|Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd.)
Two warships, both of Soviet origin, have recently been the focus of world-wide media attention, for different reasons. Former Soviet aircraft-carrying cruiser, the 44,5,00 ton Admiral Flota Sovietskogo Soyuza Sergei Gorshkov, accepted as a gift by India, and handed over to the Sevmash shipyard in Severdovinsk, for repair and modernization, missed yet one more delivery deadline when it suffered machinery problems during trials in the Barents Sea in early September 2012. A week later, another Soviet-era aircraft-carrying cruiser, the 67,500 ton Varyag, purchased from the Ukraine, and modernized by a shipyard in Dalian, was ceremonially christened the Liaoning and accepted into service by the Peoples Liberation Army (Navy) - albeit without any aircraft.
This fascinating tale, not just of two significant warships and two ambitious navies, vying for influence, but also of three nations and their different approaches to vital issues impinging on security and international-relations, deserves to be told here.
The Soviet “Aviation Cruisers”
The post-war Red navy considered aircraft carriers as expensive instruments of “capitalist imperial aggression”, and tactically, as vulnerable sitting-ducks for their submarines and strategic bombers armed with anti-ship missiles. However, with the passing of first generation Soviet ideologues, this prejudice was breached by the launch, first of the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter carriers of the Moskva class in 1968, and then, starting in 1973, of four “heavy aviation cruisers” of the Kiev class. Designed by the Nevskoye Bureau of St Petersburg, these 44,500 ton ships were the largest ever built by the Nikolayev (South) shipyard in the Ukraine for the Soviet Navy, and took Western observers by surprise.
The designation “aviation cruiser” arose from the fact that unlike Western carriers, the Kiev class, or Project 1143, ships were designed with an angled-deck which ran only 2/3rd the vessel’s length, while the fore-deck ahead of the island superstructure (offset to starboard as in western carriers) was taken up with heavy missile armament, including the 550 km range Bazalt surface-to-surface nuclear-tipped missile. Equipped with the Yakolev-38 (“Forger”) fighter and Kamov-28 helicopters, the intended mission of these ships was to operate for fleet air-defense, shipping strike and ASW.
Unlike the Sea Harrier which could perform a short take-off and land vertically (STOV/L), the Yak-38 could take-off and land only in the vertical mode (VTOL), and, therefore, had limited range and endurance; even the Bazalt missile had a much longer reach. Since their armament was a mix of missiles and aircraft, and they were restricted to operations within range of the land-based Soviet Naval Aviation, the “aviation cruiser” classification was quite appropriate for these ships.
While the Kievs did represent a radical departure from the dogmatic anti-carrier stance of Soviet naval strategists, equipped with the short-legged and subsonic Forger, they were no match for any of the US Navy attack carriers. By the mid-1980s it became obvious to the Soviets that their VTOL technology, and the Yak-38 family of shipborne aircraft, had severe limitations, and there was need to switch tracks.
Ruling out the steam-catapult route, the Soviets chose to adopt a British innovation, the ski-jump, and took up the challenge of adapting shore-based fighters for shipboard operations. By end-1989, they had succeeded; and a new class of carriers, led by the 67, 500 ton Tiblisi (later re-named Kuznetsov) was seen carrying out deck trials with conventional (non-VTOL) aircraft in the Black Sea. This ship blazed a new trail in aviation by operating modified versions of high performance aircraft, like the Sukhoi-27, Mig-29 and Sukhoi-25, from a carrier deck without the help of a steam-catapult. A new term was added to the maritime lexicon: STOBAR, standing for “short take-off but arrested landing”.
These exciting developments in the Morskaya Aviatsia (Soviet naval aviation) unfortunately happened to coincide with the historic collapse of the USSR, and all new projects were abruptly halted. By the early-1990s the first three of the Kiev class were decommissioned. Of these, the Novorossiysk was scrapped and Kiev and Minsk were sold to China. The fourth ship, Baku, was placed in reserve fleet and re-named Admiral Gorshkov. The Kuznetsov joined the Russian Navy, but the construction of a sister ship, the Varyag was abandoned, half-way through.
It is understood that in 1988 Russia had also commenced work on a nuclear powered carrier named Ulyanovsk. Equipped with a ski-jump and two steam catapults, this 75,000 ton ship would have been in the “super-carrier” category, but work was halted in 1991 for lack of funds, and the vessel scrapped.
Gorshkov/Vikramaditya; the Indian Approach
The first Russian offer to sell the Gorshkov to India came in 1994-95, following which, three expert naval teams, and a fourth one, led by the Defence Secretary, visited Russia to examine the ship, especially since she was reported to have suffered a fire in the boiler room.
The reports were at pains to point out the deterioration in the material condition of the 15-year old ship, and the magnitude of the work that would be required, not just to restore it to operational status but also to convert it from a VTOL “aviation-cruiser” to a conventional aircraft-carrier. Serious apprehensions were also expressed about the ability of the Russians to support the ship over its 30-40 year lifespan, and the capacity of the IN dockyards to sustain such a complex behemoth. With doubts of this nature being raised by Naval HQ, the MoD, understandably, cast the case into limbo for 5 years.
There were a number of factors that had an important bearing on the internal discussions that went on for nearly half a decade regarding the Gorshkov. Firstly, the MoD had dithered over sanction of the indigenous aircraft carrier project for so long, that with the impending demise of the Viraat, the future of India’s naval aviation was beginning to look bleak. Secondly, there was intense political pressure from Moscow for India to acquire the Gorshkov, which resulted in frequent prodding of MoD by the PMO. And finally came the irresistible sweetener; the ship was offered to India as a “gift”. The unstated condition was that its lucrative work-package should be assigned to the Sevmash submarine-building shipyard in Severdovinsk, then idle and, in dire financial straits for want of any orders.
Eventually, matters were taken out of the hands of the MoD and NHQ by the signing of a high-level Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) which pledged that India would acquire a package consisting, inter alia, of the Gorshkov as well as two nuclear submarines (on lease) within a stipulated period. Dropping all discussion regarding the merits of the acquisition, South Block constituted a price negotiation committee (PNC) and began preparing for a dialogue with the Russians. A parallel exercise was launched for the selection of a suitable aircraft.
The major items of work involved in the role-change of Gorshkov, after removal of missile launchers and associated equipment, were the creation of a flight-deck/runway running the full length of the ship, terminating in a ski-jump for take-off; and the installation of a hydraulic arrester-gear for landing. Operation of the 4th generation MiG-29K from the ship called for the addition of many facilities and electronic aids for surveillance and control. In addition the ship, idle for two decades and, in poor material state, required extensive repair, replacement and modernization of all equipment on board, including the engines.
Since the Gorshkov had been lying in the Sevmash shipyard for many months, the Indian side assumed that the work-package proposed by the shipyard was the result of an extensive survey of the ship and therefore, comprehensive, authentic and pertinent. The tortuous Indo-Russian negotiations lasted for over eleven months, and each item of the work-package was discussed before coming to a mutual agreement and signing of the contract in January 2004. The repaired and modernized Gorshkov was to be delivered to the Indian Navy in 2008 at a cost of US $ 974 million. Separately, a contract for the development, production and delivery of 16 Mig-29K fighters for the ship was also signed.
However, within a few months of the work starting, ominous messages started emanating from Russia about “under-estimation of work” and anticipation of delay in completion. This led to another set of negotiations in which India agreed to the Russian demand for a 250% increase in negotiated cost and a slippage of 4 years in delivery of the ship. It is noteworthy that by the time the re-negotiation commenced, India had already paid 25%-30% of the cost of refit.
In hindsight, only two possible reasons can be conjectured for this unprecedented turn of events. Either the Russians had been utterly casual and unprofessional in grossly under-estimating the extent of work as well as the time duration. Or they had adopted an unethical approach and enticed the Indian side by negotiating a contract that appeared “reasonable”, and then reneged on it once India had sunk enough money in the project. There do not seem to be any other plausible explanations for this breach of a solemn contract under-written by two governments.
However, the worst was yet to come. During its September sea trials, the ship, scheduled to be commissioned as INS Vikramaditya on Navy Day 2012, suffered a major failure of the refractory lining in her boilers, whose replacement will lead to a further delay of one year.
Varyag/Liaoning; the Chinese Style
Having purchased the hulk of the Australian carrier Melbourne in 1985, China went on to acquire two former Soviet carriers, Minsk and Kiev a few years later. The Chinese have proved themselves, adept at reverse-engineering, and analysts saw these acquisitions as part of a master-plan to closely study and undertake the indigenous construction of an aircraft-carrier. Such theories were bolstered by the fact that the Chinese bought blueprints as well as consultancy from M/S Bazan of Spain and the Nevskoye Design Bureau for aircraft-carrier design. The Chinese, however, had different ideas.
In 2000 the 20 year old, 67,500 ton Varyag was purchased from Ukraine, ostensibly, by a private Chinese company, for conversion to a casino in Macau. The ship had an eventful passage to China, under tow, around the Cape of Good Hope to reach Dalian after an epic 18 month voyage. On arrival in Dalian she was appropriated by the PLA Navy and placed in the hands of a shipyard.
Varyag happened to be the fourth aircraft-carrier hull to have been acquired by China, and its fate remained shrouded in secrecy and speculation for quite some time, till satellite imagery revealed in 2004 that she was receiving serious attention from a naval shipyard, both at an alongside berth and in dry-dock. However, it was not till 2008-09 when the fitment of major equipment, as well as radars, guns and rocket launchers convinced observers that a repaired and modernized Varyag would be the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier.
After nearly a decade of dockyard work, which included major changes in the hull, superstructure and flight-deck, and the installation of new propulsion machinery as well as weapons systems and sensors, the ship sailed for her first sea-trials in August 2011. Since then she has sailed on a dozen occasions for various trials, and clocked over 100 days at sea. An important point to note is that she has been fitted out with an arrester gear, which means that she is notionally ready, in all respects, to operate aircraft.
On 24th September 2012, the former Varyag was officially commissioned as the Liaoning, and handed over to the PLAN, displaying pennant number 16 on her bows. She is, reportedly, under the command of 43 year old Senior Captain Zhang Zheng.
There can be little doubt that the Liaoning, after extensive sea-trials and acceptance into service, is now a serviceable and seaworthy vessel, but one must be quite clear that both the ship and the PLAN have a long way to go before she becomes an operational STOBAR carrier. The first major issue relates to the availability of a suitable combat aircraft in sufficient numbers.
In this context, China had reportedly engaged in extended negotiations with Russia for purchase of up to fifty Sukhoi-33 (carrier versions of the Su-27) fighter aircraft. The negotiations apparently did not lead to a satisfactory conclusion because of Russian apprehensions about China’s propensity for reverse-engineering and their disregard of intellectual property rights. Not to be put down; the Chinese are said to have acquired a Ukrainian version of the Sukhoi-33 and used it to undertake a reverse-engineering project that has produced the Shenyang J-15, or Flying Shark, carrier-borne fighter.
The first J-15 prototype is believed to have performed its maiden flight in mid-2009, and images clearly show the same basic airframe design as the Sukhoi-33, with a Russian AL-31 engine. Given that normal development time for a prototype aircraft to complete its full trials programme and obtain operational clearances, it could be anywhere from 3 to 5 years before the J-15 enters production and squadron service. In order to fully exploit the J-15, the PLAN will need to acquire a shipborne helicopter for airborne early-warning (AEW). One of the few AEW helicopters in the market, today, is the Russian Kamov-31, and China will need a substantial number.
It is, therefore, obvious that the PLA Navy has some years to go before it can position a full air-wing on board and claim to have an operational carrier at sea. Till then the Liaoning will remain a trials-cum-training ship. Once the J-15 enters squadron service, PLA Navy pilots, as well as aviation support crew can then commence the training process to operate from the carrier’s deck. Only when all of them are proficient will the Liaoning count as an operational aircraft carrier.
The PLAN is known to have created a full-scale mock-up of the Liaoning’s flight-deck, ski-jump and superstructure at the Wuhan Naval Research facility. Two full-size dummy fighters and a helicopter were also seen on the deck. But this facility could only have facilitated checking of dimensional and ergonomic compatibility of aircraft with ship, and validating deck markings. For training of PLAN pilots to take-off and land from the Liaoning, they would need to use the comprehensive test-cum-training facility created by the Soviet Navy at Saki near Sevastopol in the Ukraine, which has a ski-jump, arrester gear and a full set of optical and electronic aids required for landing on board.
The Different Approaches
Comparisons have, inevitably, been drawn between the manner in which two emerging powers, India and China, have managed projects with remarkable similarities; acquisition of a de-commissioned Soviet-era aviation ship, its repair and modernization and induction into service. The two contrasting approaches reflect on many national attributes and characteristics, and it is useful to reflect on some of them.
The departing British had envisaged that independent India’s navy would be structured around one or more carrier task forces, and it was from the Royal Navy that we inherited our first two aircraft carriers and learnt the esoteric art of carrier aviation. For the past half-century or more, the the aircraft-carrier has remained the centre-piece of IN doctrine and strategy, and this concept has received support, in principle, from the national security establishment. In China’s case, as the blue-water ambitions and operational reach of the PLAN grew, so did its sense of vulnerability while deploying surface forces on the high seas without an umbrella of integral air power. The carrier has also been considered a major status symbol; as evident from Defence Minister Liang Guanglie’s 2009 statement stressing that China was the only “big nation” that did not have aircraft carriers and that such a situation “could not be allowed to prevail forever”.
The programme for acquisition of an aircraft carrier for the PLAN was, in all likelihood, conceived and monitored at the highest levels of China’s government, and has been marked by a series of difficult decisions with far reaching implications. The concept of refurbishing a de-commissioned Russian ship and restoring it to service in China, as a preliminary to indigenous serial production, appears to have carried the least risk, and was, therefore, sound. In India’s case, the navy’s long-standing proposal for indigenously constructing an “air defence ship” lay un-actioned in MoD files for a decade before it was overtaken by the Gorshkov offer. It received approval after signing of the Gorshkov contract, but the project has been languishing in Cochin Shipyard, ever since, for want of political interest and impetus.
China’s vibrant shipbuilding industry, its sound defence technological and industrial base (DTIB) and the national penchant for reverse-engineering gave them enough confidence to embark on the challenging task of undertaking refurbishment of a large and complex ship. It also speaks highly of their technological and management skills that they succeeded. In India’s case, there was no shipyard which could have contemplated a task of this magnitude or complexity. The decision to let a Russian yard undertake the task was, thus, a Hobson’s choice, but the Indian MoD was not permitted the freedom of selecting the most competent Russian shipyard to execute the job at a competitive price.
Finally, India’s inability to either build its own carrier or to refurbish the Gorshkov in-country, is as much a reflection on the lack of vision and resolve in the national security establishment, as on the failure of our DTIB (consisting of the DRDO and defence PSUs) to rise to the occasion, after 65 years of independence.
Let us note that when these two ships, with potent air-wings, are deployed by their respective navies, a new maritime balance will emerge in the Indo-Pacific region. The role played by Russia in the creation of this equation, was possibly underpinned by considerations of realpolitik, and is worth examining.
A major factor in Russia’s attitude towards China and India is the degree of dependence of each country on it for weapon platforms and systems. While the Chinese pushed though a determined reverse-engineering drive which freed it from external dependency in the early-1980s, India’s abject failure in defence indigenization has made it the world’s largest importer of arms. A majority of India’s weapon imports are from Russia and we will remain dependent on this country for the foreseeable future. Aware of this dependency, Russia would not be above wooing China as a buyer while taking India for granted as a captive market.
Notwithstanding their technological competence, it is most unlikely that the Chinese could have successfully undertaken repair and refurbishment of Varyag’s complex systems, especially the propulsion machinery, without substantial help from the Russian ship designers and builders. The ship was, reportedly, acquired without the hydraulic arrester gear required for aircraft operations, but obviously, somewhere down the line, the Russians agreed to supply this vital piece of equipment, as well as the optical and electronic devices for aircraft recovery. Similarly, there must be hundreds of systems, on board, of Soviet/Russian origin for which the Chinese would have sought and obtained Russian spare parts and support.
Coming to aircraft; despite the ostensible denial of the Sukhoi-33 by the Russians, the rapidity with which the Chinese have replicated it, in the form of the J-15 Tiger Shark, could be an indication of Russian help. In any case, the engine for this aircraft is the Russian supplied AL-31 Saturn.
In case of the Gorshkov/Vikramaditya imbroglio, it is now evident that Russia’s insistence on assigning the refit to the Sevmash shipyard was a serious error. This shipyard, dedicated exclusively to nuclear submarine construction, was obviously out of its depth, taking on the refurbishment of an aircraft-carrier built in a Ukrainian shipyard. Much of the gross “miscalculation” by Sevmash in the context of work-package and time-frame is a manifestation of inefficiency, mismanagement and endemic corruption that afflicts the Russian military industry. The latest failure of boiler refractory, during sea trials, points to a poor workmanship in a highly specialized area. The Russian government has, however, backed the shipyard to the hilt; rejecting feeble Indian pleas for imposing penalties or liquidated damages.
As far as the Chinese project is concerned, the most crucial piece of Russian assistance will be the availability of the training facility at Saki, where PLAN pilots will learn skills of STOBAR operations. If reports that this facility is being made available to the PLAN are true, then the presence of Russian instructors can be taken for granted. In this context, there are disturbing reports that the Saki facility, earlier promised by the Russians for training Vikramaditya’s pilots, has now been denied to India. More than a setback, this constitutes yet another breach of faith, but the IN should soon be commissioning its own training facility in Goa.
Both the Liaoning and Vikramaditya will be observed with great interest, by maritime professionals, when they put out to sea as operational aircraft-carriers. The PLAN, with the bigger ship and, perhaps, a more potent combat aircraft, but with no background of carrier operations, will be stepping out very tentatively. The IN, on the other hand, with experienced naval aircrew and half a century of carrier operations behind it, will deploy its carrier with confidence and panache.
However, it must be borne in mind that both ships were designed and built by the Russians who had little experience of shipborne aviation. Both ships will throw up many design flaws with operational implications, requiring innovative solutions and assistance from designers and builders. Russia will, therefore, have a continuing role to play during the service life of both ships.
How it plays that role and which way the “cookie crumbles” will be a function of politics and diplomacy.