By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th Oct 17
The commissioning on Monday of India’s third and newest anti-submarine corvette, INS Kiltan, by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is good news. But it also underlines the ills that plague warship building in India. The Kiltan was commissioned five years later than originally scheduled and without anti-submarine capabilities that are fundamental to such a corvette. Three and a half years after the National Democratic Alliance came to power promising to quickly make up the military’s arms shortfalls, it is evident that, in warship building like in the procurement of other weaponry, this government has performed no better than the United Progressive Alliance before it.
In April, the navy’s warships acquisition chief told defence industrialists in New Delhi that the navy would increase its strength from 140 vessels currently to 170-180 ships by 2027. This requires increasing warship numbers by three or four every year, as well as inducting four or five new vessels annually to replace warships that complete their service lives of 25-30 years. Against this requirement for seven to nine new warships every year, the navy is barely able to induct three or four. This lackadaisical production rate in domestic defence shipyards has forced the navy to look overseas at offers like the Russian one to build four follow-on frigates of the Talwar-class.
A key reason for building delays is the navy’s penchant for the latest, with admirals demanding that each warship incorporates newer and more sophisticated technology. This is a recipe for delay. In contrast, fast builders like China finalise a particular design and then churn out a large number of those warships, benefiting from economies of scale, the certainty of supply orders and worker experience in building a particular “type”. The People’s Liberation Army (Navy) has already commissioned 25 Type 054A Jiangkai-II class frigates and is building three more. It has already inducted six Type 052D Luying-III class destroyers and work is under way on at least eight more.
In contrast, the Indian navy builds barely three or four warships of one type before going back to the drawing board and reworking specifications. It built just three Delhi-class destroyers under Project 15 and then took years to rework the design into what it called a “follow-on” class – Project 15A – but which was actually a substantively different warship. Even before three destroyers were built under Project 15A, the navy reworked the design into Project 15B, to build four new destroyers. Frigate orders have been similarly broken up. After Project 17 (three ships), there is now a follow order under Project 17A for seven frigates but, inexplicably, this is distributed between two different shipyards. A different kind of disjointedness characterises the four-corvette Project 28 order. The ship commissioned on Monday, INS Kiltan, has an all-composite superstructure in place of the steel superstructures on the first two Project 28 corvettes.
Besides design and planning confusion, warship building is also dogged by capacity limitations. All four public sector warship yards – Mazagon Dock (Mumbai); Garden Reach (Kolkata); Goa Shipyard (Goa) and Hindustan Shipyard (Visakhapatnam) – are located in metropolitan areas with little scope for expanding facilities. To add capacity, the defence ministry created the “strategic partner” policy to bring in private sector shipbuilders like Larsen & Toubro and Reliance Defence Industries. But the poorly conceived policy faces opposition, not least from within the defence ministry itself. Consequently, projects earmarked for strategic partners languish, such as Project 75-I to build six new submarines, even as Mazagon Dock’s submarine building facilities increasingly lie idle. Without policy clarity within the ministry, the navy’s strength and numbers are set to fall further.