Monday, July 27, 2009

Shortage of warships in Indian Navy

by Premvir Das
RECENT reports indicate that the government has approved the acquisition of six new frigates for the Navy, all to be built locally, three at the Mazagon Docks (MDL) at Mumbai and the remaining three at Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) at Kolkata. The decision to acquire these ships, when the force levels are dwindling, is something to feel satisfied about; what is not so reassuring is the manner in which this decision is sought to be executed.Look at the record of MDL. Its first frigate came out in 1972, the twelfth, in 2002. In short, the shipyard took 30 years to build a dozen ships. Since 2000, it has had six destroyers/frigates on order, the first of these may join the Navy in 2011 and the last, even with some miraculous increase in productivity, by 2020. In this background, the decision to ask this yard to produce three more frigates within the same time frame is seriously flawed and totally out of touch with reality. It can hardly begin work on these, leave aside exaggerated claims, until those already in its order book are got ready and delivered. So, what is being said, in effect, is that the new frigates would come to the Navy from MDL only after 2020. The picture at GRSE is worse. This yard was asked to build three frigates in 1986, to be delivered by 1994; they were actually delivered by 2002, double the earlier time frame offered by GRSE. No more orders were given taking into account this unsatisfactory performance. The decision to now ask this yard to produce three frigates for delivery by 2020 i.e. in eleven years, when a suitable collaborator is still to be selected, is clearly something surreal; it is just not going to happen. Expertise in building complex warships is not something that comes up overnight built on pious hopes.There have been claims that technology transfer arrangements for the new ships with the chosen collaborator will involve modular construction techniques which will permit work to be progressed faster than has been possible hitherto. This is debatable. Not only does this involve the availability of very heavy duty cranes (which can be got) but availability of space where huge sections can be put together before being taken for assembly.These additional areas are just not there at MDL which is already loaded with the orders mentioned above, not to speak of the six Scorpene class submarines whose construction in that yard is also running behind time by two to three years, mainly because neither the required facilities nor expertise has been built up as originally claimed. As for the GRSE, there is some cushion in terms of space but manpower skills are way behind that of MDL. So, any expectations that results will quickly move from dismal to brilliant are misplaced, to say the least.The story at MDL is not much different. But in these 30-odd years, gaps have been successively filled by purchases from abroad, five destroyers from the erstwhile USSR in the 1980s, three frigates from Russia in the 2000s followed by orders for another three of that class, to be delivered in the next three to four years. This has been a wise approach, which has enabled the Navy to remain afloat when dependence on indigenous sources only would have surely been suicidal. There is need for judicious balancing of the two avenues, local construction and import. In earlier imports of frigates and destroyers, there was no real transfer of technology. So our shipyards did not benefit too much. We should learn from those experiences as we select our options for the future.The acquisition of six new frigates offers exactly that opportunity, to the advantage of the yards as well as the Navy. The first two ships should be bought from the chosen foreign yard and while those vessels are under construction, personnel from MDL and GRSE should be deputed to gain familiarity with the methods and technologies being used as both will be new. This association will also enable our workers to differentiate between those areas which require critical attention and those which are familiar. They will then be better able to handle indigenous construction.This process was followed very advantageously when four submarines were acquired from Germany in the 1980s and early 1990s. The first two were bought outright from HDW, the German shipyard, and workers from MDL attended their construction. Consequently, time and cost overruns with the two built locally thereafter were minimal. If this same route is followed for the frigates, the first two could be delivered within five to six years, with the remaining four coming later. This would plug the gaps in the Navy’s force levels quicker while making the indigenous process more confident and capable.In short, the decision to build all six ships locally is not consistent with the need to supplement force levels quickly while developing indigenous capabilities. It should be reviewed. Exaggerated and optimistic claims by the local shipyards are not new and have been made repeatedly over the decades. That mistaken assessment of capability is natural, even understandable, but it should not cloud decision-making, which should be based on awareness of ground realities and a pragmatic view of what is probable. Hoping against hope is not the way to go.

The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command.


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