Procurement: Russia Copes With The Vikramaditya Disaster


October 14, 2012: Although India has been buying Russian weapons for over half a century, the latest problem with poorly built engines in the new carrier INS Vikramaditya is destroying what little faith the Indians still have in Russian manufacturing quality. It's not just Vikramaditya engines but also unreliable engines in the Su-30, poorly built electronics in the T-90 tank, and other Russian warships India has purchased. The Russians have tried to improve the quality of their weapons and support but a shortage of qualified people to make it happen has made improvements hard to come by. Even the Russian weapons the Russian military buy suffer from these problems, which are largely caused by the free market conditions that have existed in Russia since the communist government collapsed in 1991. More qualified people prefer better paying and more interesting jobs in non-military industries. The Russian government has been unable to come up with a fix for this situation, which is causing problems with rebuilding their own military, as well has holding onto export customers.

A growing number of Indians want more Western weapons. These are more expensive but you get what you pay for, and the Western stuff tends to be combat proven and highly respected by users in many nations. The Russian stuff tends to be used by losers. 

The Russian shipyard managers admit that the Vikramaditya engine problem was not the quality of the Chinese firebricks used to insulate engine components from the intense heat of the steam boilers. The problem was discovered when seven of eight steam boilers in the carrier power plant failed during recent high-speed trials. The Russians initially blamed India for this, as the Indians refused to allow the Russians to use asbestos to insulate nearby engine components from the intense heat generated by the steam boilers. Instead the Russians had to use firebrick, which some engineers claimed would not be adequate. But after Russian ship yard engineers examined the engines they concluded it was poor workmanship and supervision, not poor design or poor materials that was at the cause of the problem. The ship yard promises to fix the faulty work within five months and not tear the engine room apart or have to open the hull to do it. To be on the safe side Russia is now telling India that the Vikramaditya will be delivered in about a year. The ship yard managers and workers know that if they screw this up there is going to be a lot less new business from India.

 Aside from the engine failure (a major problem) the months of sea trials off the north coast (Barents Sea) of Russia did not reveal any other major problems. In all other respects the ship appears to be in working order. The engine safety system, for example, detected the overheating and shot down the engines before any damage could be done. Other safety systems on the ship also worked well and the Russians pointed out that there were problems with some Western equipment the Indians insisted on using. Most importantly, two months ago the carrier experienced its first landing by a MiG-29. Any other equipment problems noted during the sea trials will be fixed while the engine insulation system is rebuilt.

The Vikramaditya was originally the Russian Gorshkov, which served in the Russian Navy from 1987 to 1995, but was then withdrawn from service because the navy could not afford to keep the carrier operational. Gorshkov was put up for sale in 1996 and in 2005. India agreed to buy the Gorshkov if a few changes could be made. India paid over $2 billion to refurbish the Gorshkov and turn it into the Vikramaditya.

Some of the Indian crew has been working with the Vikramaditya for over a year, learning about all the ship's systems, and over 400 of them were aboard during the sea trials. But now all but 40 of these will return to India while the repairs take place. The best part of that is not having to spend another Winter in Russia.

India was supposed to take possession of the Vikramaditya by late 2012, but that was delayed until early 2013, and is now delayed until late 2013. This project is now five years behind schedule and $1.5 billion over the original budget. It is a major cause of ill-will between Russia and India and has now worsened relations between China and Russia.





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