015. In a conference in August, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Nirmal Verma attributed the delay in delivery of INS Vikrant to a road accident that damaged the ships’ generators.


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