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Indian ‘army’ for Gorshkov

New Delhi, Feb. 27: India has offered to send an army of workers from its shipyards to Russia to help salvage the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier it contracted for its navy four years ago for $1.5 billion.

The unprecedented offer to send the workers was made because the Indian Navy is all at sea with worries that the absence of the carrier will impact on its force levels.

India’s only carrier, the INS Viraat, is due to be decommissioned by the time the Gorshkov is readied. Its indigenous air-defence ship, now being made at Kochi, would also not be available before the middle of the next decade at the earliest.

The Gorshkov is all but grounded at Russia’s Sevmash shipyard where a shortage of labour has combined with slothful procedures to disrupt the delivery schedule. The earliest the Indian Navy can look forward to having the ship is 2012, four years behind the agreed timeline. To compound the navy’s problems, Moscow has also demanded an additional $1.2 billion.

The offer to send nearly 500 Indian workers and technicians to Sevmash was made by defence secretary Vijay Singh during a visit to Russia as the head of a delegation last week.

India has still not formally agreed to ask for the US aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, which is to be decommissioned by the US Navy next month. US defence secretary Robert Gates, who left Delhi today, denied that he had come with an offer to transfer the Kitty Hawk to India.

“The need for contacting other countries does not arise as the existing contract with Russia is still valid,” defence minister A.K. Antony told Parliament today.

Antony was replying to a question on whether the government was considering a proposal to buy any other carrier from another country because of the delay in getting the Gorshkov.

“The overall progress of repair and re-equipping of the ship in Russia is behind schedule,” Antony admitted. “Russia has indicated an increase in price for repair and re-equipping of ex-Admiral Gorshkov (the Indian Navy intends to rechristen it as the INS Vikramaditya)”.

Singh said negotiating for a carrier from another supplier could prove expensive. A carrier with the capabilities of the Gorshkov would cost upwards of $4 billion in the world market. This line justifies Delhi’s intention to agree to the price hike demanded by Moscow though navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta had spoken out against such a move.

Singh said Moscow was not reconsidering the contract for the carrier. He said during his visit to Russia, he had met the industry minister who urged that “India should trust us. It is a project of the highest importance for the government of Russia. It (the delay) embarrasses us. The cost escalation is inescapable.”

Singh showed a photograph of the Gorshkov in the Sevmash shipyard where he said work was continuing even at night-time winter temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius.

The shipyard has 28,000 workers and a record of building nuclear-powered vessels for the Russian navy.

Singh said he offered to send Indian workers after being informed of the labour shortage.

The defence secretary said Vice-Admiral Dilip Deshpande, the controller of warship production and acquisition, will visit Russia shortly to work out “the essentiality and reasonableness of costs” by the end of March.

After it is refitted, the Gorshkov is expected to be seaworthy for 30 years. The carrier will go for sea trials for 18 months after mid-2010.

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