Don't Buy Your Aircraft Carrier from Russia

By Kyle Mizokami
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Like many contractors, defense or otherwise, Sevmash had its unhappy employer over a barrel. With the job halfway done, and having already dropped $974 million, India could not afford to walk away from the deal. Russia knew it, and was blunt about India’s options. “If India does not pay up, we will keep the aircraft carrier,” one defense ministry official told RIA-Novosti.

“There Will Be Grave Consequences”

By 2009, the project was deadlocked and word was starting to get around the defense industry. Russian arms exports for 2009 totaled $8 billion, and Sevmash’s delays and extortionary tactics weren’t good for the Russian defense industry as a whole.

In July 2009, Russia’s then-president Dmitri Medvedev made a high-profile visit to the Sevmash shipyard. Indian news reported that the carrier was still half-done, meaning that the yard had done virtually no work on the ship for two years as it held out for more money.

Medvedev publicly scolded Sevmash officials. “You need to complete [Vikramaditya] and hand it over our partners,” the visibly irritated president told Sevmash general director Nikolai Kalistratov.

“Otherwise,” he added, “there will be grave consequences.”

In 2010, the Indian government agreed to more than double the budget for the carrier to $2.2 billion. This was less than the $2.9 billion Sevmash demanded, and much less than Sevmash’s suggested “market price” of $4 billion.

Suddenly, Sevmash magically started working harder—actually, twice as hard—and finished the other half of the upgrades in only three years. Vikramaditya finally entered sea trials in August 2012 and commissioned into the Indian navy in November 2013.

At the commissioning ceremony, Indian Defense Minister AK Anthony expressed relief that the ordeal was over, telling the press that there was a time “when we thought we would never get her.”

Enduring Woes

Now that Vikramaditya is finally in service, India’s problems are over, right? Not by a long shot. Incredibly, India has chosen Sevmash to do out-of-warranty work on the ship for the next 20 years.

Keeping Vikramaditya supplied with spare parts will be a major task in itself. Ten Indian contractors helped to build the carrier, but so did more than 200 other contractors in Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Finland, France, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the U.K. Some countries, particularly Japan, were likely unaware they were exporting parts for a foreign weapons system.

The ship’s boilers, which provide Vikramaditya with power and propulsion, are a long-term concern. All eight boilers are new. But yard workers discovered defects in them. During her trip from Russia to India, the flattop suffered a boiler breakdown, which Sevmash chalked up to poor-quality Chinese firebricks.

China denied ever exporting the firebricks.

Finally, Vikramaditya lacks active air defenses. The ship has chaff and flare systems to lure away anti-ship missiles, but she doesn’t have any close-in weapons systems like the American Phalanx.

India could install local versions of the Russian AK-630 gun system, but missiles will have to wait until the ship is in drydock again—and that could be up to three years from now. In the meantime, Vikramadita will have to rely on the new Indian air-defense destroyer INS Kolkata for protection from aircraft and missiles.

As for Sevmash? After the Vikramaditya fiasco, the yard is strangely upbeat about building more carriers … and has identified Brazil as a possible buyer. “Sevmash wants to build aircraft carriers,” said Sergey Novoselov, the yard’s deputy general director.

That almost sounds like a threat.

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Kyle Mizokami
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