The landmark agreement between Russia and India for the sale of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov is seen as the first significant step towards achieving India's ambition of becoming a dominant regional maritime power. Under the US$1.68 billion deal, Moscow will modernise and refit the 44,500 tonne Gorshkov and equip the warship with the new MiG-29K attack aircraft and Kamov anti-submarine helicopters. The aircraft carrier will go into use in 2008, providing the Indian navy with a 'force-projection' vessel in the Indian Ocean, ranging from the Straits of Malacca to the Gulf. This area was recently identified by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as India's sphere of influence. But the deal signed by defence ministers Sergei Ivanov and George Fernandes in New Delhi last week is also expected to result in critical Russian support for consolidating India's nuclear defence capability. 'The Gorshkov deal is merely the sweetener for a larger, more complex semi-covert arrangement to give teeth to India's nuclear deterrent,' commented the Times of India daily. Both Mr Ivanov and Mr Fernandes denied that last week's negotiations included the proposed lease to India of an Akula class nuclear submarine, considered the fastest and quietest of Russian submarines. Mr Ivanov, however, acknowledged that talks were being held on leasing four Tupolev-22M3 long-range nuclear-capable bombers to India. Although India tested nuclear bombs in 1998, it neither has an effective delivery system nor the capability to safeguard its strategic arsenal against a first strike by regional nuclear rivals Pakistan and China. India leased a Russian nuclear submarine in the 1980s, but Moscow took it back in 1991, reportedly under US pressure. But with the Bush administration now more supportive of India's strategic goals, analysts believe Washington may no longer be an obstacle. The Akula class nuclear submarine could be equipped with the Brahmos cruise missile, which has been jointly developed by India and Russia and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The submarine could roam the Indian Ocean undetected for long periods, providing India with a second-strike capability in case of a nuclear attack. Mr Ivanov indicated that after the Brahmos missile success, Moscow wanted to jointly develop with India 'futuristic weapons systems', such as a fifth-generation jet fighter. India currently has an ambitious programme for building its own nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier, but these projects have been beset by delays. In an interview with a New Delhi daily, Mr Ivanov said that after the Gorshkov deal, 'India and China have exchanged places when it comes to being the biggest client for Russian arms'. But New Delhi believes Moscow has given more advanced weapons to China, such as the Shkval torpedo. Mr Ivanov, however, said the Russian arms industry did not discriminate between customers. He did suggest, though, that Russia would continue to turn down requests for weapons from India's arch-rival, Pakistan.