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VESSELS OVER THE DATELINE

Perhaps it did not happen before, when the first United Kingdom’s Vickers Armstrongs built Majestic class 20000 ton aircraft carrier (laid down in October 1943) was commissioned into the Indian navy on March 4, 1961 as INS Vikrant. The carrier had all the technical components, equipment and weapon systems in place. It also did not happen on May 20, 1987 (as it has happened today) when another, 28-year-old and used, British origin 29161 (full load) ton Hermes class aircraft carrier, renamed Viraat, was inducted into the Indian fleet in Mumbai. (Interestingly, Viraat was purchased by India in May 1986, thence to an extensive refit in Devonport Dockyard, thereby taking exactly a year from purchase to deployment). The Viraat still serves, having completed an active voyage of more than 26 years with the Indian navy. Compare this with India’s Moscow-made Vikramaditya. It was first “offered for sale to India by Russia in 1994. By 1999 the proposal was to ‘gift’ the ship as long as India pays for the refit. Following a Government to Government agreement on October 04, 2000 and protracted negotiations, contract was signed on January 20, 2004 for a five-year refit at a cost estimated to be US $ 625 million”. However, as things stand today, the price has reportedly escalated to a whopping $ 2.75 billion. An incredible time and cost overrun project (for an old, used, burnt and discarded ship) without any accountability and responsibility at the cost of India’s public exchequer.

In spite of all the drama, however, the Indian navy today faces an unprecedented situation with the commissioning of the first former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics-made (and subsequently abandoned), Admiral Gorshkov, the 46129 (full load) ton aircraft carrier into its Karwar based fleet. The ship is “clean” and “green”, being, at best, only a “floating runway” vessel, without missiles or guns; physical countermeasures, fixed wing aircraft or helicopters or any anti-submarine apparatus. It has set sail from the Russian port of Severodvinsk with considerable apprehension regarding its route owing to potential attack, snooping, tailing and shadowing by all and sundry on the high sea; from pirates to Pakistan; from the United States of America to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation navies and tourists to enemy agents. The “ship is defenceless”. It can do little if attacked. Hence an Indian armada (consisting of destroyers, frigates and logistic/ supply ship) will have to be deployed and attached for the safe voyage of the INS Vikramaditya from Severodvinsk to Mumbai. This should have been anticipated in advance.

The 11-carrier US navy’s latest construction order for two 101605 (full load) ton Gerald Ford vessels is being undertaken by Huntingdon Ingalls Industries at Newport News Shipbuilding for $15.4 billion (thereby making $7.7 billion per carrier). The ships are to be commissioned between 2015 and 2020.

The mighty Royal Navy of the past is today without any operational aircraft carrier owing to the “economy drive”. Yet, it has placed an order with the BAE Systems Surface Ships, Babcock International, for two Queen Elizabeth class 70600 (full load) ton ships for $8 billion or 3.9 billion pounds, thereby making each of its ship’s unit price $4 billion. Significantly, unlike India, both the US and the UK are producer-cum-user navies which makes them masters of their own naval destiny and allows total independence from foreign vendors’ domination and dictation.

Nearer home, in Asia, China is the indisputable naval giant, although with a conspicuous lack of the naval tradition (unlike its neighbour Japanese navy). China showed wisdom in 1998 when a People’s Liberation Army Navy front company succeeded in buying the incomplete aircraft carrier (ex-Soviet era built) Varyag from Ukraine and subsequently towed to Dalian harbour for major indigenous refurbishment. Today the Chinese carrier has finished virtually all sea tests and trials, significant problems associated with the hull and propulsion system notwithstanding. Reportedly, the ship now is likely to fall under the direct command of the Central Military Commission, rather than PLAN. (The CMC usually assumes direct command of the armed services in wartime; while PLAN ensures command in peacetime). This shows the “strategic value” being placed by the Chinese on their “indigenous” aircraft carrier as the only other forces under CMC command in peacetime are China’s strategic nuclear forces.

Of all the non-European and non-Western navies, Japan always stood out as the only Asian nation capable of producing its naval ships in record time. The tradition continues. Today, Japan not only possesses two helicopter carriers (each 18289 full load ton) but is on way to add two more bigger, better and technologically superior “22DDH” class (24000 full load ton) ships for $1.3 billion per unit with a three-year ‘conception-to-commission’ time-table. How does one feel comparing Japan with INS Vikramaditya’s 13 years and the $2.75 billion price tag? That too unfinished?

One, however, is not on a mission to belittle either the nation or the navy of New Delhi. The point which needs to be understood is that no country can aspire to be a maritime power on imported, second-hand, old and used ships without indigenous industrial capacity and capability. The US, Russia, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Japan historically have had their advanced production line. Hence they could build, take care of the needs for themselves, and also export to outsiders to make money which in turn helped them make more ships for their navies and go for research and development to keep them technologically ahead of their competitors and the navies of non-industrial users.

Things, however, appear to be changing for better as the Indian navy today is way ahead of both, the army and air force of India, in indigenous production of combat hardware as well as software. Nevertheless, if indeed India is capable of making its own aircraft carrier in Kochi and nuclear powered submarine in Visakhapatnam, one wonders as to what was the need for having a “clean and green” carrier after more than a 13-year wait? Surely INS Vikramaditya will now again go to some dry dock for fittings of various combat and other connected systems in collaboration with some foreign vendors who in turn will again ensure a fat profit for themselves, thereby further ballooning the price tag of the ship. That will again take time. Hence the end result — more time and cost overrun?

Clearly a lesson needs to be learnt from the INS Vikramaditya episode. The Russians have traditionally helped the armed forces of India. But it is time India helps its own armed forces rather than expecting foreigners to come into the scene. It would indeed be foolish to think that we will get the best and the latest technology from the foreigners. That unfortunately never happens without a price and will not happen in future. Military hardware is multi-billion dollar business which brooks no friendship and fraternity. The sooner this realization dawns on the Indians, the better it would be for the country’s finance, firepower, freedom of activity and decision making capability.