There has to be weighty reasons why the entire defence establishment in India, including its political top tier, has been so enthusiastic about buying a mothballed Russian aircraft carrier, the “Baku” (since renamed “Admiral Gorshkov”) for a price of $3 billion and counting. Some months ago, this columnist had visited Tianjin in China, where he saw another junked aircraft carrier, which had been converted into a floating museum by the Chinese authorities, in order to educate the public about the importance and configuration of a carrier. Although the exact cost of buying the vessel was not revealed, it was less than 5% of what the Indian taxpayer is paying for the “Baku”, now renamed “Vikramaditya”. Operational records of this vessel reveal that it was deemed seaworthy only five years after launch in 1982, because of the constant malfunctioning of several of its systems, including the core function of control. Ensuring that the ship safely sailed on the high seas, even for limited periods of time, proved so expensive that the Russian navy withdrew the ship from service after a measly ten years of operation. One factor behind the decision may have been its history of accidents, including an exploded boiler in 1994. It took another decade before the Russians could locate a buyer. That was India, where in 2004 the NDA agreed to purchase the vessel for a billion US dollars. Strangely, despite India getting such a poor bargain (in contrast to the Chinese), there were many smiles all across the defence and political establishment of Delhi at the purchase.
Such good humour multiplied after the UPA assumed office, and agreed to escalation after escalation of the cost. Presently, the Manmohan Singh government, whose finance ministers are so stingy about giving tax concessions to the middle class, has committed $3 billion in payouts to Moscow, a figure that is rising monthly. Given that the era of aircraft carriers has passed, unless to intimidate Tuvalu or Fiji, it would have made more sense to have spent that much money on the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme of the DRDO, this time forcing that behemoth to partner with private Indian companies rather than keeping the entire production line within the state sector. A single missile costing less than $3 million is all that is needed to send “Vikramaditya” to where the Titanic has been resting for a century. As for comparisons between the missile capabilities of India and China, this would be akin to comparing the trusty Hindustan Ambassador with a Porsche. Hopefully, future wars will get fought only with countries such as Lesotho or Burkina Faso, for combat with either of our two neighbours (or with both acting in tandem) would severely test the composure even of the ever-hopeful Manmohan Singh. Given its record of operating extravagance, it is reasonably certain that once the “Vikramaditya” goes operational again, the Indian navy will become such a drain on the exchequer that even the Raid Raj of P. Chidambaram will not suffice to feed the maw of its immense — and expensive — white elephant.
Let it be admitted that this columnist has a preference, and this is for imitating the Pakistanis and sweet-talking the Americans into handing over more of their retired vessels, on the same lines as the USS Trenton was. This was sold to the Indian Navy in 2006 for $47 million, a tiny fraction of what was demanded for the “Baku”. That Manmohan Singh enjoys the cosiest of relations with Washington is not entirely a secret. Had the Prime Minister spent less effort on tackling the soup served to him at President Obama’s state banquet and focused on trying to get him to transfer another three or four mothballed carriers to India, even at a price of $200 million each, this would have been only what was originally demanded by Moscow for the “Baku”. Just as the only way the Royal Navy was able to keep itself in business during 1939-41 was by the transfer of US ships to it, the only viable way in which the Indian Navy can emerge as a respectable double-ocean force in the next decade is by getting transferred US vessels to its fleet. When added to an expansion of the missile programme, this would have made Delhi the equal of any capital in Asia in terms of military power, given the pivotal importance of the navy (and the air force) in modern warfare. Instead, an unconscionable sum has been spent on a floating junkyard that refuses to sail, even after massive infusions of cash. In the hubbub over “Coalgate”, the country is losing sight of “Carriergate”.