India Uneasy About Defense Deal Delay

NEW DELHI -- India has agreed to pay Russia a higher price for a delayed aircraft carrier, but analysts said problems with the deal underlined growing unease between one of the world's biggest arms buyers and its most trusted supplier.

The delivery of aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov has been pushed back four years to 2012 and would cost India an additional $1.2 billion in refitting costs, Vijay Singh, India's defense secretary, told reporters late Wednesday in New Delhi.

In 2004, India and Russia signed a $1.6 billion deal to bring the Admiral Gorshkov to India by 2008.

But the Russians have postponed delivery, citing technical problems and overhead costs, while pushing the price up to $2.7 billion.

Analysts said Russia was playing hardball partly because it was uneasy about India's growing ties with the United States and its plans to buy more weapons from Washington.

"Clearly, the Russians do appear to be now sending a message to India," Manoj Joshi, strategic affairs editor of The Hindustan Times, wrote in his column.

"They are saying that they are not happy with Indian moves to get closer to the U.S."

India is emerging as one of the world's biggest arms buyers, and is planning one of its biggest ever arms deals, a $10 billion deal to buy 126 fighter jets.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in India earlier this week to push American bids for that deal and promote closer defense links with India.

"The Russians are unhappy that India is moving closer to the U.S., who have just entered the market, while India does not want to put all the eggs in the Russian basket," said Ashok Mehta, a retired army general.

India plans to spend $30 billion on imports over the next four years to modernize its largely Soviet-era arms and is looking beyond Russia for new weapons systems.

Indian military officers have privately criticized the government for bowing to Russia's demands, but analysts said Russia was a tried and tested friend.

Joshi said India should remember the "friendship prices" from Russia that enabled it to equip the world's fourth-largest military since the late 1960s, and other analysts said New Delhi was wise to maintain a close relationship with Russia.

"There are some changes with more players like the U.S. entering the Indian market," Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research said in New Delhi.

"But fundamentally India's relationship with Russia will not change, and they will remain India's main military partner for some time."