THE 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.
The 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.
Last 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.
The 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.
HISTORY OF THE DEAL
India 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.
The 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.
Russia 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.
It 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 these.
Several 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.
What 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.
In 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.
These 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 negotiations.
Nevertheless 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.
INDIA’S STRATEGIC AMBITIONS
Considerable 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 quarters.
The 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.
Russia’s 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.
To 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.
These 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.
India 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 worrying.