The Carrier Cold War

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.

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.”

In order to accommodate the MiG-29K, the Gorshkov requires an extension to its flight deck to accommodate a CV capable airplane, installation of an arrested landing system like that used on U.S. and French carriers, plus a replacement of its maintenance intensive steam propulsion system with a diesel powerplant. All of this has proven to be too much to do for the original price agreed, so ROE are now demanding an additional $1.2 billion to finish the job. The Indian Navy’s chief Admiral, Surreesh Mehta, has obliquely suggested in the local press that this is little more than blackmail given that the Indians have already sunk so much into the program that it is too late to back out now.

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.

“American Imperialism is rising–we must be prepared to counter it,” will be the line from Russia’s all-but-certain-to-be future President Dmitri Medvedev. Or, it may be ex-President and future designated PM Vladimir Putin who decides to use his new position as a bully pulpit to advance Russian foreign policy objectives.

Either way, Moscow will be most unhappy and looking for what means it can to celebrate this indignation, which means look for relations to take a turn downward and for harassment of U.S. carrier battle groups by long-range Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bombers to be on the upswing. All of which will look just like what it is–a return to Cold War behavior, as well as the thinking that is behind it all.

(The Weekly Standard is an American neo-conservative opinion magazine published 48 times per year.)

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