The Russian navy was in parlous straits during the 1990s and the early 2000s. Suffering a series of spectacular disasters including, the sinking of the Kursk submarine with the loss of all hands. Operational hardships were occurred with a background of budgetary scarcity and decay. Since then Russia’s navy has been slowly getting back on its feet with a steady increase in naval activity and an increasingly visible presence in the world’s oceans. But while training and combat readiness have generally improved, Russia’s shipbuilding industry has decayed badly; perhaps past the point of no return.
The Russians recently unveiled a number of impressive sounding naval re-armament plans as part of the their general push to re-equip their armed forces with modern equipment. Announcing a plan is easy. Constructing modern warships is hard. While the Russians have been very good on the planning side of the ledger, they’ve been bad in the construction side. We can get a clear picture of the still-decrepit and chaotic state of the Russian shipbuilding industry by looking at refurbishment work they’re doing for the Indian navy. The carrier Baku was re-christened by the Russians as the Admiral Gorshkov and later sold to the Indian navy and renamed the Vikramaditya. Since the ship has gone through so many name changes, we’ll stick with calling it Vikramaditya for clarity’s sake.
Until recently Sevmash, the shipyard where the Vikramaditya is being renovated, maintained that the ship would be delivered to the Indians in accordance with the last agreed-upon schedule: in early December. However, additional problems with the ship’s boilers that came to light during sea trials have pushed the delivery date back by at least six months and, according to Russian state and private media, by at least a year.
The Vikramaditya, a heavily modified Kiev class, was built between 1978 and 1982 and served with the Soviet and then Russian navies. It was originally designed as a heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser, a distinctively Soviet class of warship more akin to a floating tank than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. The Vikramaditya’s original configuration boasted armament beyond what Americans would normally associate with a cruiser, let alone an aircraft carrier. Vikramaditya carried six pairs of Sandbox cruise missile launchers (heavy Slava-class cruisers typically carried 8), 24 Gauntlet surface-to-air missiles (SAM) launchers, two 100-mm cannons, 10 torpedo launchers, several anti-submarine rocket launchers and eight AK-630 close-in weapons systems roughly equivalent to the American-made Phalanx. In addition to that array of anti-air and anti-ship weapons, Vikramaditya also carried a compliment of aircraft including 14 Yak fighters, six Yak bombers and 16 helicopters capable of performing an range of reconnaissance, anti-submarine and anti-ship functions.
Partly because of its configuration and design, the Vikramaditya proved extremely expensive to maintain and operate. It was mothballed by the Russians in 1992 when, in the midst of the post-Soviet economic recession, there wasn’t enough money to keep it in service. Vikramaditya seemed destined to meet the same scrap yard fate of many of its Soviet brethren when, in 2004, the Indians and the Russians finally struck a deal that had been in the works for years: the Russians would essentially give the ship to the Indians for nothing but the Indians would pay for the ship to be refitted into a true aircraft carrier and for it to receive a new complement of carrier-suitable aircraft. The deal was originally supposed to be worth $1.5 billion and the ship delivered in 2008, but the refitting has been plagued by a never-ending series of delays and cost escalations. First the cost went up to $2.2 billion, then $3.8 billion and then finally $5 billion. In part the final $5 billion figures includes some additional fighter planes and training services but most of the cost increase is due to unexpected difficulties with the repairs to the ship.
Although it is true that the re-fit of the Vikramaditya is actually a decently-complicated bit of naval engineering (a quick comparison of the ship’s original configuration and its present arrangement shows that this was about a lot more than slapping on a new coat of paint) the fact that it’s taken the Russians a better part of a decade to refit one ship very strongly suggests that their aggressive plans for rebuilding their blue water navy are simply not going to happen. The Russians have had some success in recent years building corvettes, frigates, and even destroyers, but they have also made a number of aggressive plans for constructing larger surface combatants and their experience with the Vikramaditya would indicate that they have almost totally lost the ability to so.
The technical considerations of what went wrong during Vikramaditya’s sea trials aren’t importan (apparently the thermal insulation surrounding the boilers was defective and cracked when the ship was conducting a maneuver at flank speed). The Russians, very characteristically, blamed the problem on foreign-made components. The really important takeaway is that, more than four years after it was supposed to have been delivered to the Indian navy, the Vikramaditya is still experiencing new and hitherto unforeseen mechanical problems. It’s anyone guess as to when it will actually enter service with the Indian navy, and, given past experience, even the current estimates of a year’s delay might very well prove optimistic.
In addition to what it says about the corrupted state of Russian shipbuilding, the slow-motion catastrophe with Vikramaditya has made the Indians less enthusiastic about buying more armaments from the Russians. It’s been a major sore point in the bilateral relationship which, historically, has been quite strong. Considering how reliant the Russians have been on arms sales to India this is extremely dangerous and they can ill afford any more miscues lest they ruin their relationship with their most important customer (China was, for a period of time, Russia’s biggest customer but no longer needs to import many weapons since it has successfully cloned many Russian designs). Despite all of the high-level attention and money that have been lavished on the project, Vikramaditya, like Sisyphus, has never quite reached its goal: every time is seems as if it is going to get to the top of the hill, something else breaks.