The Indian Navy’s Project 17 is nearing completion; three Indian-designed-and-built stealth frigates of the Shivalik class are on track to enter service. Now, attention has switched to Project 17-A, the country’s biggest-ever naval purchase, a Rs 17,000 crore plan to build seven stealth frigates that are even more advanced than the Shivalik class.
The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has long cleared the project, but no order has yet been placed by the Ministry of Defence. Business Standard has learned that the order is held up by a difference of opinion between the shipyards and the navy on where these frigates should be built.
The two defence shipyards capable of manufacturing 5000-tonne frigates — Mazagon Dock Limited, Mumbai (MDL) and Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE) — argue that Project 17-A should be built entirely in India. The Indian Navy insists that the first two frigates should be built in a foreign shipyard. After the Indian shipyards have observed how it is done, they can build the next five vessels.
At the heart of the disagreement is a new, highly advanced building method — modular shipbuilding — that India will use for Project 17-A, and for all projects thereafter.
Conventional shipbuilding was relatively simple: first weld together a steel hull, and then put in the engines, piping, electrical wiring, fitments, weaponry and electronics that make it a fighting platform. Modular shipbuilding is far more complex, akin to a giant Lego game. The warship is built in 300-tonne blocks, each block complete with all the piping, electrical wiring and fitments that form a part of the ship. Then these 300-tonne blocks are brought together by giant cranes and assembled into a complete warship.
This creates an entirely different set of design challenges. Each bulkhead wall, each pipe, each cable, and each electronic component in a 300-tonne block must precisely connect with its counterpart in the neighbouring block. Each block is designed separately, but all of them must come together in perfect alignment.
This method has never been used by either MDL or GRSE; they accept the need for a foreign design partner. But both shipyards, having successfully built frigates of the Brahmaputra and the Shivalik class, claim they already have the expertise needed to build Project 17-A, based on the foreign partner’s drawings. Admiral HS Malhi, Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) of MDL says, “We need to go abroad for the production drawings… But for actual modular construction, no technology is required to be transferred”
The Navy believes that if MDL and GRSE try to master this skill while they build the first Project 17-A frigates, the entire programme will be delayed unacceptably. Instead, the Director of Naval Design, Rear Admiral MK Badhwar, says the foreign design partner selected should built the first two frigates in his own shipyard, observed by Indian workmen who can thereby pick up the skills.
The DND says, “This will also make the vendor demonstrate “buildability”. He must demonstrate that his design can be actually built into a warship, using modular construction, in four years. That will create a demonstrated benchmark for GRSE and MDL; otherwise, if there are delays later, our shipyards could argue that the foreign yard too would have taken a long period to build each frigate.”
The MoD’s is finding it difficult to reconcile these two viewpoints, partly because a decision to build two frigates abroad would sharply escalate the cost of Project 17-A. Each Shivalik class stealth frigate, built in MDL, cost Rs 2000-2500 crores. The bill for a comparable frigate, built in a European shipyard for the Australian navy, has come to more than double that figure.
Tomorrow: French shipyard, DCNS, favourite as design partner