has been written and said about the decision to acquire the aircraft
carrier Gorshkov from the Russians –– from buying a piece of
junk at a huge price to the dire necessity of having it for
strategic advantage. Alok Kumar Gupta a Lecturer at the School of Policy
Science at National Law University, Jodhpur, Rajasthan has taken the
trouble to put the entire issue in perspective, with this
contribution to our website. He chronicles the entire issue in
chronological order for our greater understanding of the issue. We
hope you will enjoy reading it – Editor
An Aircraft Carrier for Strategic Advantage
Alok Kumar Gupta*
signed its biggest-ever defence deal with Russia for the purchase of
the air-craft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov. The Russian Defence
Minister Sergei Ivanov and the Indian Defence Minister George
Fernandes signed the deal on January 20, 2004 after over a decade of
negotiations. The value of the carrier is $1.5 billion (over Rs.
7,000 crores). The 40,000 tonne carrier includes 28 MiG-29Ks, the
maritime equivalent of the fighter aircraft, six Kamov-31 attack and
reconnaissance anti-submarine helicopters, torpedo tubes, missile
systems and artillery units. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS)
cleared the deal on January 17, 2004.
Features of Gorshkov
can carry 30 MiG-29Ks and 10 Kamov helicopters;
66% of the carrier will be reworked and retrofitted at the
Servmash Yard in Severodvinsk, Russia which would cost about
Baku by the Soviets, it was commissioned by their Navy in 1987,
it is a Kiev class vessel and is the last in a series of four;
the collapse of Soviet Union, Baku retired and renamed it
Gorshkov after legendary Soviet Admiral and presently it is
berthed at a Russian naval port after an engine room fire;
vessel at present is 29 years old and was decommissioned as an
aircraft carrier in 1994.
arrival will coincide with the planned phase out of INS Viraat
India’s only aircraft carrier. It is expected in India by 2008 end
and the new Naval base at Karwar could be one of its berths.
induction in 2008 will ensure that the Indian Navy does not lose its
expertise in handling aircraft carriers. Anxiety that the expertise
acquired in handling aircraft carriers may be lost if the Navy
waited indefinitely for the Air Defence Ship (ADS) (read small air
craft carrier) was one of the reasons it pushed hard for the
Gorshkov acquisition. Moreover, the refurbished aircraft carrier,
along with its complement of MiG air superiority fighters, will add
a lethal punch to the naval armoury. It will significantly add to
India’s sea-control capability.
reason, of course, relates to the Navy’s increasing role as a
‘sea-guardian’. India has already begun policing sea-lanes and
would like to maintain a strong presence in the Indian Ocean from
the Malacca Straits in the east to Cape Town in the west. It is
considered a major improvement over the INS Viraat, which has
technically reached the end of its service life, and its aged Sea
Harrier fighters. The Navy will thus become among the few in the
world to continue with the tradition of maintaining an aircraft in
its armada. Though the Navy suggested that three carriers will be
ideal, the high cost of acquiring and maintaining them has deterred
the Government from acceding to its wish.
the bipartisan Standing Committee on Defence has been pressing the
Government over the years to ensure that not only should no gap in
the air cover for the Indian Navy be allowed to develop, but the
country should move expeditiously toward ensuring adequate force
levels, the present aircraft carrier would soon complete its usable
life — numerous refits and upgrades notwithstanding.
agreement marks yet another milestone in Indo–Russian defence
cooperation. Both countries are now implementing multi-thousand
crore deals for advanced fighter aircrafts, tanks and naval
frigates. With the signing of the Gorshkov deal, Russia continues to
retain its position as the top supplier of defence hardware to India
although India is also sourcing equipment from other countries.
of the Gorshkov is important for the Navy, which eventually
plans to have three aircraft carriers in its fleet. This dream will
not be realised until 2010 when the Air Defence Ship is completed.
However, the need for at least two aircraft carriers has been
acutely felt due to several factors. With two carriers in store, the
Indian Navy will be able to maintain a strong presence along both
the eastern and western seaboards. The western coast acquired added
importance recently after Pakistan began building two naval bases,
one of them, Gwadar, reportedly with Chinese assistance.
from this the enhanced security threat to India because of terrorism
in every nook and corner and attack by the militants on the vital
installations has also made it imperative to maintain a high state
of preparedness to meet any eventuality. The past history of
Pakistan’s adventurism along the border and then escalation of the
war to other theaters as well makes it imperative to sharpen the
strike capability. The role of the aircraft carrier in the 1971 war
and its increasing importance also necessitates the purchase.
Indian defence officials involved in the deal must analyse the
capability of the weapons system they are going to buy vis-à-vis
the requirement of the Indian Navy. India being a poor country
cannot afford to buy any sub-standard weapon system, which may prove
to be costlier to maintain and cost-benefit analysis is not in
favour of Indian defence. With the clear signs of Chinese assistance
to Pakistan’s defence India needs a very high level of capability
to neutralize the edge in the event of misadventure by Pakistan. The
balance of power is no more there, which could be easily exploited
during the time of need. The changed power equations in today’s
world and the threat perceptions to the security of India need to be
deciphered in the light of these and we must prepare accordingly.
India no more can rely on divided and economically crippled Russia.
She, at the same time, should not depend on USA who has a soft
corner for Pakistan and who only gets involved in favor of it own
Indian Navy had been casting about for an aircraft carrier even
before that old war-horse, the INS Vikrant, was decommissioned in
1997. The serviceability of its only other aircraft carrier, the
ageing INS Viraat, is also unlikely to extend beyond 2010, and even
this was made possible by a major life-extension refit conducted in
1999. Most experts would argue that we should have started building
an aircraft carrier more than 15 years ago, when India bought the
last aircraft carrier, the Viraat, second-hand, as an interim
solution. Unfortunately, not only the resource crunch, but the
“Bofors Syndrome” even more so, simply derailed the process.
defence experts need to reflect on the realities that have slowed
down defence modernization for so long, and which in turn demand of
our fighting men a price far higher than what they should be paying.
because of the long delays in taking a decision on a major weapons
system like the Gorshkov, it was inevitable that a debate would rage
in the country — both among military professionals as well as
within the strategic community. This is a welcome development since
no democracy can afford to take major decisions concerning its
defence without a level of informed public debate.
the debate about the Gorshkov has revolved around two issues. The
first is about the need for a carrier, while the other is about the
cost and wisdom of buying an old carrier. Yet, both sides of the
debate have been arguing strongly in favour of providing adequate
and capable air cover for the navy at sea. One can easily be misled
by esoteric arguments for a blue or brown water navy. But one must
recognize that any country that possesses legitimate naval interests
away from its land, and can afford it, would need air power integral
to the fleet.
may add another aircraft carrier by 2010 if indigenous efforts in
this direction are successful. As things stand, it is not clear when
the project to build an indigenous Air Defence Ship will see
fruition. According to conservative estimates as reported in
newspapers, it will take at least a decade to put together a fully
operational ADS. While an extra aircraft carrier would help to
maintain a somewhat stronger presence on both the eastern and
western seaboards, India’s massive naval ambitions are hardly
going to be fulfilled by the addition of the Gorshkov alone.
Defence ministry officials insisted that Gorshkov was the
only option in the world market to avoid a vacuum in the aircraft
carrier department after Viraat’s retirement.
Historical Account of the Deal
offered to sell the modified Kiev (Type 1143.4) class
aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov to India, in 1994. India
initially rejected the offer, partially for financial reasons,
partially because it planned to build its own aircraft carrier, and
partially because of the poor materiel condition of the ship. Russia
has been persistent with its offers since then.
Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s visit to India in
December of 1998, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was reportedly
signed that paved the way for the sale of the carrier. Subsequent to
signing the MoU, India and Russia conducted a series of technical
negotiations to resolve the details of the purchase. Russian
authorities expressed frustration with the slow pace of the
negotiations and, at one point Russia’s Deputy Naval Chief, Vice
Admiral Barskov, threatened to withdraw the offered sale if India
did not make a firm commitment soon. Russia’s pressure was
probably only a negotiating ploy as India needs the carrier and
Russia needs the money. The issues to be resolved were not minor,
had reportedly offered the ship for "free" but was
charging US$750M (estimated at 12 billion rupees), to overhaul the
ship. India kept trying to get Russia to come down on the price;
to the signing of the MoU, Russia apparently made the sale
contingent on India also purchasing an air-wing of at least twenty
MiG-29 aircraft (which can counter the P3C Orion being used by the
Pakistan Navy), valued at US$1.5b;
has been inactive for a number of years and will require extensive
work before it can serve as an operational aircraft carrier. India
expressed the desire to have the work done in India while Russia
wanted the work to be done at a Russian shipyard;
Gorshkov’s three sister ships were scrapped after the
Yak-38 vertical take-off planes they were designed to carry failed
to work properly. Experts say the Russian navy discussed
re-equipping the Gorshkov with MiG-29’s years ago but
abandoned the idea as impractical.
deal has been embroiled in controversy right from the beginning.
Firstly, the former chief of naval staff Vishnu Bhagwat was opposed
to the idea of buying foreign-made battleships. Even the experts had
warned that all was not well with the deal and say that a Russian
offer to refurbish and re-equip the Admiral Gorshkov, a
Soviet-era aircraft carrier, for Indian needs is little more than
“pie in the sky.”
to Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian defence analyst, “the Gorshkov
is suitable only as a helicopter carrier. Neither the Gorshkov
nor the MiG-29K fighters Russia is offering to equip it with, have
ever been tested in a conventional aircraft carrier role.” However
according to the Indian version the MiGs have already been tested on
an air-craft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, for aerodynamics and
overall dimensions in take off and landing.
to Vitaly Shlyikov, a military expert and former deputy defence
minister of Russia, “the Gorshkov’s deck is too short and
Russia never designed American-style catapults to enable short
take-offs. The MiG-29 has never been used in this role. “I’m not
saying it can’t be done, it’s just not something anyone ever
thought of before. The reason it’s being proposed now is probably
that the MiG company is almost bankrupt and it desperately needs
apparent decision to accept Admiral Gorshkov is directly tied
to the indecision that has set back the delivery of a new
construction aircraft carrier until at least 2010. With India’s
sole remaining aircraft carrier, Hermes class aircraft
carrier Viraat, due for decommissioning in 2010, India was
left with little choice other than Gorshkov if it wished to
retain any sort of an aircraft carrier capability. The Indian Navy
requires a force of two aircraft carriers to maintain a permanent
carrier battle group presence on each coast. Gorshkov and Viraat
will provide that two-carrier force level until Viraat
the Gorshkov, Editorial, The Indian Express, New Delhi, January 20, 2004.
Panel Clears Gorshkov Deal, The
Hindu, New Delhi, January 18, 2004.
Visit/Gorshkov Deal to be Sealed, The
Hindu, New Delhi, January 19, 2004.
Russia sign Gorshkov Deal, The
Hindu, New Delhi, January 21, 2004.
Gorshkov Package, Editorial, The
Hindu, New Delhi, January 22, 2004.
author is a Lecturer, School of Policy Science at National Law
University, Jodhpur, Rajasthan.)