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Media reports and reactions from the army suggest that Russia is delaying work on the aircraft carrier Gorshkov, thereby causing much trouble to the Indian navy, which is in dire need of the ship. The question is, why has Moscow failed to stick to the delivery schedule? Is it because of the escalation in costs or is it to counter perceived pressure on India from America to buy military hardware from it? Whatever the cause, the warmth of the past Russo-Indian defence relations seems missing. Would that imply the end of the Moscow-Delhi honeymoon? It is probably too early to say so.

Nevertheless, in the worst possible scenario, what could be India’s options? Can India get a replacement for the Gorshkov? In the contemporary arms bazaar there are only eleven users and seven producers (France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States of America) of aircraft carriers. It is therefore more of a seller’s market in which the prices are dictated to potential buyers. The Brazilian navy’s sole French Clemenceau-class carrier is a 1963 vintage. The French have also produced aircraft and helicopter carrier for the flotilla of France. Japan too is on its way to acquiring indigenous carriers in the form of destroyers, with at least three helicopters on board. Italy, Russia, Spain and the UK operate carriers made in their shipyard.

Tough call

The most interesting is the scenario in the Thai, Indian and the Chinese navies. The Royal Thai navy does not have submarines but has been operating a Spanish light carrier since 1997, a fund crunch notwithstanding. Post-World War II, India purchased an aircraft carrier from the Royal Navy and rechristened it Vikrant. The Indian navy today is so used to a carrier fleet, having gained in experience and expertise, that it has a legitimate claim to a two-carrier fleet operating on the eastern and western sea board with a third in a state of permanent reserve. Seen in this light, one can understand the dire need for the Russian Gorshkov to fill the vacuum created by the retirement of Vikrant and the unavoidable upgradation of the existing carrier, Viraat.

In the case of Beijing, acquiring an aircraft-carrier-capability is high priority. In fact China is supposed to have already given a contract suited to Beijing’s needs. China’s purchase of the ex-Russian carrier, Varyag, has also evoked considerable speculation. While the future plans of the Chinese navy are shrouded in mystery, experts say that Beijing’s first operational carrier would also serving as a test-bed for an indigenous carrier building programme.

Given the circumstances, it would be prudent for India to take the path of diplomacy and cooperation rather than one of open confrontation to procure its aircraft carrier. In case India misses Gorshkov, the only possible gainer could be the Red Navy of east Asia.

Should the Russians refuse to deliver Gorshkov on time with a cost-overrun reaching unacceptable levels, the US could be waiting for the moment to offer its oldest carrier, Kitty Hawk, to India. Should India go for the US aircraft carrier which participated in the joint Indo-US war game off the Andamans in September 2007? At this moment, the idea seems preposterous. But given the fact that China is waiting in the wings, India will have to face difficult choices.

Before this author ends, it would perhaps be necessary to talk about the Russian carrier scene today. A defence journal says, “Of the former aircraft carriers of the Kiev class, Kiev was sold to China for scrap in 2000. Minsk and Novorossiysk sold to a South Korean Corporation in 1994. Minsk today is a tourist attraction in China and Novorossiysk was scrapped in India...Gorshkov is being refitted to be sold to the Indian Navy.” Or is it?

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