By Ajai Shukla
Cochin Shipyard Ltd, Kochi
Business Standard, 12th Aug 13
Cochin Shipyard Ltd is dressed for a party on Monday, when Defence Minister AK Antony will fly down to Kochi to launch INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier.
But even more striking than the coloured flags that flutter along the sweep of the Vikrant’s giant flight deck is the high quality finish of its enormous hull. The smooth slabs of steel are expertly welded and the surface free from the ripples and undulations that characterize large stretches of metal. The Vikrant looks almost like a commercial automobile, painted in drab warship grey.
“Cochin Shipyard has delivered a better product than MoD (Ministry of Defence) shipyards like Mazagon Dock and Garden Reach,” observed a senior naval officer who is closely involved in indigenous warship production.
This flies in the face of conventional MoD wisdom. Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL), which the Ministry of Shipping owns, is only building the Vikrant because none of the four (MoD) shipyards --- Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL); Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE); Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL); and Hindustan Shipyard Ltd, Vizag (HSL) --- has a dock large enough for a 37,500 tonne aircraft carrier.
But by successfully delivering a high-quality aircraft carrier, CSL will not only stake a powerful claim to build a planned follow-on vessel, but also to participate in building destroyers, frigates and corvettes that have so far been reserved for the MoD yards.
Commodore (Retd) K Subramaniam, who heads CSL, confirms that he is looking out for MoD orders. “Having built an aircraft carrier, we can easily do frigates and destroyers as well. Our workers have gained valuable skills from working on the Vikrant, and our confidence levels are very high,” he says.
CSL already has a Coast Guard order for Fast Patrol Vessels, but articulates a strong business case for more MoD business.
“We want to balance commercial shipbuilding with warship building. Warship building is extremely complex and time-consuming and there are many quality challenges. Commercial shipbuilding, while easy, is subject to business cycles. Right now there is a major slump in commercial shipbuilding and we don’t have many orders. So it would be good to have orders for both warships and commercial vessels,” says Subramaniam.
“Whatever infrastructure is available in India will be used for building our warships, whether it is private or public sector,” says Vice Admiral KR Nair, the Indian Navy’s Director General for Warship Acquisition & Production.
CSL’s success would also embolden a new crop of private sector shipyards that have invested heavily in warship building infrastructure but are struggling to get orders. These include L&T, which has supplemented its older shipyard in Hazira with a massive new shipyard in Kathupalli, near Ennore; Pipavav Defence & Offshore Engineering Co. which has a well equipped shipyard near Diu; and ABG Shipyard with its facility near Surat.
So far the MoD has not given orders for capital warships to these shipyards, confining them to building smaller, less complex and less profitable vessels like offshore patrol vessels and fast attack craft.
This scepticism about their capabilities goes alongside acknowledgment of their infrastructure. The MoD has encouraged MoD shipyards to form joint ventures (JVs) with private shipyards, which can do fabrication to lessen the load on the defence shipyards. MDL has a JV with Pipavav for surface vessels and with L&T for underwater vessels.
But CSL has set its sights higher. Subramaniam wants it to be “nominated” for building the second indigenous aircraft carrier (referred to as IAC-2), i.e. given the contract without competitive tendering. But Admiral Nair, the navy’s warship procurement head, points out that the specifications of IAC-2 have not yet been decided.
Nair does not rule out the possibility of IAC-2 being a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, albeit a smaller one that the 100,000 tonne behemoths that the US Navy operates. He says the 83 megawatt nuclear reactor in the missile submarine INS Arihant, which began full operations on Saturday, would be too small to power an aircraft carrier. If a nuclear powered aircraft carrier were to follow the Vikrant, a larger and more powerful reactor would be required.
The navy confirmed that the Vikrant would embark a squadron (12 fighters) of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which has proven in simulations to be capable of taking off and landing on the Vikrant. This would supplement a squadron of MiG-29K fighters, which have already been delivered by Russia. In addition, there would be about ten helicopters for anti-submarine and airborne early warning tasks.
Also back on track is the INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Gorshkov), which is completing trials and would be delivered this year. Until the Vikrant is commissioned in 2018, the Vikramaditya and the older INS Viraat would be the navy’s two aircraft carriers.