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Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 16:38 UK

Crucial Indian defence deals delayed

By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Delhi

Indian Air Force drill team performs at the IAF Day Parade in New Delhi on Oct. 8, 2009
A lack of equipment has affected the performance of the air force

India's plans to improve its defence capabilities have suffered a setback because three highly publicised military deals have been delayed by years.

Among the big defence acquisitions which are at stake, two are for the navy and one for the air force.

The plan that has suffered the most is the navy's ambition to secure India's 7,500km (4,660 miles) coastline and police international waters in the face of a rising terrorist threat.

The plan to buy an old Russian aircraft carrier and get it refitted to serve the navy for another 30 years continues to defy every new deadline announced for its induction.

French Scorpene submarines, proposed to be built in India, are nowhere near fruition either.

Air force pilots training to operate supersonic jets were overjoyed when in 2004 decades of political inaction were transformed into an order to buy 66 jet trainer aircraft from British Aerospace (BAE).

The Hawk Jet trainers were ordered to help budding pilots improve their skills before moving to a supersonic fighter jet.

Delayed

In the absence of a trainer aircraft that would help young pilots to graduate from subsonic to supersonic speed, several air force MiG fighters crashed, taking with them budding pilots.

Now all three high profile purchases have been delayed.

From rising costs of the aircraft-carrier Gorshkov to corruption charges delaying the induction of Scorpene submarines to closure of British Aerospace factories - India's military plans have become hostage to delays.

Indian air force personnel douse the wreckage of a MiG-21 aircraft that crashed at a field on September 10, 2009
MiG crashes have killed many trainee pilots

"But the navy has learnt to manage with present resources," says defence expert Ranjit Rai.

The story of India's planned acquisition of a second aircraft carrier gets more curious by the day.

INS Viraat, the renamed British carrier Hermes, started showing signs of ageing some years ago and the need to procure a second one was felt.

India is building an indigenous aircraft carrier but it will take several years before it is complete.

So India's old and dependable military supplier, Russia, came to its aid.

In turn, India rescued Sevmesh shipyard in northern Russia from closure by agreeing to buy Gorshkov and get it refitted - a deal which was hastily agreed in two days.

In this hurry, fine points including the ones relating to what was expected of Russia were overlooked.

The then naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash was made to believe that it was a "fixed price contract".

Undue haste

But over five years the cost of the deal has risen from $974m to $2.2bn. And it is still rising.

The haste with which the aircraft deal was signed continues to surprise many.

India agreed to buy and get a ship refurbished without Gorshkov's design.

"It's like buying a house without its layout design," Mr Rai said.

The Scorpene submarine
It will be years before Scorpene will sail in India

When the ship was ripped open, it was found that the wiring was ageing and needed to be redone.

A Japanese contractor awarded the rewiring contract found the job overwhelming - given the costs involved - and left. Now a new contractor has been found for the purpose.

Gorshkov's steel plates and machinery, too, needed to be pulled apart and new ones fitted.

The combined total of the work required to refurbish and refit an ageing carrier has contributed to the rising costs.

India remains unhappy with the deal but has little elbow room given the importance of Russia for its military supplies.

With Gorshkov's induction delayed, the government decided to refit its only aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, but it will not be operational till 2015.

That leaves the Indian navy with no aircraft carrier for some time.

At the same time, the navy's attempt to spruce up its submarine strength has not made much headway.

Sleepless nights

India has 16 diesel-powered subs, but only nine are actually operational.

The nuclear powered submarine Scorpene that India is building with Russian help will also take a few years to sail.

Last month, Indian Defence Minister AK Antony was forced to admit in parliament that plans to increase the number of submarines would be impacted.

Indian air force's Surya Kiran aircrafts perform at the IAF Day Parade in Delhi on Oct. 8, 2009
Surya Kiran is a basic training aircraft

Under a 2005 agreement, India was to build six Scorpenes for $3.9bn under license from France.

But there is no sign that the first Scorpene will get delivered in 2012 as agreed.

Another acquisition that has caused sleepless nights for the air force is the Hawk Jet Trainer deal with British Aerospace (BAE).

For decades, senior air force officers had asked for a mid-trainer aircraft for fighter pilots to train on before they started flying supersonic jets.

In the past few years, many young pilots died as they transited from a basic Surya Kiran trainer aircraft to supersonic MiG-21s.

Some could not manage to manoeuvre a MiG-21 at supersonic speeds given the different judgement skills that were needed.

A much-hyped deal with BAE was signed five years ago under which 66 aircraft were to be supplied - 24 to be bought off the shelf and 42 to be manufactured in Bangalore by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

But now this deal is under threat after BAE closed down two of its factories.

"This has seriously impacted the operational preparedness," says former commander-in-chief of Air Force Training Command Air Marshal JS Rai.

Officials say the government is now looking at other aircraft manufacturers to fill the gap.

The delay and cost overruns of these three major defence acquisitions have also seen the national audit watchdog criticise the government.

For its part, the government has been slow in responding to criticism - even from its auditing organisation.

When it comes to defence issues in India, speed does not seem to be of paramount importance.



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