Wednesday, 5 December 2007

India to set up global naval design centres

(Concluding part of a series on shipbuilding)

by Ajai Shukla
Mazagon Docks Ltd, Mumbai
Business Standard, 5th Dec 07

A missile can sink a warship, but a delay can sink an entire warship programme. A major bottleneck in the navy's surge towards indigenously building all its warships is the long time being taken to design the vessels. On 26th November, Defence Minister AK Antony told parliament that design delays were the biggest drag on the warship programme.

Design delays stem from a Catch-22 situation. The navy says that the shipyards take so long to build warships that new technology comes in, forcing a redesign to prevent ships being obsolescent even before they are inducted. The shipyards counter with the argument that constant redesign by the navy delays shipbuilding unacceptably. Today, largely because of constant redesigning, India takes almost ten years to build a warship and introduce it into the fleet.

But now all this could change with the dockyards going global. At Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) in Mumbai, the Chairman, Vice Admiral SKK Krishnan, told Business Standard that a search has been launched for an international design partner with which MDL will set up an internationally registered private joint venture (JV), that will not just design warships but also function globally as a private design centre.

Admiral Krishnan says, "We have made a shortlist, we are employing a consultant who will help us to form the JV. There must be something in it for the other company as well. So it will be a Design Centre… we will design warships for India, but the JV partners can also bring back-office work from their country…. Any marine structure, any marine design. They will have the computer capability to do any design, and we can do the nitty-gritty of the design work here."

The process of design is currently a complicated one. When the navy is sanctioned a new line of warships (typically 3-6 vessels), naval designers first produce a "conceptual design" and then a "functional design". These lay down broad outlines, e.g. the number of decks, the positioning of weapons and the general layout. Based on that, the shipyard produces a "detailed design", which is comprehensively vetted by the navy, a complex and time-consuming process, which the shipyards believe they have the competence and experience to handle alone. The new design centres, shipyards expect, will add to their credibility.

India's second major defence shipyard --- Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) in Kolkata --- has taken exactly the same path as MDL. GRSE Chairman, Rear Admiral TS Ganeshan says the GRSE Design Centre could be up and running within 6-9 months. He says, "We have floated a global tender, and selected one Indian IT company and one foreign shipyard, who will be our partners in this. We are in the process of formulating the shareholders' agreements with our partner companies."

Shipbuilding may also be speeded up by the MoD's plan to make each of its three shipyards --- MDL, GRSE and Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL) --- specialise in building a particular type of warship. Currently, only MDL has the facilities to produce larger warships, like the Kolkata Class destroyers, but the smaller craft are divided up between all three yards, which reduces the incentive to specialise. MDL and GRSE both produce frigates, while the smaller vessels are distributed, depending upon current workload, between GRSE and GSL.

Now, before modernising shipyards with "modular" shipbuilding facilities, the MoD is asking an international consultant to examine which yard is suited to build which vessel. Admiral Krishnan says that, "The Secretary of Defence Production has ordered a board to be formed to bring synergy amongst the three shipyards… one consultant will recommend which shipyard should produce what. And then each shipyard will take up each section of modernisation and fund it by going to the market or fund it by themselves."

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