By Alok Kumar Gupta*  


New Delhi, 12 February 2004

Much 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


Admiral Gorshkov –– An Aircraft Carrier for Strategic Advantage

By Alok Kumar Gupta*

India 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.

Salient Features of Gorshkov

  • Gorshkov can carry 30 MiG-29Ks and 10 Kamov helicopters;

  • Nearly 66% of the carrier will be reworked and retrofitted at the Servmash Yard in Severodvinsk, Russia which would cost about $700 million;

  • Called 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;

  • After 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;

  • The vessel at present is 29 years old and was decommissioned as an aircraft carrier in 1994.

Gorshkov’s Scheduled Induction

Gorshkov’s 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.

Imperatives for Gorshkov

Gorshkov’s 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.

Another 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.

Interestingly, 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.

The 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.

Acquisition 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.

Apart 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.

But 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 interests.

Problems and Prospects

The 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.

Indian 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.

Partly 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.

However, 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.

India 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.

A Historical Account of the Deal

Russia 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.

During 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, and included:

  • Russia 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;

  • Subsequent 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;

  • Gorshkov 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;

  • The 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.

The 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.”

According 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.

According 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 business.”

India’s 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 decommissions.


  • On the Gorshkov, Editorial, The Indian Express, New Delhi, January 20, 2004.

  • Cabinet Panel Clears Gorshkov Deal, The Hindu, New Delhi, January 18, 2004.

  • Ivanov Visit/Gorshkov Deal to be Sealed, The Hindu, New Delhi, January 19, 2004.

  • India, Russia sign Gorshkov Deal, The Hindu, New Delhi, January 21, 2004.

  • The Gorshkov Package, Editorial, The Hindu, New Delhi, January 22, 2004.

* (The author is a Lecturer, School of Policy Science at National Law University, Jodhpur, Rajasthan.)

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