After a year of encouraging progress in the refitting of a late Soviet–era carrier, which Russia plans to sell to India, the vessel’s latest sea trials in September 2012 ended in failure and disappointment. The discouraging results point to substantial structural problems in Russia’s domestic naval defense industry and undermine the country’s reputation as a dependable arms supplier.
The Kiev-class heavy aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, completed in the late 1980s, has been what sailors call an “unlucky ship.” In 1992, she went into the dock yards at Murmansk for work on her steam pipes. But in those tight financial times the work was not done and in February 1994 an explosion in the same steam pipes resulted in six dead and many others injured (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 3, 5, 1994). Thereafter the ship spent another year in the dock yard and only re-entered active service in 1995 before again being withdrawn the following year.
In early 2004, Russia agreed to donate the Admiral Gorshkov to India for free, but initially asked for $800 million for the upgrade and refit of the ship, as well as an additional $1 billion for the aircraft and weapons systems. The Indians wanted to refit the Admiral Gorshkov as a “short take-off but arrested recovery” (STOBAR) ship by adding a ski-jump bow and arresting gear for aircraft recovery. In this new configuration and major refit, the carrier was supposed to join the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya. Like many deals with Russian defense contractors, Sevmash, the Yard in Murmansk undertaking the ship’s conversion, began to speak of cost overruns in 2008. If India did not accept the increased costs, the Russians said that the Russian defense ministry would buy the carrier back and finish it itself. After hard negotiations, the two sides agreed to a price of $2.35 billion in March 2010 during then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. As work progressed, Sevmash announced that the vessel’s conversion would be completed at its yards by 2012. Given that all Soviet heavy aircraft carriers like the Admiral Gorshkov had been built at Nikolaev in the Ukraine, the task before Sevmash was a major one. Reports on progress in the last year had been positive, and in July the Russian press reported the first successful landing of a MiG-29 KUB aircraft on the deck of the Vikramaditya. At the end of the month the carrier took part in the display of warships at Murmansk on Russian Navy Day. As one source from the Russian Ministry of Defense declared: “The landing executed by the MiG on the Vikramaditya is a good answer to those skeptics who declared that Russia would not be able to fulfill this order from India. Yes, our country not only learned to build aircraft carriers but we already have our own unique approach in this area” (Oleg Roiskii, “Indiiskii avianosets vstaet v stroi,” Rossiiskie Vesti, July 30, 2012, p. 2)
Preparations then went forward for the official sea trials of the carrier, which were executed in September 2012. The Russian press was full of depressing results. During those trials there was a major failure of the ship’s propulsion system with seven of its eight boilers going off line. Initial reports from those close to the Sevmash shipyard put the delay in the final completion of the carrier back to October 2012. The failure came when the captain ordered the vessel up to a full speed of 30 knots and the warning system announced problems in the steam turbine propulsion system, causing the cruiser to come to a stop. The problem with the boilers arose because India had asked the Russians to replace their regular asbestos heat shield on the ship’s boilers because of the risk of poisoning to the crew. Sevmash had created a construction bureau for boiler installation that chose special fire bricks to replace the asbestos. After the failure, the inspectors discovered that the fire bricks had broken down under the high temperatures around the boilers. The question of damage to the boilers themselves from overheating would not be clear until the ship was towed back to Severodvinsk for inspection (Kommersant, September 17).
Sources from Rosoboroneksport, which oversees Russian arms sales abroad, reported that the earliest date for the transfer of the carrier to the Indian Navy was now October 2013, a full year later than planned (Difens Ekspress: Ezhenedel'naia Lenta Novostei, September 17). The failure of the sea trials and the damage done to the ship’s boilers delayed India's receipt of the warship and further increased the costs of the project. The repair of the boilers was estimated to cost one billion rubles ($32 million) and would represent an additional financial cost that Sevmash would have to absorb. No one at this time was sure whether India would impose a cash penalty for the further delay in delivery.
President Putin responded to the crisis by ordering a handling of the problem at the inter-agency level. Vladimir Shcherbakov, a Russian defense industry expert, pointed out that replacement boilers would have to be built by the original contractor, the Baltic Works in St. Petersbrug, and that this would not be a simple matter. Shcherbakov, however, expected the Indians to remain interested in the completion of the vessel since the Indian Navy desperately needed a replacement for its retired carrier, INS Vikrant, built by Great Britain during World War II, but completed in the 1950s after its sale to New Delhi (Izvestiia, September 17). Recently, the Indians have announced the construction of a new class of indigenous aircraft carriers at the Cochin Ship Yards, but this project will involve many years of work. Indian defense officials are used to delays in the development of domestic weapons systems, but the delay with the Vikramaditya has been termed “galling and inexcusable” (India Today, September 19). The Russian Navy for its part washed its hands of the affair saying that the vessel had already been sold to India (Komsomolskaya Pravda, September 18).