By Syed Nazakat in Delhi

Ahead of his last visit to India, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev got angry with the Sevmash Shipyard. He publicly scolded the Russian shipbuilder for delays in delivering the INS Vikramaditya, formerly the Admiral Gorshkov. Medvedev knew that India was tired of waiting for the 45,000-tonne aircraft-carrier.

While his two-day visit to Delhi this December was to better the bilateral relations, Moscow is aware that further delays in the INS Vikramaditya deal could be a setback to Russia-India defence ties and could sour future defence deals.

The original delivery date of August 2008 had been moved to late 2012. But given the work that must be completed before sea trials, Russia might not be able to deliver the warship even in 2012.

While the Indian defence ministry claims that the work on the warship is on schedule, the mooring trials are already delayed. The trails scheduled for November 2010 are unlikely to be held before mid-2011. A high-level Indian defence team will inspect the carrier in January 2011 to evaluate the progress of refurbishment.

The delay would not only raise the costs, but also leave the Indian Navy without an aircraft carrier for the first time since the 1960s. The ageing INS Viraat will be decommissioned in 2012 and India’s Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) would be ready for sea trials only in 2014. Navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma said the IAC could not be launched this year because of delays in supply of equipment.

“We do not expect the [Russian] aircraft carrier to be delivered to us by 2012 or early 2013,” said a senior defence official, who is in the know about the refitting.  “Simply because work on the warship is still behind schedule.”

THE WEEK learnt that the delay is not only because Sevmash underestimated the length of cabling (2,500km of wires), but also because of the additional work brought about by the redesign. A modified Kiev-class ship, the Admiral Gorshkov was designed to operate helicopters and other aircraft that take off and land vertically. But India wanted a carrier with Short Take Off But Assisted Recovery (STOBAR) configuration. STOBAR would make the hybrid carrier/cruiser a pure aircraft carrier.  

So all weaponry and missile launcher tubes were stripped from the ship’s foredeck. The 280m flight deck will have a runway 198m long and 24m wide, ideal for operating MiG-29K fighter jets. As per STOBAR requirements, the runway will feature three arrester wires. There will also be a 130m hangar below the deck. The extensive refitting and conversion have been more complex and expensive than first envisioned.

Indian defence ministry officials confirmed that the anti-aircraft missile module selected for the carrier failed the trials and the refurbishment was concluded without the missile system. That implies that the carrier would not have an inbuilt close-in weapon system which detects and destroys incoming missiles.

In June 2010, a Navy team led by Vice-Admiral N.N. Kumar, controller of warship production and acquisition, examined the carrier at Sevmash. The team reportedly found that there was substantial progress since the last examination in September 2009. But there were several delays in scheduled refit tasks.

Later, Kumar met a team of experts and designers from the JSC United Shipbuilding Corporation, JSC Sevmash, Nevskoye Planning & Design Bureau and Rosoboronexport. “We told them to increase the pace of work if they wanted to meet the 2012 deadline,” said a senior Navy officer. “The team found that almost 30 per cent of the cabling work was pending.”

The delay in structural work and cabling would further delay the trials. As per the extended deadline, the carrier should have been ready for sea trials now.  Then there is the issue of the delayed mooring trials. “Northern Russia winters are long and harsh. We have to wait till at least April 2011 for mooring trials,” said a senior Naval officer.

To avoid further delay, Sevmash wanted to hold only one trial, but the Navy was not in the favour of that. The sea trials are expected to take approximately 18 months. It was in the mid-1990s that Russia offered the warship as a ‘gift’ to India, linking the offer to its repairing and re-equipping. The acquisition of 16 MiG-29Ks was part of the package. The acquisition was approved in January 2004 and a total outlay of Rs 8,927 crore was sanctioned.

Russia agreed to repair and refit the deteriorating ship and deliver it by August 2008. When the ship was opened for upgradation, it was found that the cabling was completely damaged. Ten months before the scheduled date of delivery, in November 2007, Russia requested extension till 2012, and an increase in the contract cost. India, after three years of bitter wrangling with Russia, agreed to revise the refit cost to $2.33 billion, but linked the deal with 29 more MiG-29Ks for $1.46 billion in March 2010.

An important part of the deal is to train a 1,500-strong crew to repair and maintain the refurbished carrier. Till December 2010, only around 200 Indian specialists, comprising officers, sailors and civilian personnel, have been sent to Russia to monitor the work and train. A lot hinges on this carrier. The Navy plans to deploy two carrier-battle groups (CBGs) by 2015. The first CBG will be centred on Vikramaditya, and the second on the 40,000-tonne IAC, which is under construction at the Cochin Shipyard. Vikramaditya, with its MiG-29K squadron, would considerably enhance the firepower of the Indian Navy. It is a vital component of India’s global military strategy. But when will Vikramaditya join the Indian Navy? Only Russia knows.

 (THE WEEK, Dec 23)


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