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
When the Russian state arms export agency Rosoboronexport (ROE) made the carrier deal, the vessel was scheduled to be delivered to the Indian Navy in 2008. ROE must not have known what they were getting themselves into and as of last summer the bad news for the Indians could no longer be kept secret. As reported by Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts, "the money [$1.5 billion] was allocated, but the work was never done."
Another Russian military commentator, Pavel Felgenhauer, stated the situation more bluntly in one of his columns on the carrier entitled "Sold: The $1.5 Billion Lemon."
The Gorshkov is roughly have the size of a U.S. carrier and was originally designed with a flight deck large enough only for a vertical take-off and short landing (VSTOL) airplane like the famous Harrier jump jets operated by the U.S. Marine Corps and the Royal Navy. Russia's Cold War-era answer to the Harrier was the Yakovlev Yak-38, a lackluster performer and an airplane so dangerous that was referred to as "the widowmaker."
Enter the United States. According to numerous sources inside India, when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits New Delhi late in February (provided his Tuesday Potomac Primary Day broken shoulder does not alter his itinerary) he will be carrying a signed letter from U.S. President George W. Bush offering a better deal for India than the one they have been struggling to get out of Moscow for four years now. The Indian Navy will reportedly be offered the soon-to-be decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) aircraft carrier for free--provided the Indian Navy will agree to purchase 65 of the newest model Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to be operated off of it.
If true--and if New Delhi accepts--this can do more than just sink the Russian carrier deal and the MiG-29K contract. The Indian Air Force (IAF) are deep in the throes of a tender to purchase almost 200 new fighter aircraft, with Boeing and RSK-MiG both in the field of six contenders. An order of 200 fighter airplanes is unheard of--larger than any such export sale in more than 20 years. In an era where sales of 12, 20, or 40 fighters are more common, this is the PowerBall Lotto of export competitions.
If the Indian Navy decide to take on the F/A-18E/Fs, it makes logistical sense for the IAF to do the same and the competition for this massive sale would probably be over for all of the other competitors before it gets started. This would be a huge blow to the fortunes of RSK-MiG, who are bidding an advanced, developed MiG-29 model they have now re-labeled the MiG-35. It could make it hard for the famous Russian planemaker to stay in the military aircraft market.
Just last December Boeing placed $1 billion worth of outsourced production with India's HAL. To run for 10 years, this contract will have the Indians building portions of the F/A-18E/F, the Chinook CH-47 helicopter, and other Boeing platforms. This incentive--plus the carrier deal--could make the Boeing Super Hornet the proverbial offer that is too good to pass up.
Moscow's reaction is likely to be less than joyful. Americans in general and President Bush in particular are not very popular with the Russian populace these days and are generally blamed for all of the country's ills in the same way that the Jews were the scapegoats for every misfortune during Soviet times. One Moscow colleague told me recently that this "popular disease of blaming the U.S. for everything has reached almost epidemic proportions. The other day I heard some older, retired people talking about the high prices that we all pay in Moscow and--of course--that it is all the fault of Americans."
The Kremlin is likely to react in tune with the people on the street and take the official line that this is an American conspiracy to rob Russia of its long-time Indian market for defense exports. Boeing--the chief supplier of aircraft to the U.S. Navy--will be accused of giving away a billion dollars in orders and the U.S. Navy of giving away the Kitty Hawk so that the United States can extend its influence and make the Indian Navy an integrated component of the US Naval presence in the Indian Ocean.