Naval Air: India Finally Gets Its Cursed Russian Carrier

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November 27, 2013: Five years late, the new Russian built Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya was turned over to its Indian crew on November 16th. Three months earlier the ship had finally completed its sea trials off the northern coast of Russia. Everything appeared to be in order and the carrier spent the next three months being readied for delivery to India. This was unexpected good news because the Vikramaditya saga has been one long string of disappointments. India was supposed to take possession of the Vikramaditya by late 2012, but that was delayed until early 2013, and earlier this year was delayed until late 2013. Some of the Indian crew have 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. Vikramaditya will depart Russia on November 30th, accompanied by an Indian frigate and a tanker carrying fuel for both ships. When the ships reach the Mediterranean they will be met by two more Indian warships (a destroyer and a frigate) and all five ships will proceed, via the Suez Canal, to a naval base outside Karwar, a city halfway down the west coast of India. Once in its new base, Vikramaditya and its crew will work to be fully operational by mid-2014.

In addition to being late, the ship was way over budget. There were also problems when it was finally completed in 2012, eight years after negotiations began. Finding and fixing problems seemed like an endless process. Even the first attempt at sea trials in 2012 found some problems with the engines (and several other items) which took over six months to get 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.

Aside from the engine failure (a major flaw), 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 serious 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, in 2012 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 45,000 ton Vikramaditya was originally a Russian Kiev class carrier that 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. The ship was put up for sale in 1996 and in 2005. India agreed to buy it if a few changes could be made. India ended up paying over $2.3 billion to refurbish the Kiev class ship and turn it into the Vikramaditya.

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. Obtaining more Western weapons has been a problem because of the growing incidence of corruption in the Indian Defense Ministry. Anti-corruption efforts have scared off many Western suppliers and made it difficult to develop long-term relationships with Western suppliers.

 


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