The Gorshkov deal

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

India and Russia sign on January 20 the agreement for the purchase of the Russian aircraft carrier, after hard bargaining which started in 1997.

FINALLY, the Indian and Russian governments inked the deal for the acquisition of the 45,000-tonne Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, on January 20. The deal involved hard bargaining and long hours of negotiations, starting from 1997.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov had specially come from Moscow when the two sides announced that the $1.5-billion deal was through.

With the Russian Minister sitting by his side, India's Defence Minister George Fernandes declared that the contract with Russia was a "landmark document". The Russian Minister said that the Gorshkov deal incorporated life-time upgrades from the Russian side for the ship. Ivanov asserted that this was "a good starting point for a more productive defence relationship.

The Russian side evidently hopes to sign more contracts in connection with the upgradation of Gorshkov as plenty of work remains to be done to convert it into a state-of-the-art carrier. According to the Russian media, negotiations are on for the required infrastructure to be built on the deck of Gorshkov. The aircraft carrier's flight deck will be extended and a powder type catapult will be installed for short take-offs and landings (STOL). The Russian side has indicated that all these alterations and improvements will take another four years or so. Gorshkov was designed to carry a lot of missiles and does not have a full flattop deck. The Russian designers will now start working to make it into a true flattop. The obsolete equipment and weapons have been dismantled and fuel tanks cleaned, fulfilling the pre-contract agreement.

The two Ministers also discussed the delivery of Sukhoi Su-30-Mk1 Super Flanker multi-role fighters and T-90-S main battle tanks. Other topics that figured in the talks were the possibility of the Indian Navy getting the Tupolev TU-22 Backfire intermediate-range bombers and the programme for upgrading diesel-powered submarines. Both Fernandes and Ivanov denied that negotiations had taken place for the supply of nuclear-powered Akula class submarines. There was speculation that Moscow had agreed to sell or lease the submarines provided India signed the Gorshkov deal expeditiously. Reports from Moscow say that only three new Akula class submarines are currently available and these are urgently needed by the Russian Navy. However, the option of India leasing an Akula class submarine in the near future has not been ruled out, provided the right price is quoted by New Delhi.

The Indian Navy has been looking for an aircraft carrier for the past six years to replace INS Viraat. The government had given the okay to the Navy for the indigenous production of two aircraft carriers by the end of the decade. However, with India's lone aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, spending most of its time on the dry docks for repairs, the Navy felt the urgency for a replacement. Russia was in the seller's market as far as aircraft carriers were concerned. Very few countries are in the business of making aircraft carriers any more. In fact, very few navies in the world have aircraft carriers.

In Asia, at present, besides India only Thailand has a helicopter carrier. Brazil, which had acquired an aircraft carrier, chose to junk it. It is now available for sale on the Internet. Brazil had brought the carrier to be one up on its traditional rival, Argentina, when both countries were involved in a regional tug of war in the 1960s. Italy has one aircraft carrier, which is used mainly for ferrying troops based in Africa and Asia on peace and military missions. Incidentally, the Italians have got the major contract in building the infrastructure for the two Indian indigenous carriers that are being constructed at the Cochin Shipyard. The design of the hull is by Indian engineers and the engine will be provided by the American multinational General Electric. China too is planning to add two indigenously built aircraft carriers to its naval fleet. Work on the ships is in progress.

The Indian Navy top brass, however, has given great importance to aircraft carriers in its overall naval strategy. Gorshkov, with a sea endurance of 30 days and the capacity to carry more than 2,000 sailors and officers, is perceived as a real force projector for the country. Once it is refurbished, Gorshkov will come with 16 MiG-29K aircraft and six Kamov KA-28 choppers. The MiG-29K has a range of 2,300 km. The Indian Navy's blue water aspirations have received a boost as it now has the capacity to put a carrier task force as far as the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf. Naval strategists point out that India sits astride two "choke points" for global oil supplies - the strait of Hormuz on its west and the Strait of Malacca in the east. The Indian Navy may be called upon increasingly play a policing role as the volume of traffic in the Indian Ocean region is set to rise dramatically. The three East Asian dynamos, China, Japan and South Korea, will be importing more oil and gas from West Asia as their economies continue to grow.

Critics of the decision to go in for an expensive aircraft carrier claim that if the primary goal was to ensure the security of sea-borne trade, then India already had considerable military deterrence at its disposal. They point out that there is no credible threat to India's borders from the sea. Air Force veterans say that the Su-30s have a range of more than 2,000 km, with facilities for mid-air fuelling. The fighter planes could be easily used to ensure the safety and security of India's sea-borne trade.

The critics also argue that Gorshkov is too big for the Indian Navy's requirements. An aircraft carrier can no longer remain invisible in the vast expanse of the ocean for long, given the gigantic strides satellite imaging technology has taken. They also add that by the time Gorshkov formally enters the Indian Navy, it will be 20 years old. There was a major fire on Gorshkov when it was used by the Soviet Navy. Those who favoured the deal quote Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's speech at the recent Combined Commanders Conference, in which he said that India's sphere of influence spanned "the Indian Ocean from the Bab-el-Mendeb in the west to the Malacca Straits in the east".

Some Indian Defence analysts try to bring in the China card to rationalise the purchase of Gorshkov. They claim that India has to counter China's ambitions in the Indian Ocean. China is said to have established extensive snooping facilities in Myanmar's Great Coco Islands. (Both Yangon and Beijing have denied this.) China's naval cooperation with Bangladesh and Pakistan in the development of the Chittagong and Gwadar ports is also being viewed with suspicion in some quarters in New Delhi. These views are apparently not shared by the Indian political establishment, which no longer prefers to look at Bejing as a strategic rival, at least for the time being.

India's naval ambitions are encouraged not only by Moscow, but also by Washington, at this juncture. The American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, at his confirmation hearing in 2001, said that it was important for the United States to support India's role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and its vast periphery.

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