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
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.
prestigious project is running late.
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
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.
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.
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
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".
in delivery has thrown India's plans into some
turbulence," an officer in the navy's western
command told Asia Times Online.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
is an independent journalist/researcher based in