The Blog

The Carrier Cold War

The U.S. tries to shut Russia out of India's defense market.

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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kittyhawk-flightops0629.jpgThe USS Kitty Hawk is expected to be decommissioned in 2008.

Beijing

If current rumors in India are true, the United States could end up providing India what its traditional Russian arms supplier has long promised to provide, but so far failed to deliver. In the process the United States could deliver a severe blow to Russia's defense industry, adding another item to the long list of grievances Russian officialdom has lodged against the United States.

During the Cold War, India was famously the largest and most powerful of the "non-aligned" nations that stayed out of the East v. West confrontation. At the same time, however, India enjoyed close relations with the then-Soviet Union that went beyond just the bonds of political convenience and trade ties between the two nations.

Former Indian PM Indira Ghandi was one of Soviet Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's favorite foreign leaders, and he loved to make a show of that affection when she traveled to the USSR. Residents in sections of Moscow that straddle the main road leading from Vnukovo airport to the centre of the city can still recount how in those times they were dragooned by their local party officials to line the streets and wave Indian flags (if during the day) or flashlights (if at night) to greet Mrs. Ghandi's motorcade on official state visits.

India took advantage of their favored but non-allied nation status by purchasing from the USSR some of the most advanced weaponry available at the time. In the 1970s and 80s, India's fledgling defense industry benefited from Soviet specialists providing them with numerous current-day weapons platforms and the establishment of production lines to license-build Soviet hardware, such as the Mikoyan MiG-27s that were assembled at the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) plant in Nasik.

The collapse of the Soviet empire only augmented Moscow's weapons trade with India. Russia needed export revenues to keep its defense sector alive, and New Delhi was only too happy to provide them. By the 1990s, Moscow was selling India some of the most advanced weaponry in its arsenal, including the high-powered Sukhoi Su-30MKI, a specialized variant of the heavyweight fighter than was optimized for aerodynamic performance and upgraded with a new-generation radar set, the NIIP N011M Bars model, that not even the Russian Air Force has in service.

In 2004 Russia and India signed a deal to provide the Indian Navy with an aircraft carrier and a navalized version of the MiG-29, designated the MiG-29K, in order to give New Delhi the power projection capability in the Indian Ocean that it had sought for some time.

On the face of it this seemed like the perfect deal for both sides. India was to be given an older-generation aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, for free, but would have to pay $700 million for a refit of the vessel, plus they would have to purchase the MiG-29Ks and eight naval helicopters for another $800 million. India was also offered options to purchase an additional 30 MiG-29Ks and upgrades to Indian port facilities in order to dock and service the Gorshkov for a total of another $1.5 billion. But, the program has proven to be overly ambitious and has run into a number of snags that threaten to derail a decades-long symbiotic relationship.

For their part, RSK-MiG, the Moscow-based aircraft firm that is a combination of the old Mikoyan Design Bureau and several associated production facilities, have done a superb job with the MiG-29K. Prototypes of this aircraft first flew and landed successfully on the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the late 1980s, proving that the structure of the basic conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant of the MiG-29 could be adapted into a carrier-suitable (CV) design.

Since that time, MiG has made numerous refinements to the configuration using more advanced materials and new-age avionics. So many changes were made that the original MiG-29K-9.31 designation has now been re-labeled the 9.41 configuration, with the changes making for qualitative and performance improvements almost equivalent to the difference between the Boeing F/A-18A/B and C/D models.

But, for all of the success at MiG in making good on their promises to the Indians to build a new-generation carrier airplane--tailhook and all--the progress on the carrier has been abysmal.