NEW DELHI: Russia will hand over on Saturday a refurbished aircraft carrier to India, five years late and vastly over budget, ending a bitter saga that strained ties between Delhi and its top arms supplier, officials said.
The Soviet-era INS Vikramaditya will set sail from the Sevmash shipyard in the Russian city of Severodvinsk and reach Indian waters early next year.
“Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony will commission INS Vikramaditya on Saturday. There will be some ships that will escort the Vikramaditya back to its port in India,” navy spokesman P.V.S. Satish told AFP.
The induction of Vikramaditya, built as the Admiral Gorshkov and originally commissioned in 1987, is intended to shore up India’s defense capabilities as it seeks to counter a military buildup by an increasingly assertive China.
Currently, India has just one aircraft carrier — the INS Viraat which was also commissioned in 1987 — but it unveiled an under-construction domestically produced carrier in August.
The original memorandum of understanding for its transfer was signed in 1998 — two years after the Kremlin mothballed the carrier.
The final deal was inked in 2004 and was initially valued at $771 million as per current exchange rates with stipulated delivery in 2008.
But the price of revamping the 284-meter (937-foot) ship later ballooned to $2.3 billion, according to Indian media reports, while deadlines were extended time and again, embittering ties with Russia which accounts for 70 percent of India’s military hardware.
“This is no way to carry out international trade practices as it is a breach of promise,” said Mrinal Suman, who heads a defense advisory group in the Confederation of Indian Industry trade lobby.
“The Russians knew how desperate we were and they exploited that and took India for a ride,” the former major general, one of India’s top arms procurement specialists, told AFP.
Of late, India, world’s largest arms buyer, has turned to Israel, Britain, France and the United States for hardware.
Five warships will escort the unarmed Vikramaditya due to security issues as it passes through a classified route, a defense ministry official who did not want to be quoted, said.
The three-month trial of the ship was concluded in September during which it successfully demonstrated its “stealth mode by blinding incoming aircraft with its electronic warfare suite,” the Indian Express said.
The ministry official said it has been refurbished with 2,500 tons of steel — enough to build a mid-sized frigate from scratch — and will be armed with Russian MiG-29 fighter jets and Kamov helicopters.
Vikramaditya can carry 8,000 tons of fuel to sail 13,000 kilometers (8,060 miles) and sustain a crew of 1,600 sailors for 45 days at sea with a capacity to store 16 tons of rice, 2,000 liters of milk and 100,000 eggs, the official said.
The 44,500-ton carrier has also been redesigned to dish out traditional Indian cuisine, the official added.
India’s already depleted naval force received a major setback in August when a Russian-made submarine the INS Sindhurakshak exploded in a Mumbai dock, killing all 18 crewmen on board.
The vessel, which has still not been refloated due to administrative and technical problems, had been returned by Russia shortly before following a major refit.
A floating airfield, the INS Vikramaditya will also have a team of Russian experts on board who will monitor and assist their Indian counterparts during the home journey.
The Russian crew will remain in India for a year as part of the guarantee contract to ensure the carrier does not develop any snag, the Express daily said.
Ajit Kumar Singh, a research fellow with the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, was skeptical about the usefulness of the ship, calling it a “white elephant” that India would find tough to maintain.
“These big ships are of use only during wars. And I don’t see any conventional war happening in near future,” he said.