Wednesday, 20 January 2010

INS Vikramaditya

Right now, there are 2 major concerns in India. One is slipping timelines. The other concern involves Vikramaditya’s 3-fold cost increase, including worries that Russia will raise it rates yet again once India is deeper into the commitment trap. The carrier purchase has now become the subject of high level diplomacy, involving a shipyard that can’t even execute on commercial contracts. An agreement in principle reportedly exists, but negotiations that began in 2007 have yet to lead to a revised contract. Recent Russian demands have continued to raise the price, even as advance work related to India’s new MiG-29K naval fighters continues.

Now, reports surface once again that India and Russia have reached an agreement on the Vikramaditya’s price. An actual deal remains unfinished, however, which is why recent reports regarding a $1.2 billion contract for MiG-29Ks must be taken with caution until a signed contract is announced.

On Jan 20/04 India and Russia signed a $947 million deal to refurbish and convert the 40,000t Soviet/Russian Admiral Gorshkov into a full carrier, to be re-named INS Vikramaditya. Initial reports of delays sparked controversy and denials in India, but subsequent events more than justified them. The INS Viraat’s retirement is now set for 2010-2012 – but it soon became clear that even that might not be late enough. Slow negotiations and steadily-lengthening delivery times quickly pushed delivery of the Gorshkov back to 2010, and then to 2012 or later, even as Russia’s asking price more than doubled. Unless the price dispute is resolved, the continued absence of a contract that Russia will honor is likely to create even more delays.

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INS Viraat was scheduled to retire in 2009. It’s only semi-operational, and nearing the limits of its mechanical life, even as shortages of flyable Sea Harrier fighters are creating issues of their own. Meanwhile, the delivery date for India’s locally-built 37,000t escort carrier project appears to be slipping to 2015 or so. This leaves India’s Navy with a serious scheduling problem, and no significant carrier force.

The Vikramaditya project demanded extensive modifications to the original ship. The cruiser-carrier’s guns, anti-shipping and anti-air missile launchers on the front deck would be removed and replaced with a full runway and ski jump, the deck would be widened in numerous places, its boilers would be changed to diesel fuel, the rear aircraft elevator would be enlarged and strengthened, and other modifications would be put in place to make Gorshkov a fully modern ship. The announced delivery date for INS Vikramaditya was August 2008 – an ambitious schedule, but one that would allow the carrier to enter service in 2009, around the time as their 29,000t light carrier/LHA INS Viraat (formerly HMS Hermes, last of the Centaur class) was scheduled to retire. The new carrier would berth at the new Indian Navy facility in Karwar, on India’s west coast.

When reports first surfaced that this delivery date would not be met, India’s Ministry of Defence initially tried to deflect the issue with denials. Then, in May 2007, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta said the ships will be delivered:

” late 2008 or early 2009…. Our officials, who are stationed at the spot, have said that the work is going on as per schedule and we can have a month long delay once the work is completed as that part of Russia is frozen for a long time.”

Later comments on this issue included this May 1/07 quote:

“The work is only three to four months behind schedule and we can expect the aircraft carrier to be delivered by late 2008 or early 2009”

Subsequent updates, however, have proven the critics to be more than correct. Cost estimates and reports concerning the Gorshkov’s final total now hover in the $2.9 billion range, of which about $600 million has reportedly already been paid. As is customary with Indian defense procurement issues, that transparency eventually came after all other alternatives had been exhausted. After the delivery delays could no longer be denied, the initial approach was to minimize their length. February 2008 news reports, however, began to give figures of up to 3-4 years before refurbishment and testing could allow the ship to enter service. Subsequent reports by Indian and Russian sources stress 2012, or even later.

That risks a gap with no serving carriers in the fleet if further delays occur, or if INS Viraat cannot have its life or its aircraft extended for another 4 years of unanticipated service. An official Indian CAG report adds that even if inducted, the warship will have no aerial defenses until 2017, whereupon it is scheduled to be retrofitted with a last-ditch CIWS gun.

Meanwhile, China is working hard to refurbish the 58,000t ex-Russian carrier Varyag, and some analysts believe the ship could be operational in a testing capacity by 2010.

Those sunk construction costs, Russian possession of the Gorshkov, the difficulty in finding a substitute carrier to replace the Gorshkov sooner than 2013, and the Chinese push with the Varyag, have all combined to give the Russians substantial leverage in their negotiations. They have exploited that leverage to the fullest. The latest Russian offer would triple the originally-agreed contract price, and reports place the current negotiating gap as sitting between India’s proposed $2.2 billion final price and Russia’s $2.9 billion.

Many of Gorshkov’s key modifications are aircraft-related, including the new arrester gear and ski jump. New boilers and wiring are the other major components. The timelines and cost figures for delivery of the ship do not include the aircraft, however, which are bought separately.

The original carrier’s complement was 12 Yak-38 Forger V/STOL fighters, 12 Ka-28 helicopters, and 2 Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters. The removal of the Gorshkov’s forward missiles, addition of the ski ramp, and other modifications will improve the ship’s air complement somewhat.

The nature of its original design, however, means that INS Vikramaditya will still fall short of comparably-sized western counterparts like the 43,000t FNS Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, with its 40-plane complement that leans heavily to fighter jets. For instance, the Gorshkov would be large enough to operate full naval AWACS aircraft, but it lacks a launch catapult. If rumors prove true and India does indeed buy E-2C+/E-2D Hawkeyes, they would be likely to operate from shore.

Carriage ranges given for the refitted Vikramaditya seem to average 12-16 fighters and 4-16 of the compact Ka-28/31 helicopters; diagrams seem to suggest total stowage space for a “footprint” of no more than 15-16 MiG-29Ks, with each Kamov helicopter sporting a comparative footprint of about 0.4, and about 5-6 open footprint spots on deck.

A related $740 million contract for 16 MiG-29K (12 MiG-29K, 4 two-seat MiG-29KUB) aircraft plus training and maintenance was confirmed on Dec 22/04, with an option for another 30 MiG-29Ks by 2015. They would be operated in STOBAR (Short Take-Off via the ski ramp, But Assisted Recovery via arresting wires) mode. The MiG-29K was reportedly selected over the larger and more-capable navalized SU-33, because India also hopes to operate them from smaller “Project-71” indigenous carriers.

In addition to its fighters, the Gorshkov-Vikramaditya’s complement will include Kamov Ka-31 AEW and/or Ka-28 multi-role helicopters, along with a complement of torpedo tubes, and a CIWS gatling gun for close in defense after 2017.

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