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Never Trust A Used Carrier Salesman
by James Dunnigan
October 17, 2009

Indian officers have admitted that they were partially at fault in the billion dollar aircraft carrier Gorshkov fiasco. It seems it was not all the fault of the Russians that the refurbishment of the decommissioned Russian carrier Gorshkov cost a billion dollars more, and took several years longer. The Indians admit that, when they signed the deal in 2004, they had not had engineers go over the Gorshkov, and agreed, after a cursory inspection, that many electrical and mechanical components, buried within the ships hull, were serviceable. It turned out that many of those components were not good-to-go, and had to be replaced, at great expense. Shortly after the contract was signed, the Russians discovered that the shipyard had misplaced the blueprints for the Gorshkov, and things went downhill from there.

After four years of haggling over Russian demands for more money, India agreed to pay about a billion dollars more, instead of the original (2004) agreed on $1.5 billion, for a Russian shipyard to refurbish an old, damaged, aircraft carrier (the Admiral Gorshkov) for Indian use. Last year, Russia threatened to give the Gorshkov back to the Russian Navy if the Indians didn't, come up with more money.

All this was a sad tale of bungling, corruption, greed and lost blueprints. Work on the  44,000 ton Gorshkov was about half completed, when it was supposed to have been delivered last year, and renamed the INS Vikramaditya. But now delivery has been delayed until 2012. The Russians admitted that this project suffered from inept planning, shoddy workmanship, and poor management, and they wanted India to pay for most of those mistakes. The Indians were not amused, and played hard ball, making much of the fact that India was now the biggest customer for Russian military exports. Russia was also aware that India was increasingly turning to more expensive (and more capable) Western arms suppliers.

The original price for the refurbishment of the of the Gorshkov was $1.5 billion. Building a Gorshkov type carrier today would cost about $4 billion, and take eight years. Two years ago, the Russians admitted there were problems, and demanded another half billion dollars to make it all right. India went along with that. But last year, the Russians raised the price again, and now wanted $3.5 billion for the job, and an additional four years. The Indians refused to pay. The Russians were willing to admit to mistakes and put things right, for a price. For example, the boss of Sevmash naval shipyard, when the Gorshkov deal was negotiated, was fired and under criminal investigation, on suspicion of financial mismanagement.

Naturally, the Indians were not happy with all this, and at first insisted that the Russian government (which owns many of the entities involved) make good on the original deal. India sent its own team of technical experts to Russia, and their report apparently confirmed what the Russians reported, about shipyard officials low-balling the cost of the work needed. This is a common tactic for firms building weapons for their own country. It gets more complicated when you try to pull that sort of thing on a foreign customer. The Russian government initially offered to cover some of the overrun cost. But then they insisted that India cover most of it, or lose the ship entirely. Nothing was said about whether or not the Indians would get any of their money refunded. As Indian anger rose, the Russians began to realize that they would have to eat most of the additional mistakes, or risk losing billions in future sales.

The Admiral Gorshkov entered service in 1987, but was inactivated in 1996 because it was too expensive to operate on a post Cold War budget. This attracted the attention of India, which was looking for a way to expand their carrier aviation capabilities. India is currently building another carrier, from scratch, but that 40,000 ton vessel won't be ready until 2015. India's sole current aircraft carrier, the 29,000 ton INS Viraat, just emerged from 18 months in a shipyard getting maintenance and upgrades, which left India with no carrier capability. This was to have been avoided by the timely arrival (last year) of the refurbished Russian carrier. If that had happened, the INS Viraat would have been retired in 2012, after 53 years service (for Britain and India). But now the INS Viraat will get its engine and hull refurbished, and its electronics upgraded, and possibly serve for another decade.

Under the terms of the new deal, the INS Vikramaditya will be ready for sea trials by the end of 2012. Thus by 2015, India will have two large carriers in operation, and some bitter memories of their experience with the Russians over the Gorshkov.


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