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India May Have Agreement to Buy Russian Sea-Based Nuclear Technology - 2003-01-20

India has tested its most sophisticated surface-to-air missile on the country's east coast. The test of the "Akash" missile comes as India's defense minister returned from Russia with a reported agreement to purchase sea-based nuclear technology. When the deal is finalized in March, India will achieve its long-term objective of acquiring a nuclear-capable naval strike force.

The Akash anti-aircraft missile was successfully tested Monday on the eastern Indian state of Orissa the second such test since Saturday. Defense officials here say it is one of the final checks before the missile will be cleared for mass production. It is one of many moves India has taken to boost its defense capabilities.

India's defense minister has returned to Delhi from Moscow where he reportedly hammered out terms of a military purchase agreement with Russia.

Under the deal, India would buy the 44,000 ton aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, something New Delhi has been trying to do for several years. India's Ministry of Defense would also lease two Akula class nuclear submarines as well as a number of strategic bombers from Moscow. Both countries will jointly develop a new generation of jet fighters and jointly build submarine-based Brahmos naval rockets that can carry nuclear warheads.

Indian and Russian defense officials will not comment publicly about the arrangement except to say it "covers all major issues related to procurement and sorts out old problems between the two countries."

Rahul Bedi, in New Delhi for Jane's Defense Weekly, said when the deal is clinched, India will achieve its goal of creating a "triad" nuclear deterrence. "The sale of the carrier is predicated to the leasing of the two nuclear submarines from Russia. That is going to form the nucleus of India's nuclear deterrence, which is based on missiles, on its air-force jets and on its sea leg, which has been missing until the submarines come in," he said.

India will be the only country in the region to possess an aircraft carrier and advanced nuclear submarines. Defense analysts like Rahul Bedi say the Akula-class submarines are far more advanced than submarines possessed by other countries in the region such as China or Australia.

Indian and Russian negotiators have been wrangling over the details of the sale for several years, but now appear to be close to agreement. "Russia is offering the carrier for the price of its re-fit, and they want to charge about $700 million. But the Russians are also insisting that India buy the carrier air-group which are the fighter jets that go on the carrier, from Russia. So, it is a deal of roughly about $2 billion, said Mr. Bedi. "India wants to reduce that amount by a 100 million. So I think it is just a matter of time before we reach a viable medium."

Still unclear is what effect the Russia-India defense deal will have on India's arch-rival Pakistan. India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons in 1998 and have engaged in tit-for-tat missile tests on a regular basis over the past few months. Analysts like Rahul Bedi says it is not likely that Pakistan would seek to acquire an aircraft carrier of its own, but Islamabad could move quickly to try to develop a sea-based nuclear strike force.