Naval Air: The Forever Ships

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January 10, 2009:  India's sole aircraft carrier, the 29,000 ton INS Viraat, is in the midst of a 16 months visit to a shipyard, where it is getting maintenance and upgrades. The work will be interrupted briefly this year so that the Viraat can celebrate fifty years of service.

The Viraat began life in 1959 as the HMS Hermes, and served in the Royal Navy for 26 years. In 1986 the Hermes was purchased by India and recommissioned as INS Veraat. It underwent several upgrades until it got a major (21 month) refurbishment, that included electronics and engine improvements. The Veraat was to have been joined in 2010 by the refurbished Russian carrier, the 44,000 ton Gorshkov (as the INS Vikramaditya). Under this plan, the INS Viraat was to be retired in 2012, after 53 years service. But now the INS Viraat is getting its engine and hull refurbished, and its electronics upgraded, so that it can serve for up to ten years more. That would mean sixty years in service. Such long service is becoming more common for warships and combat aircraft (like the B-52, Tu-142 and P-3). This is all possible because of advances in engineering and equipment design over the past half century. There are now more reliable techniques and sensors for evaluating the condition of old ships and aircraft. There are new materials and equipment to replace the older stuff and keep the old warriors serving for decade after decade.

Meanwhile, India has agreed to pay more money, and wait longer, to complete the delayed refurbishment of the Russian aircraft carrier Gorshkov. The Russians not only demanded more money, but also admitted that a labor shortage would delay delivery until 2012. The Russians have also admitted that the project also suffers from shoddy workmanship. The new deal will cost $2.5 billion. This includes the purchase of the Gorshkov, and Russian shipyards performing repairs, modifications and upgrades. Another $800 milliom is to be spent on aircraft, weapons and equipment. Building a Gorshkov type carrier today would cost about $4 billion, and take several years more. India is building another carrier, from scratch, but that 37,000 ton vessel won't be ready until 2015.

The Admiral Gorshkov entered service in 1987, but was inactivated in 1996 (too expensive to operate on a post Cold War budget). The Indian deal was made in 2004, and the carrier was to be ready by 2008. But two years ago reports, began coming out of Russia that the shipyard doing the work, Sevmash, had seriously miscalculated the cost of the project. The revised costs were more like $1.1 billion for the $700 million refurb. The situation proceeded to get worse, with Sevmash reporting ever increasing costs to refurbish the carrier.

 The Indians were not happy, 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 will cover some of the overrun cost. The Sevmash managers who negotiated the low bid are being prosecuted.

Once refurbished, the Gorshkov, renamed INS Vikramaditya, should be good for about 30 years of service. That's because, after the refit, 70 percent of the ships equipment will be new, and the rest refurbished.

 

 


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