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July 13, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Does India need to invest Rs 9,000 crore on a Russian aircraft carrier?

A Russian newspaper reported a few days ago that the $ 2 billion deal for the transfer of the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, to India had been sewn up and that Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes was likely to sign the agreement during his forthcoming visit to Russia. The Rs 9,000 crore deal hardly raised a ripple in the country. At the best of times defence and defence expenditure are such holy cows that except in scandals like Bofors, they raise few eyebrows and are rarely discussed.

In a nation obsessed with cricket and the ongoing match-fixing scam, few have any time for Gorshkovs or Gorbachevs. And yet, the sums involved are so large that at least a few defence experts or parliamentarians should have sat up and taken notice. As usual, the defence ministry is silent about the whole deal. Even the defence minister who had promised greater transparency in defence deals and who has asked the CBI to probe all deals after 1989 has not said a word about the massive expenditure on the carrier.

In the absence of any denial from Indian sources one has to go by the Russian report. Consider, then, the following:

* The Gorshkov was first offered to the Indian Navy about eight years ago at a reported price of $ 400 million. Although pretty expensive, even at that price it might have been an acceptable purchase. Today the deal is different. Obviously overcome by their friendly relations with India, the Russians are now gifting the carrier to India. Yes, it's free. There is a small catch, however. After donating the ship to the Indian Navy, it will undergo a refit in a Russian yard at a cost of $ 1 billion (Rs 4,500 crore).

How clever. Even India's best advertising companies, who are experts at making the public buy freebies, could not have devised it better. Not only that, India will also have to buy a squadron of some special aircraft which can fly from the ship. The cost? Another $ 1 billion.

* If it goes through, the Rs 9,000 crore purchase of the Gorshkov will probably be the largest single defence deal India would have entered into with any country since Independence. The cost of the carrier and the aircraft is equal to the entire Indian Naval budget for the past three years. Add to this the cost of special infrastructure which will have to be created if the Navy is to operate the ship successfully.

To put the whole thing in perspective, Rs 9,000 crore is half the cost of building the national expressways from North to South and East to West. It is also half the cost of modernising India's port infrastructure. Is such an enormous expenditure on the carrier worth it?

Like wise buyers let us first examine the merchandise. The Gorshkov was one of the four carriers built by the Russians in the eighties. In the strict sense, the Gorshkov is not an aircraft carrier at all but more of a "through deck cruiser," equipped with both, a flight deck and missile armament on the upper deck. The Gorshkov's three sister ships were disposed off by the Russians as scrap. The Gorshkov itself was completed in 1986 and was crippled by a devastating fire a few years later. Although repaired and refitted thereafter, she has not seen much operational service in the Russian navy.

The carrier displaces about 45,000 tonnes and with her enormous draught cannot operate from most naval ports. Special infrastructure will have to be created for operating it. After taking over the "free" carrier, it will most probably be converted into a modern flattop. Most of the long range missiles will be removed. A great deal of modernisation will have to be carried out to justify the Rs 4,500 crore cost of the refit. The whole thing will be the equivalent of taking over the 20-year-old Ambassador left by your aunt in her will and then spending a few lakhs on it to bring it up to the standard of an Opel Astra.

Does the Navy really require the Gorshkov at this enormous cost? In the past too, the Navy has purchased secondhand carriers. But their cost was a fraction of the Gorshkov's reported price. The Vikrant was purchased when it was already 15 years old but unused. She gave the Navy 36 years of valuable service before she was finally decommissioned. While the Indian Navy will be spending thousands of crores on the Gorshkov, the Vikrant awaits about 50 crore to turn it into a national monument.

The Viraat (ex-Hermes) was nearly 30 years old when we bought it in 1986. But at Rs 100 crore for the ship, which included a refit and all the spares, she appears today as practically a gift compared to the Gorshkov. Incidentally, the Viraat has already given the Navy 13 years service and can go on for a few years more. Not bad for a second hand ship.

Make no mistake. The Navy certainly requires a carrier to provide integral air defence support for its fleet, especially when India's potential enemy, Pakistan, is equipped with Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft armed with Harpoon missiles. However, what the Indian Navy requires is basically an Air Defence Ship which can carry AEW helicopters to detect the LRMP aircraft and a few fighters to intercept it before it delivers its missiles.

The other roles of carrier aircraft, strike and ASW, can be dispensed with to reduce the cost of a carrier. Such a modest vessel of about 15,000 tonnes displacement can be built indigenously at Cochin Shipyard or even at Mazagaon Dock, Mumbai, and can be brought in at less than a third of the cost of the Gorshkov.

There are other ways of taking aircraft to sea. Merchant ships can be modified with the addition of a flight deck and still do the same job as a carrier. They will not be so sophisticated and possibly perform their functions a little crudely. But they will also cost less than a twentieth of the Gorshkov. Countries like Japan or South Korea can build such platforms in less than a year.

There may possibly be many compulsions behind the purchase of the Gorshkov. Possibly it is the quid pro quo for the purchase of Russian arms at throwaway prices in the past. Or for continuing Russian political support in the arena of nations in the future. One does not know.

In the absence of any such excuse, the purchase of a 15-year-old aircraft carrier at Rs 9,000 crore just does not make sense. It is to be hoped that the government would take the public into confidence and explain why it is necessary to enter into this agreement at such enormous cost and why no alternative will do.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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