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INS Vikramaditya: All at sea

Sushant SinghThe best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!” Indian Navy would feel that Robert Burns had penned these lines for its current problems with aircraft carriers. Forget the plans to have three aircraft carriers in its fleet, the Navy will be left with no carrier between November and March 2013 as INS Viraat heads for a major refit to Cochin shipyard.

INS Viraat is a 1953 vintage British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, which was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1987. It was deployed for over six months as the flagship of the western fleet during the military deployment after the terror attack on Indian Parliament in 2001. The navy is now left with just 10 Sea Harrier fighters and two Sea Harrier training jets on INS Viraat, which have also crossed their estimated life.

INS Viraat
Still in service: INS Viraat will be kept in service till 2018, completing 58 years in the Navy

After the current refit, India is likely to keep INS Viraat in service until 2018, after its first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier is inducted into service in 2017. By then, INS Viraat would have completed 58 years of service, well over twice its initially estimated sailing life of 25 years. Only the ingenuity of Indian engineers has prolonged the ship’s life. But the Navy has to keep INS Viraat afloat so that it doesn’t lose out on carrier experience.

What about INS Vikramaditya aka Admiral Gorshkov? Wasn’t it supposed to replace INS Viraat? INS Vikramaditya was originally supposed to join the Indian Navy in August 2008, and INS Viraat would then retire in 2009. That was the plan. Tortured negotiations and delayed delivery timelines quickly pushed delivery of the Vikramaditya back to 2010, and then to 2012 (now, even later). Russia’s asking price meanwhile more than doubled. Although the aircraft carrier was free, the 2004 contract for refurbishment of the carrier was for $947 million; the final cost is now estimated to be around $2.9 billion. India has also started taking delivery of 45 MiG-29K naval fighter aircraft for the carriers from Russia, which cost an additional
$2.15 bn.

After the recent sea trials in White Sea where three of its eight boilers failed, the delivery of the carrier has been further delayed at least up to October 2013. The boiler lining, originally of asbestos, a health hazard, was changed to firebrick ceramics which led to boiler failure.
There is justifiable anger in India against another delay and many people would want the government to quash the deal. But there are good reasons why India will not go down that path.

One, India’s sunk costs and the loss of political face for the government if it were to cancel the agreement. Imagine an activist CAG commenting on the financial loss incurred by the government!

Two, aircraft carriers are not available off-the-shelf. If the Vikramaditya deal were to be cancelled, India will not be able to find a substitute carrier. The indigenous carrier is delayed and is expected to enter service in 2017.

Three, China is acquiring aircraft carriers and recently launched its first training carrier Liaoning. It has also publicised its plan to develop three task forces: to patrol the areas of Japan and Korea, the western Pacific, and the Strait of Malacca and Indian Ocean region. Indian Navy plans for three aircraft carriers to ensure that two always remain active — one each for the eastern and western fleets — while the third undergoes maintenance.

Four, Russia is still India’s leading arms supplier. In 2012, as per CAWAT, Russia will supply arms and military equipment worth $7.7 billion to India — about 60 per cent of Russia’s total arms exports and 80 per cent of India’s arms imports. Moreover, Russia has leased India the nuclear powered submarine Nerpa (Chakra) and provided not-so-secret help with the development of India’s own nuclear submarine, Arihant. These are not off-the-shelf technologies and no other country would be willing to share them with India. India and Russia have also jointly produced the BrahMos missile and are now collaborating on developing the FGFA fighter aircraft.

The Vikramaditya story is sadly symptomatic of the problems with both the Indian defence procurement and Russia’s defence industry. When Defence Minister AK Antony meets his Russian counterpart in Delhi later this month, he should demand that Russia deliver on its promises over INS Vikramaditya. Such ultimatums, however, should not impact the other areas of cooperation where Russian military expertise is still required by India.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review 

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