The much-awaited $2.3-billion (Rs 12,641 crore at current exchange rates) aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, will be inducted into the Indian Navy on Saturday.
Russia is set to hand over the refurbished aircraft carrier to India, ending a bitter saga that strained ties between Delhi and its top arms supplier.
“Defence minister AK Antony will commission INS Vikramaditya in Russia on Saturday,” navy spokesperson PVS Satish said. The induction ceremony will be held at the Sevmash Shipyard, Russia’s nuclear submarine building centre.
Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and government and naval officials from the two countries will take part in the event.
The Soviet-era INS Vikramaditya will set sail from the Sevmash shipyard in the Russian city of Severodvinsk and reach Indian waters early next year.
The induction of INS Vikramaditya is intended to shore up India’s defence capabilities as it seeks to counter a military build-up by an increasingly assertive China.
India's naval force received a major setback in August when a Russian-made submarine the INS Sindhurakshak exploded in a Mumbai dock, killing all 18 crewmen on board.
At present, India has just one aircraft carrier — the INS Viraat, which was commissioned in 1987 — even though it unveiled an under-construction domestically produced carrier in August.
INS Vikramaditya is a Kiev class aircraft carrier, which was commissioned by the Russian Navy in 1987 under the name Baku. It was later renamed as Admiral Gorshkov and last sailed in 1995 in Russia.
The 44,500-tonne warship with a length of 284 metres will have MiG-29K naval combat aircraft along with Kamov 31 and Kamov 28 anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance helicopters.
The MiG-29Ks will provide a significant boost to the Indian Navy with their range of over 700 nautical miles, extendable to over 1,900 nautical miles with mid-air refuelling, and an array of weapons like anti-ship missiles, beyond visual range air-to-air missiles and guided bombs and rockets.
After years of negotiations, the initial $1.5 billion contract for retrofitting the aircraft carrier and buying 16 MiG-29K, K/UB deck-based fighters was signed in 2004. The delivery was supposed to happen in 2008.
The original memorandum of understanding for the INS Vikramaditya’s transfer was signed in 1998 — two years after the Kremlin mothballed the carrier.
The Russian government of then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov had offered the aircraft carrier, currently moored in a White Sea naval base in northern Russia, for free to India. The condition was: New Delhi will have to pay for its repairs and modernisation.
However, lack of due diligence at the time of initial assessment of work led to whopping cost escalation that stalled its repairs and modernisation.
The aircraft carrier deal had become a major irritant in bilateral relations between India and Russia. By the end of 2007, when it became clear that Russia, which accounts for 70% of India's military hardware,will not deliver the radically redesigned vessel by the 2008 deadline, the relations dipped to an all-time low.
“This is no way to carry out international trade practices as it is a breach of promise,” said Mrinal Suman, who heads a defence advisory group in the Confederation of Indian Industry trade lobby.
"The Russians knew how desperate we were and they exploited that and took India for a ride,” the former major general, one of India's top arms procurement specialists, said.
Of late, India, world's largest arms buyer, has turned to Israel, Britain, France and the United States for hardware.
INS Vikramaditya will have a complement of indigenously built and developed ALH Dhruv choppers along with SeaKing helicopters.
With over 1,600 personnel on board, INS Vikramaditya would literally be a floating city with a mammoth logistical requirement of nearly a lakh of eggs, 20,000 litres of milk and 16 tonnes of rice per month.
"With a complete stock of provisions, she (the vessel) is capable of sustaining herself at sea for a period of about 45 days.
"With a capacity of over 8,000 tonnes of load, she is capable of operations up to a range of over 13,000km," a Navy release said.
It can sustain a crew of 1,600 sailors for 45 days at sea with a capacity to store 16 tonnes of rice, 2,000 litres of milk and 100,000 eggs.
The carrier has also been redesigned to dish out traditional Indian cuisine. The ship is powered by eight boilers and can achieve top speeds of 30 knots per hour.
“Almost everything on the Vikramaditya is new," chief delivery commissioner of Sevmash shipyard, Igor Leonov, said.
“The Indian Navy, which always maintained its engineers and technicians on the vessel throughout the refit and modernisation process, took the right decision to change many aggregates, components and entire cabling, instead of their repairs," Leonov, who will lead the onboard Russian team during the Vikramaditya's almost two-month voyage to its home base on the Western coast of India in Karwar, said. His team will assist India during the home journey.
Ajit Kumar Singh, a research fellow with the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, was sceptical about the usefulness of the ship, calling it a "white elephant" that India would find tough to maintain.
“These big ships are of use only during wars. And I don't see any conventional war happening in near future,” he said.