NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Russia delayed delivery of a trouble-plagued aircraft carrier for at least a year on Friday, a blow to India’s efforts to quickly build up naval strength as increasingly assertive Asian rival China expands its maritime reach.
Originally built as the Admiral Gorshkov in the Soviet Union, the $2.3 billion aircraft carrier is being reconditioned and was due to be ready this year, but problems with the ship’s boilers have pushed the delivery date back several times.
“We believe the handover of the ship will take place in the fourth quarter of 2013,” Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said at a joint news conference with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony said he had conveyed “serious concern” at the delays to Serdyukov.
The bilateral meeting precedes a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi on November 1.
The ship is to be renamed as Vikramaditya and the success of the order is seen as an important test of defense ties between Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter, and its biggest customer.
India, a big buyer of Soviet Union weaponry, still relies on Russia for 60 percent of its arms purchases, but has diversified its suppliers in recent years. Israel is now the No. 2 seller, and countries like the United States and France also increasing their presence.
“I myself expressed serious concern about the delay,” Antony said, adding that the issue had been raised several times. He said he was putting pressure on both sides to finish work on the biolers as soon as possible, but said he had not discussed penalizing Russia so far.
India is closely watching the Chinese navy’s newly assertive stance in the South China Sea and in a dispute with Japan over contested islands that have raised tensions in East Asia this year.
India bought its first, British-built aircraft carrier in the 1960s, which was decommissioned in 1997. Another ex-British carrier, the INS Viraat, is in operation but is reaching the end of its useful service.
Last month, at a time of high tensions with Japan over the islands, China put its first-ever aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into service.
Itself a reconditioned vessel from Ukraine, the Liaoning will be used mostly for training and testing ahead of the possible launch of China’s first domestically built carriers after 2015, analysts say.
Wary of China’s might, a host of south-east Asian nations have ramped up their maritime defense spending.
India plans to spend about $100 billion over the next 10 years to upgrade its largely Soviet-era military equipment.
Apart from Vikramaditya, India is also buying or planning to buy stealth fighters, warships, nuclear-powered submarines and tanks from Russia.
Serdyukov said that production of the fifth generation stealth fighter, the Sukhoi T-50, which it is jointly developing with India, is expected to start in 2020.
He said 1,000 units of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, another joint venture, are being built. He said a new faster version of the weapon, which can reportedly travel at seven times the speed of sound, is being developed.
(This story adds first name of Russian president, 5th paragraph)
Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Ron Popeski