Though Putin is keen on ensuring that the aircraft carrier is ready by year-end

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin taking an active interest in ensuring that the aircraft carrier Gorshkov is ready by the end of the year, top level Indian sources fear a further six-month delay.

Flight trials — landing of fighter aircraft on the ship’s deck — started late and will have to be suspended later this month due to the onset of near-Arctic conditions in the Russian north. The trials are then expected to resume when the weather relents, most likely in March next year.

But Russian sources said there was a “slight difference in formulation.” The flag-raising ceremony on the gigantic ship will be held on the designated date in December and an Indian crew will start taking over operations.

Cost escalation

“This is what happened with INS Chakra [nuclear powered submarine]. It was given to India two or three months in advance. So when we talk of giving the Gorshkov [now called INS Vikramaditya], it might mean raising the flag and an Indian crew taking over. It won’t reach Indian shores by the end of the year but the crew will be aboard and the official ceremony would have been held,” explained the Russian sources.

“Mr. Putin’s intervention did help and this delay will be an embarrassment to him because he had intervened to get the project back on rails. We will also face an extremely difficult situation because of this,” said Indian government sources. The delivery of the aircraft carrier has been delayed by four years and the refurbishment cost of the partly-gutted ship, given free to India as a goodwill gesture, has almost doubled. This led Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to mention the matter to Mr. Putin when they last met.

Lavrov’s visit

However, the issue is unlikely to figure during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit on October 4 but will be on the table when Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s new pointsman on India, arrives here on October 15 to discuss military matters with Defence Minister A.K. Antony.

Despite the higher price India has been forced to pay, officials here maintain that New Delhi will never be able to get a carrier of this size. The cost escalation happened because both sides were in a hurry to seal the deal — the Russian shipyard was facing an acute financial crunch and Indian negotiators were under pressure to sign the contract before the general elections of 2004.

India has one operational aircraft-carrier INS Viraat, purchased second-hand from the British, which will function for another couple of years. According to the Navy, the country should have three aircraft carriers. While two would be deployed on either coastal flanks and beyond, the third could undergo refits. Currently, India is left with no aircraft carrier whenever Viraat has to undergo extensive refits due to its age. India is indigenously building an aircraft carrier, much smaller than the Gorshkov, at Kochi.

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