Now three times more costly than its negotiated price and two years behind schedule, the Admiral Gorshkov continues to sail into stormy waters. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report calling the Russian carrier deal the country’s “biggest defence mess-up” is merely the latest criticism of this $3-billion deal. Price issues aside, serious doubts have been raised by even Russian analysts as to whether the ship will be able to function as a blue-water carrier. Among other problems, the cruiser was artificially flat-topped when it was learnt India was looking for a carrier. Given New Delhi has already committed hundreds of millions of dollars and cannot afford to begin the hunt again, the only thing New Delhi can do now is grit its teeth and hope the ship arrives sometime in the next five years.
The government should learn some lessons from the Gorshkov experience. One is the need to drastically reform the country’s defence procurement policies. Because the twists and turns of large overseas defence purchases are hidden from public scrutiny for security reasons, such contracts attract corruption like flies to carrion. The United Progressive Alliance government — scarred by the Bofors gun scandal — has been proactive in cleaning up the process. However, a greater say by the armed services and a lesser one for the ministry of defence is still needed. In addition, there needs to be a rethink of the impractical ban on the use of third parties for weapons purchases. Their role has merely become more secretive. What matters more is transparency and debate. Having licensed middlemen actually improves information flow.
The other lesson is that India needs to diversify its weapons sources. One reason the Gorshkov was bought was the lack of any alternatives. This problem has gotten worse. The Russian arms industry is a pale shadow of the Soviet Union’s. It lacks money for sustained research, lags in the software capabilities that fighting superiority needs today, and, finally, are in hock to their main client, China. This is one reason Israel emerged last year as India’s largest arms supplier and why New Delhi is pleased at the prospect of the United States joining the fray. India lives in a tough neighbourhood and needs to be far more adept at acquiring the tools it needs to survive in such an environment.