Monday, August 24, 2009

Viraat refit done, but where are the jets?

As it is, India solitary aircraft carrier, the 50-year-old INS Viraat, is being flogged to ensure it can operate for another five years. To make matters worse, Navy is fast running out of fighter jets to operate from its deck. This is just another example of how the utter lack of long-term strategic planning and execution continues to be a bane for India, which harbours notions of being a major player on the global stage.

The crash of another Sea Harrier jump-jet off Goa on Friday, which killed its pilot, means Navy is left with barely eight single-seater fighters and three twin-seater trainers. Beginning 1983, Navy had inducted around 30 Sea Harriers, which take off from the angled ski-jump on INS Viraat and land vertically on its deck. But it has lost over half of them in accidents. The remaining have undergone a "limited upgrade'' under a Rs 477-crore project, which includes Israeli Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode fire control radar and Derby beyond visual range air-to-air missiles.

The latest crash comes at a time when the 28,000-tonne INS Viraat is finally getting ready to become operational again after an 18-month extensive refit to boost its longevity as well as weapon and sensor packages, as reported earlier. "A carrier without fighters is like a tiger without teeth,'' said a senior officer. Incidentally, as per earlier plans, both INS Viraat and its Sea Harriers were to be junked by this time. But the plans were revised since the Navy wanted two fully-operational "carrier battle groups'' (CBGs), with their own complements of fighters, by 2009 to project force as well as act as a "stabilising influence'' in the entire Indian Ocean and beyond.

CBGs or "carrier strike groups'', with a complement of guided-missile destroyers, multi-purpose frigates, attack submarines and tankers, after all project power like nothing else. The US, for instance, has 12 CBGs deployed around the globe as a crucial ingredient of its power projection policy. But repeated failures of successive Indian governments to take timely decisions has put paid to all such plans. For one, the refurbished 44,570-tonne Admiral Gorshkov, undergoing a refit at the Sevmash Shipyard in North Russia, will be available to the Navy only by 2013 at the earliest now.

For another, the 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) being built at Cochin Shipyard, will be ready only by 2015-2016 after meandering through political and bureaucratic apathy for several years. Navy, of course, will soon start getting the 16 MiG-29Ks contracted in the original $1.5-billion Gorshkov package deal signed with Russia in January 2004, under which the carrier refit cost was pegged at $974 million.

India and Russia, however, are still enmeshed in renegotiating Gorshkov's final refit cost, with Moscow demanding as much as $2.9 billion and India keen on shelling out around $2.2 billion. The acquisition of another 29 MiG-29Ks for around Rs 5,380 crore is also on the cards, especially since both Gorshkov and IAC will require these fighters when they are ready to enter service.

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