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World-class warships at Indian prices


Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Kailash Colony market, a middle-class shopping area in south Delhi, is an unlikely headquarters for one of the world's most successful warship design programmes.
A single armed sentry post and a strand of barbed wire atop the boundary walls are all that hint at an ultra high-security installation "" the "" that has fathered battleships like the INS Mumbai, which turned heads across the globe when it sailed into war-torn Beirut in 2006 to evacuate hundreds of Indians stranded by Israel's attack on Lebanon.
Rear Admiral MK Badhwar, the navy's design chief, explains how the navy got so far ahead of the army and air force in indigenising its weaponry. Shaken by the 1962 defeat at the hands of China, the army and the air force gratefully bought military equipment from whoever was willing to sell.
In contrast, India's tiny navy took the far-sighted decision to build, rather than buy, its fleet. Today, the army and the air force are playing catch-up; latecomers to indigenisation, they are struggling with a technological leapfrog; attempting cutting-edge platforms like the Arjun tank and the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) without having first designed simpler weaponry.
The navy, in contrast, learned to walk before it tried to run. Starting with small landing craft in the 1960s, the learning curve rose through the increasingly complex design milestones of the Godavari class, the Brahmaputra class and the Khukri class frigates.
The first big DGND triumph came in the late 1990s, with the muscular 6,700-tonne Delhi class destroyers. Later this year, when INS Shivalik "" the first of three 4,800-tonne stealth frigates "" sails out of Mumbai's Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) to join the Indian Navy, it will feature in defence journals as one of the world's cutting-edge warships.
India hasn't just learned to build world-class warships; it has also learned to make them incredibly cheaply. The three Project 17 stealth frigates being built at MDL "" INS Shivalik, INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri "" will each cost Rs 2,600 crore (US $650 million).
The three Project 15-A Kolkata-class destroyers, bigger and more heavily armed warships, will each cost the navy Rs 3,800 crore (US $950 million), including the cost of long-term spare parts.
How does that compare with buying a warship in the global market? Ask Australia, which is buying three destroyers from Spanish shipyard, Navantia.
The three 6,250-tonne destroyers, fitted with the hot-selling Aegis radar and fire control system, will set Australia back by Rs 32,000 crore (US $8 billion). At about Rs 11,000 crore per destroyer, that is almost three times the cost India is paying for its Kolkata-class destroyers.
Despite paying a fraction of the cost, says Admiral Badhwar, the Kolkata class is the more powerful battleship. He points out: "Other than (the Aegis radar), the Australian warship doesn't have much.... We have got much more packed into the Kolkata-class destroyer.
The price tag is inclusive of all weapons systems, and it is a fixed price." Sceptics of India's warship-building capability point out, with some justification, that India's designs borrow substantially from Russian and even western warships.
Without denying the Russian influence on India's design philosophy, Admiral Badhwar points out, "The Project 15-A is about 90 per cent indigenous by cost. We may have to buy the odd gun from the US, or radar from Russia. But the design itself is 100 per cent Indian. And tens of thousands of Indians earn their living from building warships."
India is among a handful of countries which retain full-fledged design departments in naval headquarters, as well as design bureaus in the shipyards that construct the warships.
The DGND, based on the navy's operational plans, frames the concept and the functions of each warship; the design departments at the shipyards then translate that into a detailed design, and production drawings, from which they actually build the ship.
Most foreign navies have left design work to private contractors because they simply don't buy enough ships to justify jobs for hundreds of designers. But then few navies are expanding like India's.
With 37 major warships being inducted over the next 5-7 years, the 500 designers in the DGND will have their hands full, saving India an estimated Rs 2,00,000 crore (US $50 billion) when compared with the cost of acquiring those 37 warships from the international market.

First Published: Tue, April 15 2008. 00:00 IST