It is five years late but the new Russian built Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya has finally completed its sea trials off the northern coast of Russia. Everything appears in order and the carrier is being readied for delivery to India before the end of the year. This is unexpected good news because the Vikramaditya saga has been one long string of disappointments.
For example, the first attempt at sea trials took place a year ago but some problems were found with the engines and it took over six months to get that (and several other items) fixed. Getting the Vikramaditya to this point has been an epic saga to incompetence, bad communications, shoddy work, and inept shipyard management. Even by Russian standards the Vikramaditya project was a huge mess. In addition to being very late, the original cost has more than doubled. Not surprisingly, India is unlikely to buy any more warships from Russia.
The problem was discovered when seven of eight steam boilers in the carrier power plant failed during the 2012 high-speed trials. The Russians initially blamed India for this, as the Indians refused to allow the Russians to use asbestos to insulate nearby engine components from the intense heat generated by the steam boilers. Instead the Russians had to use firebrick, which some engineers claimed would not be adequate. The Russian shipyard managers were forced to admit that the Vikramaditya engine problem was not the quality of the Chinese firebricks used to insulate engine components from the intense heat of the steam boilers. After Russian shipyard engineers examined the engines they concluded it was poor workmanship and supervision, not poor design or poor materials that was at the cause of the problem. The shipyard promised to fix the faulty work within five months and not tear the engine room apart or have to open the hull to do it. Soon Russia admitted that the Vikramaditya would be delayed for another year. The shipyard managers and workers know that if they screw this up there is going to be a lot less new business from India. Judging from recent procurement decisions in India, that decision has already been made.
Aside from the engine failure (a major problem), the 2012 sea trials off the north coast (Barents Sea) of Russia did not reveal any other major problems. In all other respects the ship appeared to be in working order. The engine safety system, for example, detected the overheating and shut down the engines before any damage could be done. Other safety systems on the ship also worked well, and the Russians pointed out that there were problems with some Western equipment the Indians insisted on using. Most importantly, a year ago the carrier experienced its first landing by a MiG-29. Any other equipment problems noted during the sea trials were fixed while the engine insulation system is rebuilt.
The Vikramaditya was originally the Russian Gorshkov, which served in the Russian Navy from 1987 to 1995, but was then withdrawn from service because the navy could not afford to keep the carrier operational. Gorshkov was put up for sale in 1996 and in 2005. India agreed to buy the Gorshkov if a few changes could be made. India ended up paying over $2.3 billion to refurbish the Gorshkov and turn it into the Vikramaditya.
Some of the Indian crew has been working with the Vikramaditya for two years now, learning about all the ship's systems, and over 400 of them were aboard during the 2012 sea trials and even more for the 2013 trials.
India was supposed to take possession of the Vikramaditya by late 2012, but that was delayed until early 2013, and is now delayed until late 2013.
The Vikramaditya mess is a major cause of ill-will between Russia and India. Although India has been buying Russian weapons for over half a century, the multiple nightmares encountered with the Vikramaditya was the last straw and destroyed what little faith the Indians still have in Russian manufacturing quality. It's not just the Vikramaditya engines but also unreliable engines in the Su-30 fighter, poorly built electronics in the T-90 tank, and various problems in other Russian warships India has purchased. The Russians have tried to improve the quality of their weapons and support but a shortage of qualified people to make it happen has made improvements hard to come by. Even the Russian weapons the Russian military buys suffer from these problems, which are largely caused by the free market conditions that have existed in Russia since the communist government collapsed in 1991. More qualified people prefer better paying and more interesting jobs in non-military industries. The Russian government has been unable to come up with a fix for this situation, which is causing problems with rebuilding their own military as well has holding onto export customers.
A growing number of Indians want more Western weapons. These are more expensive but you get what you pay for, and the Western stuff tends to be combat proven and highly respected by users in many nations. The Russian stuff tends to be used by losers.