This Old Aircraft Carrier is a Damned Embarrassment
The Vikramaditya was supposed to be India’s premier warship, like five years ago
On Wednesday, the Indian navy’s first relatively modern aircraft carrier sailed from its Russian port into the White Sea for a final set of sea trials. If they work out, the 45,000-ton INS Vikramaditya — a retrofitted Russian carrier dating to the 1980s — will end up in the Indian Ocean later this year.
That is, if nothing goes wrong, again. India’s plans to buy the carrier — a rebuilt Soviet-era Kiev-class aircraft carrier — has been one of the most fraught international military procurement programs in recent years, plagued by delays and hardships including the ship breaking down at sea, ballooning costs and even a sex scandal.
“The warship departed for sea trials early on Wednesday in line with the schedule,” Igor Sevastyanov, deputy head of state-owned Russian defense firm Rosoboronexport, told RIA Novosti. He added, “Everything is alright. The ship will be delivered [to India] this fall; we cannot afford any more delays.”
There’s a lot riding on Vikramaditya’s latest trials. India’s main rival at sea, China, has successfully carried out flight tests from its (also Russian-built) carrier Liaoning. Further delays would mean China carrying on further tests — and learning the ropes of carrier operations — while India sits back and twiddles its thumbs. All of this during a major naval build-up by China that has Indian officials worried about being left behind.
There’s a long and embarrassing history here. First called the Admiral Gorshkov, India’s carrier was designed as a hybrid vessel that combined a carrier launch deck with an arsenal of missiles, like a cruiser-carrier combo. But after the end of the Cold War, the Gorshkov spent most of its time sitting in port, with no money to operate it.
India bought the carrier in 2005 for $947 million and renamed it the Vikramaditya. The plan was to convert it into a true carrier. Its equipment would be modernized, its flight deck expanded and sloped for ski-jump takeoff. And its complement of fighters would be increased from the 12 now-defunct Yak-38M planes the Soviets used to India’s 16 advanced MiG-29Ks.
For New Delhi, it was a sweet deal and a bargain — in carrier terms. But since the price appeared too good to be true, it obviously was. Turns out, as contractors began inspecting the carrier, they discovered its internal wiring was in atrocious shape, meaning the vessel had to be effectively rebuilt from the inside. Steel plates were aging and had to be re-welded, in addition to swapping out the carrier’s obsolete machinery.
State-owned Sevmash Shipyard — which had been contracted to rebuild the carrier — “badly needed money,” Vyacheslav Trubnikov, Russia’s former ambassador to India, said in 2009. But India wanted an advanced aircraft carrier at “lower than the cheapest price.” The result: there was so much work to be done to meet India’s requirement, that in the end New Delhi had essentially bought a new aircraft carrier but only initially paid for an upgrade.
Prices soared. The final cost is estimated to have grown to around $2.3 billion. The shipbuilder came under accusation that another project — involving 12 tanker vessels for Norwegian firm Odfjell — was ridden with “wilful misconduct and massive contract breaches” on the part of Sevmash. Disputes between the Indian Ministry of Defense and the Finance Ministry delayed payments. The shipyard’s director was fired. The Indian officer who oversaw the project was then forced to resign after allegations of an illicit relationship with a Russian woman. Then the ship broke.
In the summer of 2012, the Vikramaditya set out on its first sea trials. Russian MiG-29K fighter pilots successfully completed take-offs and landings on its deck. Then the crew tested to see how fast it would go. The carrier increased speed and the rotation of its turbines, generating lots of heat and steam inside the boilers. At 30 knots, an alarm sounded and “the vessel simply stopped,” a source told Moscow newspaper Kommersant.
What happened? The Indian navy had requested the use of firebricks — like in a fireplace — to insulate the boilers, instead of more commonly used asbestos. Under the extreme temperatures, the firebricks melted. Seven of the eight boilers were put out of action and the ship was forced to limp back to port.
Russia’s struggling shipyards
But the Vikramaditya’s tumultuous past has much to do with the acute problems within the Russian defense industry, still trying to get back on its feet after years of neglect and decay following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the post-Cold War era, and for Russia, the little things behind big projects became much more complicated.
“When [the Russians] get into trouble — both for export and for domestic shipbuilding — is when they start building something new,” Dmitry Gorenburg, a researcher on Russian military reform at the nonprofit think tank CNA, tells Medium. “It’s not that the designs are bad, the designs are still quite good. The problem is when you start testing the equipment, it keeps failing and failing, in new and different ways every time you test it.”
The Vikramaditya, which has been heavily refurbished, is one of the most high-profile examples. But test failures have been a recurring problem with new ballistic missiles, amphibious assault ships and — most recently — another failed space launch; which saw a Proton-M rocket carrying GPS-style satellites crash and explode in a ball of fire in Kazakhstan this week.
“Those components end up being part of the problem,” Gorenburg says. “A lot of the supply chains used in the Soviet Union broke up when the Soviet Union broke up. A lot of the factories that provided components to the assembly plants ceased to exist, or were no longer within Russia, or shifted over to some kind of civilian manufacturing because there were not enough contracts.”
The firebricks used on the Vikramaditya were also reportedly “low-grade Chinese-made” bricks, Russian media reports noted. A Chinese military spokesman later rejected the claim. In many other cases involving Russian defense projects, according to Gorenburg, what used to be the final assembly plants for a piece of hardware shifted to building their own components — which they used to buy or acquire from somewhere else — or develop new supply chains on their own.
India and Russia have had better luck sticking to the old stuff. Russia has been the manufacturer for six Talwar-class frigates for the Indian navy, which is based on the stealthy Krivak III class of Russian frigates. There have only been a few minor delays. Russia has also sold an upgraded Akula-class submarine to India, the INS Chakra, and recently retrofitted an an Indian Kilo-class submarine. (India is also considering buying another Akula.)
To put it another way: it’s something of a learning experience. India is building two more carriers on its own. The first, the 40,000-ton Vikrant, is due in 2018. A 65,000-ton carrier called the Vishal is due in 2025. That’s still 35,000 tons lighter than the upcoming U.S. Gerald R. Ford-class carriers. But it’s still ambitious, and based on the hopes that everything goes according to plan.
Hope, it turns out, is a terrible basis for arms development.
Robert previously wrote about the feds’ plans to “fingerprint” your eyeballs.
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