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Navy fires a shot across Russia’s bows

New Delhi, Dec. 3: The chief of the Indian Navy, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, today signalled that the security establishment was re-thinking relations with India’s traditional military equipment supplier after Russia’s repeated failure to adhere to contracts that fix prices and delivery schedules.

“Where is our relationship with Russia going'” the admiral wondered aloud rhetorically. He was asked for his response to Moscow’s demand for an additional $1.2 billion for the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov after it was contracted in 2005 despite slipping in the schedule. He was advising the Centre against reopening contracts with the Russians.

The navy chief was forthright in his criticism after the services told the government that it must make Russia seek military orders through multi-vendor situations. This happens as western manufacturers increasingly bid for Indian military contracts and Moscow insists that India should continue giving it prize orders — such as that for the 126 multi-role combat aircraft.

The admiral was speaking at a news conference ahead of annual Navy Day celebrations.

Though Mehta spoke only on the Indian Navy’s experience with the Gorshkov, he did say there was a conscious effort by the armed forces “not to put all our eggs in one basket”.

“When we took the Gorshkov which the Russians said they were giving free of cost, for just $1 (and for the cost of its refit), it was a sort of partnership. Of course we wanted that ship. We did a very detailed contract. It is a very good contract. When we went over there (to the Sevmash shipyard in Russia where the vessel is being refitted), the shipyard was in a decrepit state. Over the years we have seen how the shipyard has improved with our money... the workforce on the Gorshkov is far less than what we would like it to be,” he said.

It is rare for an armed forces chief — who is also the chairman, chiefs of staff committee, to articulate his dissatisfaction with Russia. The Russians have also indicated that their execution of a contract for three stealth frigates could also be delayed. Defence minister A.K. Antony had also taken up the issues during his visit to Moscow in October.

The demand by the Russians for an additional $1.2 billion for the Gorshkov has angered the admiral most. Navy headquarters has recommended to the government that it should not reopen price negotiations with Moscow after the contract was sealed. Such a move, despite the advice against it, was likely to reopen other deals.

First, the Russians would always find means to make money to cover their own failures. Second, in a multi-vendor situation, the losing bidders for an order could question the legality of the deal, the Centre has been advised. The Russians were already pressing the Indian Air Force to renegotiate a deal for 40 Sukhoi 30 Mki aircraft. Each aircraft was estimated to cost Rs 40 crore.

The Russians had said there would be a delay of two years on the Gorshkov at the least, Mehta said. Unofficially, naval headquarters sources admit it is unlikely that the Gorshkov — re-christened the INS Vikramaditya — would be inducted by 2012, by which time India’s lone carrier, the INS Viraat, would be limping. An indigenous carrier being built in Kochi was also scheduled for delivery that year.

The admiral, who is also the chairman, chiefs of staff committee, went on to say that the armed forces were making a conscious effort to reduce dependence on Russian supplies. There are currently $14.5 billion dollars worth of military orders of the Indian armed forces that the Russian companies were executing. Only last Friday, the Indian Army decided to award a contract worth Rs 1,400 crore for an additional order of 347 T-90 tanks to the Russians.

The admiral could scarcely mask his exasperation despite a hush-hush deal that will give the Indian Navy access to a Russian nuclear submarine for the second time. Mehta said it was not easy to call of the deal for the Vikramaditya because “we already own the ship”. The Indian Navy had paid up about $500 million for it.

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