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    South Asia
     Aug 21, 2007
India's blue water dreams may have to wait
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Even as the Indian Navy is making its mark projecting power in waters far beyond its shores, its ambitions seem likely to be impeded by delays in a string of big-ticket projects involving new acquisitions. Besides the delay in the delivery of a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier, the construction in India of an indigenous carrier has been hit by rough weather.

Under a deal that India signed with Russia in January 2004, the 44,570-ton Admiral Gorshkov, which is being refurbished at Russia's Shevmash shipyard, was to be ready for induction into

the Indian Navy as the Indian Naval Ship (INS) Vikramaditya by next August. But Russian engineers apparently underestimated the length of cabling required to refit the aircraft carrier and are now unable to meet the delivery deadline. It will take an additional two years for the carrier to be ready for induction.

Meanwhile, another prestigious project is running late.

India is constructing a 37,500-ton aircraft carrier at the Cochin Shipyard on its west coast. The first indigenous aircraft carrier to be made in India was to enter service in 2012. However, it now appears that the earliest it will be ready is 2015. The project is running late "on almost all fronts", according to a report in The Times of India.

The 252-meter-long carrier will have two runways, a landing strip with three arrester wires (used to decelerate and stop aircraft), and a flight deck of about a hectare. It will carry 160 officers and 1,400 sailors and accommodate 12 MiG-29Ks, eight Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, and 10 helicopters.

When ready for induction, the indigenous aircraft carrier will be a feather in India's cap. But now it is giving Indian shipbuilders and the navy sleepless nights. The project has been up against formidable problems from the beginning.

The indigenous aircraft-carrier project received the government's green light in 2003. In April 2005, the symbolic cutting of steel took place marking the formal start of the project, but it was not until 19 months later that construction actually began.

Construction has been crippled by procurement woes. There were problems procuring 20,000 tonnes of high-quality steel for the carrier until India's largest steel manufacturer, Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), stepped in. Then came a delay in procuring the bulb bars.

These problems were subsequently sorted out, but new ones have cropped up since, contributing to further delays. The keel of the carrier was to be laid this October, but this has been put off for at least another year, the Times of India report said. This will push up the project cost "substantially".

"The delay in delivery has thrown India's plans into some turbulence," an officer in the navy's western command told Asia Times Online.

Since the decommissioning of India's first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in 1997, the country has been left with just one carrier, INS Viraat. But Viraat (formerly HMS Hermes of Britain's Royal Navy), which was commissioned in May 1987, is aging. It underwent a major refit in the Cochin Shipyard from 1999 to 2001.

The refit was not just a facelift; it included upgrades to the carrier's propulsion systems, its radar suite, communications systems, and weapon systems. The result was that the aging warhorse - the 50-year old INS Viraat is the oldest aircraft carrier in commission in the world - received another lease on life for about 10 years.

India's purchase of the Admiral Gorshkov and the go-ahead for the construction of the indigenous aircraft carrier were aimed at finding replacements for INS Viraat before its decommissioning in 2010-12. The Indian Navy was hoping that INS Vikramaditya would be operational by 2009, well ahead of the Viraat's retirement.

According to this rather ambitious timetable, the Vikramaditya would join the Viraat and the two would be joined by the indigenous aircraft carrier in 2012.

"It did seem that the Indian Navy's dream of operating three aircraft carriers would be realized, albeit for a short time," the navy officer said. "With delivery schedules going haywire, that seems a bit unlikely in the near future."

The Indian Navy's force projections for the future have long envisaged the operation of three aircraft-carrier groups as essential for the protection of the country's maritime interests.

There are indications now that INS Viraat will have to soldier on for a few more years. In January, navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta indicated that the Viraat could remain in active service beyond 2010-12. "We are confident that she is in good condition for another seven years of service," he told the Indian Express.

The carrier's commanding officer, Captain Girish Luthra, said at that time: "The ship is in excellent condition. It is up to the Naval Headquarters to decide how long we use her, but I can say she is in top form."

Indeed, for its age INS Viraat appears to be in fighting trim. In June, it went on a goodwill voyage to several ports in Southeast Asia. Next month, it will be the star of the Indian fleet participating in the five-nation naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Although naval officials are proud of INS Viraat's fitness, they are nonetheless annoyed with the perpetual delays in acquisitions.

"We are making do with a very old aircraft carrier," the naval officer said, adding that "INS Viraat is in fine condition, but only for an aircraft carrier of its age. Our ambitions cannot be realized if the navy finds itself constantly hamstrung by delays in procurement."

Meanwhile, India is looking to induct another aircraft carrier by 2017. This May, Defense Minister A K Antony indicated that this would depend on progress on construction of the indigenous carrier. The order for a third carrier, Antony said, would be placed only after construction of the indigenous vessel progresses "beyond a certain range".

It is not just delayed delivery of aircraft carriers that is annoying navy officials. The Scorpene submarine project - the acquisition of six Scorpene subs is part of India's "Project 75", which envisages the building of 24 submarines by 2025-30 - too is running late.

It took several years for India to negotiate the deal for the acquisition and building of Scorpene submarines. The Cabinet Committee for Security sat on the matter for two years before giving its assent. Finally in 2005, the deal for construction of six Scorpene subs was signed.

Under the deal, India's Mazagon Docks Ltd was to deliver one submarine a year beginning in 2012, but two years on, construction of the vessels is yet to start. Construction of a submarine takes a minimum of six years. This means that Mazagon Docks will not meet the 2012 delivery deadline.

What is worrying naval officials is that India's fleet of 16 diesel-electric submarines (10 Russian Kilo-class ships, four German HDWs and two Foxtrots) is aging and several are due for retirement. "By 2012 we will be left with only nine submarines, with more retirements to follow," the naval officer said.

In 2005, India's then naval chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, warned that India would have to begin building new submarines immediately to be able to replace the ones being retired. Several of India's neighbors were acquiring subs and "India seemed to be the odd man out", he said. Two years on, his warning has not been heeded.

Indian naval officials blame the political establishment and the bureaucracy for crippling the navy's modernization program. Indeed, almost all defense purchases have been mired in scandal. Contracts negotiated by one government have been renegotiated by the next, ostensibly to get a better deal but really for kickbacks. The officials have said acquisitions are being delayed with deals coming under the scanner for corruption.

The navy cannot, however, absolve itself of blame. Senior officers and their kin have been found leaking information and/or receiving bribes in connection with defense procurements. This has been the case with the Scorpene deal, for instance.

India's navy has great ambitions and plans to achieve them, but the hardware to do so is lacking. It seems a classic case of the spirit being strong but the flesh weak.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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