'Gorshkov curse' continues aircraft carrier fails trials

Last Updated: Mon, Sep 17, 2012 19:20 hrs

The Indian Navy’s plan to always have two functional aircraft carriers has just received a second body blow. Already hit by a two-year delay in the indigenous aircraft carrier being built by Cochin Shipyard, now the Russian media has reported that the INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov) has spectacularly failed its ongoing user trials in the Barents Sea.

According to the widely-read Russian language daily Kommersant, seven of the Vikramaditya’s eight boilers broke down, with their firebrick insulation failing due to the high temperatures generated. The press reports stated the ship would have to be cut open to replace the boilers, a lengthy exercise that can start only next spring. Consequently, the Vikramaditya, which was originally to be delivered to India in 2008, will come only in October 2013 “at the earliest”, said the Izvestia daily.

Earlier, Russia had raised the cost of the Vikramaditya three-fold. Along with that, the latest delay makes the aircraft carrier a totem of Russian unreliability as a weapons supplier. From the originally contracted $947 million in the 2004 contract with India, Russia has raised the price to $2.3 billion. Now, Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation will decide whether the latest debacle will lead to another price hike.

The Indian Navy also faces major delays with the INS Vikrant, which was to enter service in 2015, but which Cochin Shipyard will now deliver only in 2017. Former navy chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, in a press conference in New Delhi on August 7, ascribed the delay to problems with the vessel’s engines and gears, and to an accident in which trucks that were transporting the ships generators from Pune to Kochi overturned en route, damaging the equipment.

The official establishment remains silent in the face of the embarrassment. The Russian embassy in New Delhi told Business Standard they had no information beyond what was in the newspapers.The Indian Navy public relations officer stated there was no information yet from the Russian government about the nature and extent of the problem. However, first reports might have exaggerated the failure on the Vikramditya. Driblets of information are coming in now from some 500 Indian sailors that are on the Gorshkov, observing the trials being conducted by the Russian Navy and by technicians from Sevmash, the shipyard that built the Gorshkov.

This information suggests the Vikramaditya is still moving under its own power, and the problem with the boilers exists only at high power. Sources in naval headquarters in New Delhi say the Vikramaditya is continuing with its aviation trials, in which MiG-29K fighters are still flying from the carrier, testing aviation-related systems.

High-placed navy sources say they are unsurprised by the failure of the Vikramditya’s boilers. Russia put up the Gorshkov for sale in 1994 after a boiler room explosion incapacitated the vessel. Finding no buyers, Russia offered to give it “free” to the Indian Navy, provided New Delhi paid for its renovation and also bought 16 MiG-29 fighters for $1 billion.

Reporting on the deal in 2004, NDTV, an Indian television news channel, called it “the most expensive freebie in history.” Navy technicians say, while evaluating the Gorshkov, they expressed their reservations over its unusual boilers, which generate much higher pressures than conventional warship boilers. Those reservations were dropped after assurances from the Russians.

The ripples from this incident will be felt during next month’s visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi. In April, while inducting the Russian-built nuclear-powered submarine INS Chakra into the Indian Navy, Defence Minister A K Antony had taken a crack at Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, who was also present.

“I will remind the Honourable Russian Ambassador about his promise to deliver the INS Vikramaditya this year,” said Antony. The navy’s wait seems likely to continue.

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