Top: A unit of the third Project 15-A destroyer in the Assembly Shop at Mazagon Docks Ltd.
Right: The INS Shivalik, readying for commissioning in Dec 2008.
Left: The INS Satpura, the second Project 17 stealth frigate, in the seconds after its launch. You can still see the flotsam of the launch structure.
by Ajai Shukla
(An abridged version of this post was published in the Business Standard on 15th Apr 2008)
Kailash Colony Market, a middle-class shopping area in South Delhi, is an unlikely headquarters for one of the world’s most successful warship design programmes. A single armed sentry post and a strand of barbed wire atop the boundary walls are all that hint at an ultra high-security installation --- the Directorate General of Naval Design (DGND) --- that has fathered battleships like the INS Mumbai, which turned heads across the globe when it sailed into war-torn Beirut in 2006 to evacuate hundreds of Indians stranded by Israel’s attack on Lebanon. (Author’s note: I sailed into Beirut on the INS Mumbai, on my way to cover the Israel-Hizbollah conflict… ohhhh, the pleasure of sailing into war on your own country’s warship!)
Rear Admiral MK Badhwar, the navy’s design chief, explains how the navy got so far ahead of the army and air force in indigenising its weaponry. Shaken by the 1962 defeat at the hands of China, the army and the air force gratefully bought military equipment from whoever was willing to sell. In contrast, India’s tiny navy took the far-sighted decision to build, rather than buy, its fleet. Today, the army and the air force are playing catch-up; latecomers to indigenisation, they are struggling with a technological leapfrog; attempting cutting edge platforms like the Arjun tank and the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) without having first designed simpler weaponry.
The navy, in contrast, learned to walk before it tried to run. Starting with small landing craft in the 1960s, the learning curve rose through the increasingly complex design milestones of the Godavari class, the Brahmaputra class and the Khukri class frigates. The first big DGND triumph came in the late 1990s, with the muscular 6,700-tonne Delhi class destroyers. Later this year, when INS Shivalik --- the first of three 4,800-tonne stealth frigates --- sails out of Mumbai’s Mazagon Docks Limited (MDL) to join the Indian Navy, it will feature in defence journals as one of the world’s cutting edge warships.
The DGND has gone a long way in developing skills in advanced stealth technology. Admiral Badhwar elaborates, “We do noise levels for each system, and the complete prediction in-house. This is world-class design work and are doing it predominantly in house with the industry in the country.”
India hasn’t just learned to build world-class warships; it’s also learned to make them incredibly cheaply. The three Project 17 stealth frigates being built at MDL --- INS Shivalik, INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri --- will each cost Rs 2600 crores (US $ 650 million). The three Project 15-A Kolkata class destroyers, bigger and more heavily armed warships, will each cost the navy Rs 3,800 crores (US $950 million), including the cost of long-term spare parts.
How does that compare with buying a warship in the global market? Ask Australia, which is buying three destroyers from Spanish shipyard, Navantia. The three 6250-tonne destroyers, fitted with the hot-selling Aegis radar and fire control system, will set Australia back by Rs 32,000 crores (US $8 billion). At about Rs 11,000 crores per destroyer, that is almost three times the cost India is paying for its Kolkata class destroyers.
Despite paying a fraction of the cost, says Admiral Badhwar, the Kolkata class is the more powerful battleship. He points out that, “Other than (the Aegis radar), the Australian warship doesn’t have much…. We have got much more packed into the Kolkata-class destroyer. The price tag is inclusive of all weapons systems, and it is a fixed price.”
Sceptics of India’s warship-building capability point out --- with some justification --- that India’s designs borrow substantially from Russian and even western warships. Without denying the Russian influence on India’s design philosophy, Admiral Badhwar points out, “The Project 15-A is about 90% indigenous by cost. We may have to buy the odd gun from the US, or radar from Russia. But the design itself is 100% Indian. And tens of thousands of Indians earn their living from building warships”
India is in a handful of countries, which retain full-fledged design departments in naval headquarters, as well as design bureaus in the shipyards that construct the warships. The DGND, based on the navy’s operational plans, frames the concept and the functions of each warship; the design departments at the shipyards then translate that into a detailed design, and production drawings, from which they actually build the ship.
Most foreign navies have left design work to private contractors because they simply don’t buy enough ships to justify jobs for hundreds of designers. But then few navies are expanding like India’s. With 37 major warships being inducted over the next 5-7 years, the 500 designers in the DGND will have their hands full, saving India an estimated Rs 2,00,000 crores (US $50 billion) when compared with the cost of acquiring those 37 warships from the international market.
India’s DGND labours under a disadvantage, when compared with a country like the US, whose navy maintains 1000 designers, tasked to ensure a technology lead. Those are in addition to the designers who work with the defence-purpose shipyards. The US Navy draws its designers from some 120 institutions in that country, which teach subjects directly associated with warship design. In India, however, only IIT Kharagpur and Cochin University have naval architecture on their curriculum; India’s annual output of naval architects never crosses 20. And those designers are fiercely competed for not just by the defence shipyards, but now also by private shipyards like L&T and ABG, which are also eyeing the warship building market.
Landmarks in Naval Design
1954 : Corps of Naval Constructors formed on the lines of the UK Royal Navy.
1964 : A low-kay Naval Design Bureau is formed in naval headquarters.
1970 : The Directorate General of Naval Design (DGND) is instituted.
1986 : A submarine design wing is added to the DGND
(Tomorrow) Part II: Defence shipyards eye the global ship design market)