The Indian defence secretary R K Mathur wrapped up a three-day visit to Russia. The visit that was originally scheduled to take place in June took place from 2-4 September and had a wide range of military hardware acquisition agenda. Besides discussions on the sinking of an Indian submarine, Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier rechristened as INS Vikramaditya, the fifth generation fighter aircraft and leasing of more nuclear submarines were discussed.
Costing over $3 billion and with tonnage of over 45,000 tons, the aircraft carrier will be handed over to the Indian Navy in mid-November this year and would reach the Indian waters in the second week of January next year.
The aircraft carrier has completed sea trials in the Barents Sea this July and is destined to undertaking aviation trials, including take-offs and landings, in the next a few months. Progress was also reviewed on the joint design and production of the fifth generation fighter aircraft, which is set to hit the skies by 2020. India has announced to purchase some 300 of these aircraft. The Russian acquiescence was also achieved for up-gradation of the INS Sindhushastra, a sister submarine of the Kilo class submarine family. Another important aspect of the visit was discussions on the lease of another nuclear submarine. Before the visit, the two sides had had preliminary discussions on possibilities of provision of the second nuclear submarine to India but the price tag was not agreed to.
India has indicated that it is ready to put in $1 billion for 10 years lease but the Russians are vying to get a much higher price for the lease. No agreement on the price, however, could be reached. The lease issue will again come up for discussions when Indian defence minister A K Antony visits Russia in October for which the defence secretary also discussed the agenda.
The sinking of INS Sindhurakhshak has already been discussed by the Indian prime minister during one-on-one meeting with Russian President Putin on the sidelines of G-20 Summit that took place at St Petersburg on September 5-6.
The matter will be pursued further with the Russian authorities when the Indo-Russian Inter Governmental Military and Technical Cooperation Commission meets in mid October wherein the two respective defence ministers will discuss the issue and streamline the finer points of the deal on lease of another nuclear submarine before the thread is picked up by Indian prime minister when he meets the Russian president later in Moscow in October for 14th annual summit between Russia and India.
Eighteen sailors, including four officers of the crew of an Indian submarine INS Sindhurakshak berthed alongside Mumbai harbour, were killed when two large explosions ripped apart the forward section of the submarine hull. The tragic accident took place on the heels of two naval landmark events declaring that nuclear reactor installed on board its first nuclear submarine INS Arihant had reached criticality as the submarine prepared for harbour and sea trials and launching of the INS Vikrant, both indigenously built.
The Indians and Russians restrained themselves in blaming each other over the incident. The Indians could not afford to blame the Russians on the probable technical causes that led to the sinking of the submarine for its major military hardware is of the Russian origin and as such decided not to irk the Russians.
The Russians, on their part, pre-empted the Indians on any blame game by saying that the changes in the technical side of the refurbished Indian submarine were made at the insistence of Indian Navy and opined that two concurrent and very sensitive evolutions were being undertaken on board the ill-fated submarine at the same time.
Also, the Russians offered India their cooperation in investigating the circumstances that led to the destruction of the Indian submarine. They have even offered to replace the lost submarine with a new one if India so desired. There have been no surprises as both the Indians and Russians acted responsibly on sinking of the INS Sindhurakhshak and refrained from blaming each other on the event. The incident, therefore, has had no effect on their bilateral relationship. The continuity of high-level meetings at the defence and the political levels speak about strength of their bilateral relationship and Indian needs as it remains dependent on the Russians to keep afloat its military incorporation. Nevertheless, at home, the INS Sindhrakhshak’s sinking is no more a topic of discussion either in the print or electronic media or on any other official circles. The strange silence on a strategic capability loss indicates how Indian media plays side by side with its government on matters of national security.
However, the sinking of the INS Sindhurakhshak alongside its berth in Mumbai harbour highlights the grey areas in the Indian Navy’s submarine practices. This particular incident of ineptitude has created a stir in nuclear experts that have become wary of India’s competence to run a nuclear submarine platform safely. Russians have also escalated their asking price for leasing out another nuclear submarine to India.
Though India is investing heavily into its navy to be counted as a blue water navy but the haste has led the navy to bypass and overlook safeties to hide shortcomings in training and lack of technical knowhow on their naval platforms.
As per an analysis published by the Langley Intelligence Group Network (LIGNET) USA, India’s unveiling of its first domestically made aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and first nuclear submarine INS Arihant “launches” were premature. The analysis highlights that Vikrant will be operational by 2018 and Arihant will begin sea trials in the coming year. It has also concluded that the Indian Navy remains little more than a coastal defence force and it remains to be seen if India can overcome the technological hurdles, cost overruns, bureaucratic incompetence and corruption that have plagued its naval programme.