By Arup Roychoudhury
NEW DELHI, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Russia delayed delivery of atrouble-plagued aircraft carrier for at least a year on Friday,a blow to India's efforts to quickly build up naval strength asincreasingly assertive Asian rival China expands its maritimereach.
Originally built as the Admiral Gorshkov in the SovietUnion, the $2.3 billion aircraft carrier is being reconditionedand was due to be ready this year, but problems with the ship'sboilers have pushed the delivery date back several times.
"We believe the handover of the ship will take place in thefourth quarter of 2013," Russian Defence Minister AnatolySerdyukov said at a joint news conference with his Indiancounterpart in New Delhi.
Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony said he had conveyed"serious concern" at the delays to Serdyukov.
The bilateral meeting precedes a visit by Russian PresidentPutin to New Delhi on Nov. 1.
The ship is to be renamed as Vikramaditya and the success ofthe order is seen as an important test of defence ties betweenRussia, the world's second-largest arms exporter, and itsbiggest customer.
India, a big buyer of Soviet Union weaponry, still relies onRussia for 60 percent of its arms purchases, but has diversifiedits suppliers in recent years. Israel is now the No. 2 seller,and countries like the United States and France also increasingtheir presence.
"I myself expressed serious concern about the delay," Antonysaid, adding that the issue had been raised several times. Hesaid he was putting pressure on both sides to finish work on thebiolers as soon as possible, but said he had not discussedpenalising Russia so far.
India is closely watching the Chinese navy's newly assertivestance in the South China Sea and in a dispute with Japan overcontested islands that have raised tensions in East Asia thisyear.
India bought its first, British-built aircraft carrier inthe 1960s, which was decommissioned in 1997. Another ex-Britishcarrier, the INS Viraat, is in operation but is reaching the endof its useful service.
Last month, at a time of high tensions with Japan over theislands, China put its first-ever aircraft carrier, theLiaoning, into service.
Itself a reconditioned vessel from the Ukraine, the Liaoningwill be used mostly for training and testing ahead of thepossible launch of China's first domestically built carriersafter 2015, analysts say.
Wary of China's might, a host of south-east Asian nationshave ramped up their maritime defence spending.
India plans to spend about $100 billion over the next 10years to upgrade its largely Soviet-era military equipment.
Apart from Vikramaditya, traditional India is also buying orplanning to buy stealth fighters, warships, nuclear-poweredsubmarines and tanks from Russia.
Serdyukov said that production of the fifth generationstealth fighter, the Sukhoi T-50, which it is jointly developingwith India, is expected to start in 2020.
He said 1,000 units of the Brahmos supersonic cruisemissile, another joint venture, are being built. He said a newfaster version of the weapon, which can reportedly travel atseven times the speed of sound, is being developed.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
Keywords: INDIA RUSSIA/DEFENCE