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On board the Shivalik

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Ajai Shukla gets a tour of the first stealth frigate India has built, days ahead of its commissioning.

In the high-security Mumbai Port Trust, through the clutter of freighters, tugs and dredgers in the distance, the sleek lines of stand out distinctively. This is India’s newest, most advanced frigate, currently receiving its finishing touches from public sector shipyard It is also being put through harbour and sea trials, a rigorous process to ascertain that all systems, weapons and sensors are working in perfect synchrony before the Shivalik is commissioned as a frontline naval warship.

Business Standard is here to take a look at the first stealth warship that India has built. A stealth warship is designed to be near-invisible to the electronic sensors that navies use to scan the oceans. It’s very shape evades detection by radar; it is engineered to give off minimal infra-red emissions; and every piece of equipment on board, from engines to toilet flushes, are designed to work silently so that the ship cannot be heard by the enemy’s sonar and acoustic sensors.

This stealth will allow the Shivalik to sneak up undetected and to destroy the enemy with a range of high-tech weaponry. The warship was born of a growing concern over India’s 7,516 km of coastline, and an exclusive economic zone of 2 million sq km. India’s trade interests — 90 per cent by volume and 77 per cent by value is transported by sea — demanded a more powerful navy. Policymakers believe that a rising India must be able to protect major international trade routes (100,000 freight vessels annually; one billion tons of oil) which transit close by Indian shores. And so, following a policy of indigenisation, India has launched a major warships building programme. Currently, 42 naval vessels are under construction; 38 of them, like the Shivalik, are being built in Indian shipyards.

Arriving at the Shivalik, it is hard not to be impressed. Even by the bristling standards of warships, the 142 metre-long Shivalik looks menacing. Conspicuous by its absence is the friendly sight of sailors going about their business on the decks; all that is hidden behind a wall of steel that covers the ship all the way up to the mast. The sloped steel plates absorb and scatter radar waves, preventing them from bouncing back to betray the presence of a warship.

Overall, the Shivalik conveys a dangerous beauty, a hallmark of Indian-designed warships. When the Indian destroyer, the INS Mysore, participated in an international fleet review in the UK in 2005, the Duke of Edinburgh — a Royal Navy officer himself — came on board to congratulate the crew on what he called “handsomest ship in the review”.

To receive us at the gangway is Captain R S Sundar, the superintendent of Project 17, the Navy’s Rs 8,000-crore project to build three stealth frigates. is the first of the three; also nearing completion at Mazagon Dock are INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri, which are scheduled for completion in late 2009 and 2010 respectively. The Shivalik is the first Indian warship to be built with Indian steel. The Steel Authority of India Limited has finally mastered the art of mass-producing specially toughened, warship-grade steel; no longer will India shop abroad for thousands of tons of steel for each warship it builds.

Captain Sundar escorts us with an enthusiasm that comes from working at the cutting edge of warship technology. Only a handful of countries — the US, Russia, France, Sweden, Germany, the UK and Italy — have mastered stealth technology. It is extremely difficult to hide a 5,000-ton behemoth like the There are stealthier warships than the Shivalik but they are smaller vessels. The Swedish Visby class vessels, amongst the stealthiest in the world, are mere corvettes, at 600 tons. The French Lafayette class frigates, almost as hard to detect, weigh in at 3,600 tons. Russia’s Krivak class stealth frigates, three of which fly Indian Navy flags, also weigh just 3,600 tons. In contrast, the Shivalik — 4,900 tons when empty, 5,600 tons when fully fuelled, watered, victualled, crewed and armed — is significantly bigger, packing a heavier weapon punch than its smaller rivals.

A walk around the Shivalik’s weapons stations shows up true all-round capability. Its complement of weapons caters for enemy threats from all three dimensions. What makes this mix of weaponry unique is the extraordinary level of electronics engineering that allows all their radars and control systems, located in close proximity to one another, to function together without interference or jamming.

Besides the weaponry on board, the Shivalik’s two Sea King helicopters — which operate from a flight deck to the rear of the frigate — search for and destroy enemy submarines anywhere within their radius of operation. Flying slowly, at low altitudes, they drop a “dunking sonar” into the water to detect submarine sounds; submarines are then finished off with depth charges or torpedoes.

Captain Sundar takes us into the bowels of the Shivalik through a series of waterproof hatches and ladders. There are four deck levels above water and four below, making the ship as tall as an eight-storey building. Two French-made Pielstick diesel engines in the lower decks power the warship for normal running. When quick bursts of speed are required, especially in battle, two General Electric (GE) gas turbines kick in, powering the Shivalik at speeds in excess of 30 knots (over 55 kmph).

Unfortunately, the new US administration has ordered GE — pending a review of relations with US allies like India, the UK and Australia — to stop work on commissioning the turbines. The Ministry of Defence is searching for a way to bypass this ban, perhaps by using a non-US GE agent to commission the turbines. This could delay the Shivalik’s commissioning by up to three months. But Mazagon Dock remains optimistic: a blackboard on the deck counts down the days left till the ship’s commissioning.

The Indian Navy is waiting.

The Shivalik in battle: In the days of cannon and sail, a warship’s captain directed the battle from the ship’s bridge, from where he could observe what was happening as the combatants closed, raking each other with cannon-fire. Today it all happens at far longer ranges. Battle, for the Shivalik’s captain, would be a high-stakes video game conducted from an operations room, the enemy only a blip on a radar screen.

The nerve centre of the Shivalik’s battlefield capability is an indigenous design triumph called the AISDN (short for ATN-based Integrated Services Digital Network) that allows electronic information from the Shivalik’s systems and sensors — engines, navigation devices, radars, weaponry, radio sets and control systems — to be transmitted digitally in real time over the warship on a common data base. “This is as good, if not better, than comparable systems on any warship in the world,” says Captain Sundar. “On earlier warships, weapons had a separate data bus, sensors had their own bus, and so on. Now, the AISDN integrates all that, and also information coming from sensors outside the Shivalik, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Airborne Warning and Control Systems.”

Taking feed from AISDN is another network, the Computer-aided Action Information Organisation (CAIO), which brings to the captain a complete electronic picture of the battlefield. This is the heart of the weapons exploitation system, laying out for the captain all the information about targets being picked up by the warship’s sensors and radars. This is also transmitted to the ship’s executive officer (XO), the second-in-command after the captain, and the man responsible for the ship’s weaponry. From his console, the XO electronically assigns each detected target to one of his weapons.

When the Shivalik’s radars detect an enemy aircraft, the CAIO will show it up on the consoles automatically. The CAIO includes a decision support system that will suggest what to use to shoot down the aircraft; the final decision, though, is that of the commanding officer. He could decide to use the 76mm gun; the command will go electronically from his console to that of the gunnery officer controlling the gun. Alternatively, he could choose to use a missile. Either way, the detection, the information, the allocation of a weapon to the target and the actual engagement itself would all be done electronically.

Assisting the captain in managing the battle is a multi-function, touch-screen console, providing pinpoint navigational information, the ship’s course, position, and its engine parameters. The ship’s movements are controlled through an integrated machinery control system that links the ship’s engines and other auxiliary machinery via optic fibre cabling to various control points. The Shivalik’s four generators, which together produce 4 MW of power, enough to light up a small city, are controlled through an automated power management system that senses the requirement of power at all times.

The Shivalik is also equipped for the nuclear and chemical battlefield. It is the Navy’s first ship with an atmospheric control system that filters the air going into the ship at all times, including the air being used by the engines. This removes any radioactive, chemical or biological impurities, protecting the crew and the systems. For this reason, the Shivalik is centrally air-conditioned and has no portholes. There are also decontamination facilities on board in case the ship passes through an area where the radioactivity from a nuclear strike still lingers.

Crew comfort: Living conditions during extended deployments at sea have traditionally meant long watch duties, monotonous meals out of tins, and cramped living with little privacy. But now, officers and sailors on board the INS Shivalik can look forward to better conditions.

The first clear improvement will be in the food. Of the Shivalik’s crew of 35 officers and 222 sailors, some 24 sailors are employed in cooking, cleaning up and managing the stock of food in refrigerated compartments called “cold rooms” and “cool rooms”. The cooking arrangements on board are fully automatised. A McDonald’s-style deep fat fryer gleams in a corner. A stainless steel chapatti-maker turns out 500 chapattis per hour. A high-capacity dosa machine stands next to it, designed by the Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysore. But one part of the design is clearly the Navy’s: the damper spring on which each machine is mounted. It would never do to be picked up by an enemy submarine because of vibrations from a chapatti maker!

In the living area, in place of the wooden bunk beds and rusty tin wash basins of earlier warship cabins, the Shivalik’s crew gets to enjoy modular furnishings custom-designed for warships by Korean companies and manufactured in India by the marine division of Godrej. And in a nod to gender correctness, the Shivalik is India’s first warship with a cabin especially built for two women officers. While similar in most respects to the men’s cabins, the significant difference is in having an attached bathroom, and also extra wardrobe space. It is also located right next to the captain’s cabin.

First Published: Sat, March 21 2009. 00:04 IST