Admiral Gorshkov: the ship that launched a thousand rumours

March 26th, 2008 - 10:41 am ICT by admin  

(Commentary)
By Ilya Kramnik
For months now, a Soviet-era warship has been making waves - and filling countless column inches - in both Russia and India. The ship at the centre of the storm is an aircraft carrier called the Admiral Gorshkov - or the INS Vikramaditya - which Russia has been refitting for sale to the Indian Navy. Last year the Gorshkov was the subject of controversy after the Russians announced that they could not complete the refit within budget or on schedule.

The deal to refit and convert the Admiral Gorshkov is one of the most ambitious projects Russia has embarked on in recent years. It involves not only its shipbuilding industry but also a contract to supply MiG-29K aircraft for the ship, and hundreds of jobs at Russian defence plants.

Reports about the possible sale of the ship to India first appeared in the late 1990s. Plans were also mooted to convert it to a classical-type aircraft carrier basing 20 to 25 MiG-29 aircraft. A contract was finally concluded in 2004, under which Russia pledged to hand over the ship and a complement of deck fighters to India and to train its crew for an inclusive price of $1.5 billion.

The project hit the headlines in 2007 when it was announced the contract had fallen behind schedule and the dockyard would be unable to meet the 2008 delivery deadline.

The date of completion was pushed back to 2010. No one knows exactly what went wrong. The official story is that the original contract drastically underestimated both the time needed to modernise the ship’s systems and the cost of upgrading the vessel as a whole.

If true, that would neatly explain away the cause of the delay and the extra cost. But it does not explain why it took so long for anyone to realise that the original terms were so hopelessly unrealistic.

Some experts say the contract was at risk as early as 2004, and most of the blame was laid on the Sevmash shipyard director general, who mysteriously retired - reportedly over the Gorshkov - in 2007. Adding to the intrigue, rumours started to circulate that the Russian defence ministry intended to buy back the ship and aircraft and induct them into the Russian Navy.

In early March 2008, Russia and India were reported to have reached agreement on completing the ship’s modernisation. Talks are currently under way between the two countries on final deadlines and an ultimate contract price, and the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, recently visited Russia to negotiate terms.

In another hopeful sign, the admiral said that the first of the deck-based MiG-29K fighters for the Vikramaditya is expected to arrive in India in May this year.

But Mehta’s visit has cast no fresh light on the affair.

With no full information available on details of the project, it might be of interest to take a look at the ship itself and the plans for retrofitting.

The Gorshkov was laid down in 1978 in Nikolayev as Project 1143.4. It is a Kiev-class heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser, a unique hybrid of aircraft carrier and missile-carrying cruiser developed by the Soviet Navy defence sector.

Each Project 1143 vessel was to be equipped with an air wing consisting of submarine-chasing Ka-25 helicopters and Yak-36 (Yak-38) VTOL (vertical takeoff/landing) aircraft. The exact purpose of these planes is unclear to this day - experts and history buffs categorise them either as fighters or assault planes. But as fighters the British Sea Harrier, the MiG-23, Phantom or similar aircraft of the same class outperform them. As assault aircraft, they were inferior to practically any strike plane of the leading countries at that time.

The main weapons of the Project 1143 vessels were their anti-ship missiles. The eight missiles each on the Kiev, Minsk, and Novorossiisk, and 12 missiles on the Baku (the future Admiral Gorshkov) were a formidable force which, combined with other weapons of a squadron, were expected to destroy the Soviet Navy’s main opponent - American aircraft carriers.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Navy took delivery of four such ships, which became the largest combat units in the force. The Admiral Gorshkov had a full-load displacement of over 50,000 tonnes, only outdone by the Admiral Kuznetsov with a weight approaching, or according to some sources exceeding, 60,000 tonnes.

Fourth in the series, the Gorshkov took the longest to build - it was launched in 1982 and commissioned in 1987. That year the ship joined the Northern Fleet after making the only long-distance cruise in its career.

The collapse of the Soviet Union upset plans to retrofit the carrier to take the latest Yak-141 VTOL aircraft. In 1992, the Gorshkov was put in for repairs that were never completed.

The converted Admiral Gorshkov will resemble a slightly downscaled Admiral Kuznetsov. The vessel will be stripped of its anti-ship missiles, and a ski-jump ramp will be fitted on the bow. New anti-aircraft systems and electronic countermeasures will also be added. As part of the Indian Navy, it will be used in coordination with the latest Russian-built Project 11356 stealth frigates.

As an element of the Indian Navy, the Russian ship will replace the aircraft carrier Viraat, formerly the Hermes, built in 1959 and bought from Britain in 1985. By the time the Admiral Gorshkov takes over in 2010, the Viraat will have served a total of 51 years. The Admiral Gorshkov was built in 1987. One wonders how it would fare in 2038?

(Ilya Kramnik is a military columnist for Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. The opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)

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