Waiting For Gorshkov

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 50


 Waiting For Gorshkov




suspense over India’s proposed and long-awaited acquisition of the Russian
aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov
appeared to be over last week only to reappear almost immediately. The
developments revealed yet again not only the contentious nature of the
bargaining over the deal but also the new dynamics of the Indo-Russian
relationship in the post-Soviet era coloured additionally by the advent of the
BJP-led government in India and its strategic perspective.


deal for the Admiral Gorshkov, after
going through tortuous decade-long negotiations and getting bogged down in hard
haggling over prices, was expected to be finalised during prime minister
Vajpayee’s visit to Moscow in October but did not materialise. Both sides
discreetly stated that a few details remained to be worked out and announced
that Russia’s powerful defence minister Sergei Ivanov, believed to be a close
confidante of president Putin, would visit India in November and resolve any
remaining problems. It soon became clear, however, that somewhat larger
differences persisted. In late November, Ivanov abruptly cancelled his visit to
Delhi with Russia diplomatically stating that the visit had merely been
postponed for a month or two since the two sides were “technically
unready” to conclude the Gorshkov
deal.  The difficulties, as well as
the increasing annoyance at least on Russia’s part were revealed by the unusual
departure from the usual crisp and tactful language in the Russian defence
ministry’s statement which explicitly blamed the Indian side for the failure
which was attributed, this time, to problems relating to the price of the
MiG-29K carrier-borne aircraft which were to accompany the Admiral Gorshkov. 


week events took a surprising turn. While the Indian defence ministry remained
mostly silent on all these developments, navy chief admiral Madhavendra Singh
disclosed that India and Russia had agreed on the Gorshkov deal at a total cost of US 630 million dollar (about Rs
3000 crore). This brought about a prompt denial by the Russian defence ministry
which stated the very next day that “three major differences” namely
“the final amount of the contract, as well as issues pertaining to the
supply of foreign origin weapon systems and changes required in the ship’s
systems for their integration, are yet to be resolved.” Significantly though,
Russia was silent on the Admiral Gorshkov
itself suggesting that agreement had
perhaps been reached on at least this component of the deal whereas Russia had
been holding out for long for a higher price. 


Russian press, meanwhile, and ever since the failure to clinch the deal during
Vajpayee’s Moscow visit, was going crazy with all kinds of stories levelling a
series of charges against India and using language unthinkable in Soviet days.
Articles in Pravda pointed out that
India had the second-largest number of lawsuits against Russia after the EU on
different anti-dumping charges, that India was yet to reconcile itself to the
fact that Russia was a market economy, that India therefore made its own costs
and price calculations rather than accept the Russian figure and finally that
various arguments being advanced by India to delay finalizing the deal were
“simply lies!” But Pravda certainly hit the nail on the head when it
said that the “technical” hurdles were really “political” issues
requiring to be tackled in that way and at that level. Before discussing these
political issues, however, let us take a closer at what the deal is all about
and its importance for India and Russia.





had started discussions with Russia on acquiring this aircraft carrier slightly
more than a decade ago but, as with so many of its defence acquisitions, kept
delaying the actual deal. Some commentators feel, perhaps cynically, that these
delays are often caused by the proper underhand deal not having been struck
between wheeler-dealers on both sides. The case of the Gorshkov figures even in
the Tehelka tapes in which a
well-known retired Admiral and his family of arms dealers were striving to push
up the price so that their commissions would be that much larger! Be that as it
may, the fact remains that one out of India’s two aircraft carriers, the INS
Vikrant, had meanwhile been decommissioned while its other carrier, the ageing
INS Viraat (formerly the British HMS Hercules which had seen service in that
country’s war against Argentine over the Falklands/Malvinas islands) had also
to undergo a major upgradation. The Indian Navy was getting increasingly
desperate to acquire another aircraft carrier and, since India’s own efforts
to build its own carrier had not yet taken off, the Gorshkov appeared an
attractive proposition.


47,000-ton Admiral Gorshkov was commissioned in 1987 as part of the then
Soviet Navy’s Project 1143 and had originally been built not as an aircraft
carrier but as an anti-submarine battleship first christened Baku.
Along with three other frigates of the Kiev class (so named after the first of
the series), these ships were retrofitted and converted into aircraft carriers
with a small flight deck with a ski-jump rather than a catapult as in larger US
or British carriers and carrying a smaller complement of fighter aircraft and
helicopters than their western counterparts. The Soviet naval doctrine had
traditionally accorded little or no place for aircraft carriers preferring to
have a large fleet of submarines for force projection around the world, at one
time having twice as many submarines as its American superpower rival. This
latter-day Soviet decision to experiment with carriers was to be short-lived
with the Soviet Union itself collapsing a few years later and the successor
Russian state being unable to afford them. All four carriers were retired
between 1991 and 1994, with the Gorshkov being the youngest also being
the last to retire, and berthed in shipyards where the Gorshkov was badly
damaged in a fire.


first offered the Gorshkov to India at a cost of US$ 200 but later
offered it for “free” with India meeting the substantial cost of
refurbishing and retrofitting. The Indian Navy’s technical committee set up to
examine the ship and evaluate the offer made a positive recommendation and felt
the vessel would be a useful augmentation of its deep-sea capability. Some
commentators in India and abroad, including in Russia, feel that the very
concept of a converted frigate is suspect and unproved. Two of the Gorshkov’s
sister ships have indeed been scrapped, but the class-named Kiev is now in
service with China having been acquired by that country at a comparatively
higher cost of US 1billion dollar (Rs 4700 crore), so the price India seems to
have got settled seems quite reasonable and also shows the relative keenness of
Russia to clinch the deal.




also needs underlining that the Gorshkov will not come alone to India. 
The aircraft carrier itself is to be accompanied by MiG 29K naval version
fighters, Kamov attack and surveillance helicopters and Klab class anti-ship
missiles. Besides these, a whole package many sweeteners have been offered and
there is some evidence to suggest that, apart from India’s urgent desire for
another aircraft carrier, a great deal of the attraction lie in these other
“side” offers. And many of the negotiating hurdles also appear to involve


commentators have raised questions about the MiG-29Ks. It is true that this
maritime version has not been extensively tested and proven in use in either the
Russian or any other navy. The MiG project to develop multi-role versions of the
basic MiG-29 Fulcrum was gently shut down by Russia on cost grounds and also
because other Russian aircraft, such as the Sukhoi Su-33 were by then available
with somewhat better performance characteristics. At the same time, the basic
MiG-29 Fulcrum is a tried and tested aircraft that is also in service with the
Indian Air Force thus building complementarity. The naval version is capable of
short take-off and landing as would be required on aircraft carriers
particularly with a short flight deck like the Gorshkov, and has folding wings to facilitate stowing on carriers. A
2-seater MiG-29KUB version which serves as a combat-capable trainer is also
available and is included in the deal, as is usually the case with most
carrier-borne fighters. Since the Indian interest was first expressed, the
multi-role project has been revived by Russia which believes there is a growing
international market for relatively smaller 25-30,000 ton aircraft carriers.


seems to be in doubt is the number of MiG-29Ks which India will eventually
acquire to go with the Gorshkov. The original deal was for 44 aircraft,
22 being bought outright with option for an additional 22, half being on-board
and the remainder in land-bases. The total cost of US 1.3 billion dollar (Rs
5110 crore) or roughly 30 million dollar per fighter made for a very competitive
deal with respect to equivalent western aircraft such as the French Rafale/M or
the US F/A-18 Hornet. The present signs are, however, that India may acquire
only one air-regiment or about 24 aircraft including 4 2-seter trainers. Part of
the present Russian irritation may be due to disappointment on this count.


the main Gorshkov package, while there seems to be no problems between
India and Russia as regards the Kamov helicopters comprising Ka-31 early-warning
aircraft and Ka-28 anti-submarine warfare strike aircraft, the ship-based Klab
cruise missiles seem again to have run into rough weather. The Russian Klab
missiles are subsonic except for a sharp supersonic burst towards the end of its
flight enabling it to counter opposing supersonic missiles such as the French
Exocet which is in service with the Pakistani navy. The Klab has a maximum range
of 300 km and is therefore believed not have capacity to carry nuclear weapons.


missiles have been a subject of much debate in Indian defence circles and there
is good ground to believe that India may have finally decided in favour of the
Israeli Barak missiles, again made famous by the Tehelka tapes with much talk therein of backroom deals to swing a
decision in its favour. By all accounts, the two missiles are comparable but,
for whatever reason, the balance of opinion in India may end up favouring the
Israeli weapons system. If India does choose the Israeli system, Russia not only
loses out commercially as well as in terms of prestige, but must also put up
with the humiliation of re-fitting and adjusting the systems on board the Gorshkov
to make them compatible with the Israeli Barak system. This appears to have
contributed in no small measure to the Russian annoyance if not downright anger
at this stage of the Gorshkov


both sides are playing for bigger stakes here and, while bargaining hard, may be
prepared to accept some concessions for the sake of longer-term gains which they
perceive as accruing from some of the other side-deals being negotiated
alongside the Gorshkov package.





speculation has surrounded two of these side-deals in particular involving
acquisition by India of four TU-22 “Backfire” long-range bombers and
at two Akula-II class nuclear-powered submarines. Both the deals have clear
potential for carrying and delivery of nuclear weapons which is seen as the main
reason for India’s recent and persistent efforts to acquire them. Russia has no
doubt a lot to gain from a mega-deal involving so many weapons systems which
have the potential to bring much-needed cash and jobs to the Russian aviation
and ship-building industries, hence its willingness to compromise during
negotiations. But Indian strategic ambitions in the context of the BJP-led
government’s nuclear doctrine also means that India would go a long way towards
acquiring weapons systems which it may find difficult to get from other


TU-22 is a long-range bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons although,
when the deal was first mooted, India was looking to the aircraft more for its
role in maritime reconnaissance over extended distances and for sustained
durations. In today’s context, the deal is seen, at least by the Russians, as
hanging in the balance because of India’s stated interest in the US-made P3
Orion maritime reconnaissance and early-warning aircraft. India is also
negotiating with Israel, and in the shadows with the US who have provided the
basic technology, for the more advanced Phalcon airborne early-warning (AEW)
system as a force-multiplier. While the Orion, or even the Phalcon which can
also be used in maritime roles, may be superior to the TU-22 in their
reconnaissance and early-warning capabilities, neither is intended to be a
weapons-delivery platform. Since India’s nuclear doctrine calls for airborne
weapons delivery systems, it may well be that Russian fears may be misplaced and
the Indian Air Force’s ambitions in this regard may still push India towards
acquiring the Backfires bombers.


Akula-II class nuclear-powered submarines are the icing on the cake for India.
The Indian navy has 16 submarines but all are diesel-powered, noisy, slow and
have relatively short range. The Akulas on the other hand are less easy to
detect and can remain underwater for extended periods due to their nuclear
engines. Admiral Madhavendra Singh was virtually drooling as he spoke of the
role these submarines could play in India’s nuclear doctrine which calls for a
“nuclear triad” i.e. land, air and sea-based nuclear-strike
capability, the last of which he felt must necessarily be submarine-based for
maximum mobility and minimum vulnerability against attack.


be sure, Russia must sell the TU-22 and Akula-IIs with, at least on the face of
it, a non-nuclear configuration so as to keep the US and other nuclear-weapons
states happy. Although it does not take a rocket scientist to state that, once
received, they can easily be re-configured for nuclear weapons delivery.   


then are the open and latent factors behind the complex and multi-element deal
in which the Admiral Gorshkov is the public centerpiece. The hard
bargaining and current state of negotiations over the Gorshkov and
related weapons systems reveal the relative strengths of India and Russia. The
former is increasingly keen if not desperate to clinch the deal because of gaps
in its defence status caused by poor long-term planning, cloudy decision-making
processes, huge time-delays and considerable ad hocism. Both in aircraft
carriers and nuclear-powered submarines India does have an programme for
indigenous alternatives. But the Indian air-defence ship is not likely to be
ready for another decade, while the submarine is still on the drawing board
having even got there probably only because of severe criticism from several
quarters notably by the sacked Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. Russia is cash-strapped
and looking to create jobs in its defence-related industry which is its major
area of internationally tradeable strength in the post-Soviet era.


may be overstating its case by making tall claims about seriously developing a
naval capability which will enable it to patrol the Indian Ocean from the
Malacca Straits in the east to Cape Town in the west. One Gorshkov is not going to enable that, leaving aside the question of
whether at all such territorially extended military ambitions should be
harboured. But India’s nuclear-power ambitions lying behind some of the other
acquisitions which are being more discreetly negotiated are infinitely more