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New Indian stealth warship halted by US bar on GE

Ajai Shukla  |  On board the INS Shivalik, Mumbai 

If the United States ranks near the bottom amongst India’s defence suppliers, Washington’s penchant for imposing sanctions and restrictions has much to do with it. Now, the US appears to have shot itself in the foot again. The Indian Navy chose to power its indigenously designed, cutting-edge stealth warship, the INS Shivalik, with gas turbines from American company General Electric (GE). But even as the Shivalik readies for sea trials, the US State Department has ordered GE to stop all work on the turbines it has supplied.

Vice Admiral HS Malhi (Retired), chairman and managing director of Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), which built the Shivalik, has confirmed to Business Standard that GE has received instructions to stop operationalising (making ready for operations) the two new LM 2500 gas turbines that it supplied for the Shivalik. GE has told MDL that there could be up to three months delay, while the new US administration reviews its military relations with several countries. India is not alone in facing this ban; GE has been told to stop work even with close US allies like the UK and Australia.

MDL has clearly been taken by surprise. Says Admiral Malhi, “It is quite surprising that such a letter has been received from GE. They said the (US) State Department could take up to 3-4 months to re-look at relations with these countries. We don’t have that kind of time; we have to deliver the ship to the navy.”

The Shivalik stealth frigate is powered by four engines, in what is termed a CODOG (COmbined Diesel Or Gas) arrangement. Normal operations are powered by two Pielstick diesel engines, supplied by France. The gas turbines kick in for short bursts during combat, when extra power is needed. They are less fuel-efficient than diesel engines, but provide high performance. This is the first time that US turbines have been installed in an Indian-built frigate. 

MDL is now exploring whether it can use another GE subsidiary to operationalise the Shivalik’s turbines, without invalidating GE’s warranty. According to Admiral Malhi, “If GE allows us to use one of its licensees, the delay can be cut down to a month. GE is not averse to that, as long as no American person is involved in the work.”

GE has not responded to an email, asking for details of this delay. The US State Department has also ignored a request for information. A spokesperson of the US Embassy in New Delhi has sidestepped the question, replying by email that, “The State Department has not instructed GE in the conduct of this direct commercial sale. Aspects of this sale were subject to export licensing, which is conducted through the State Department.” 

When asked to comment specifically on blanket orders from the State Department to GE regarding commercial defence dealings with India, the US Embassy did not respond.

Recent Indian frigates were powered by Russian turbines. But GE’s LM 2500 gas turbines were chosen for three Project 17 frigates (of which INS Shivalik is the first) because of their better reliability. More than one thousand LM 2500 turbines power more than 400 warships in 30 navies across the world. In addition, the LM 2500 is used for power generation in luxury cruise liners like the QE II.

US defence industry sources indicate that GE is upset by the State Department’s directives, which clearly damage GE’s commercial interests. The ban, suggest sources, was imposed by an “over-enthusiastic State Department bureaucrat”, keen to display that the Obama administration was on the ball from the beginning. But in India, the ban is already generating talk of an unwise choice in going for a US engine.

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First Published: Fri, March 06 2009. 00:08 IST