By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Feb 15
The Cabinet Committee on Security on Tuesday sanctioned the country’s biggest-ever naval project, the construction of seven stealth frigates for Rs 45,381 crore. Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) will build four of these, while Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE), simultaneously builds the other three.
This project, dubbed Project 17A, follows on from the earlier Project 17, in which MDL built three 5,600-tonne frigates: INS Shivalik, Satpura and Sahyadri. The first of these, the Shivalik, entered service in 2009, followed by the other two.
The time line for Project 17A allows each shipyard a preparatory period of two years, in which they will prepare for construction and place orders for long-lead items like engines and transmission. Then they will actually build the warship over five years. The first two frigates would be delivered by MDL and GRSE in 2022, with the rest coming in pairs at one-year intervals.
The Project 17A frigates, while superficially similar to those build under Project 17, will pack significantly more punch with more advanced weaponry. The new vessels will be fitted with Brahmos cruise missiles for land attack, and the new Indo-Israeli Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM) that can shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles.
The main advance in Project 17A will be the “modular” method with which the frigates will be constructed. Traditional shipbuilding involved welding a hull together and launching it into water, after which swarms of craftsmen painstakingly work in the warship’s cramped compartments, installing propulsion gear, electrically equipment, weapons, sensors and hundreds of kilometres of pipes and wiring.
In contrast, modular construction is like a giant Lego game. The ship is built in convenient 300-ton blocks that are then assembled together into a complete warship. Each block is fabricated in a well-lit, ventilated workshop with multi-level access, and is pre-fitted with the piping, electrical wiring and fitments that run through a ship. Giant cranes then bring the massive blocks together, each one dovetailing precisely with its neighbouring block, every wire, pipe and compartment coming together in perfect alignment.
Modular construction results in better build quality and is expected to bring down the build time from 72 to just 60 months.
This method, being new, has required a foreign design partner. It has also required an extensive renovation of both MDL and GRSE, with each shipyard spending Rs 800-1,000 crore on modular workshops, with Goliath cranes, and workshops with sliding roofs from where 300-tonne blocks can be lifted out.
Project 17A is vital for executing the navy’s Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP), which envisions a 160-ship navy, with 90 capital warships, i.e. aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes. The navy is currently 20 vessels short of this target, with major shortfalls in destroyers and frigates.
To add numbers quickly, the navy had pressed for building the first two vessels of Project 17A abroad in the technology partners’ shipyard. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government overruled this.