In a centuries-old naval ritual in Mumbai on Saturday, navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma commissioned into active service Indian Naval Ship (INS) Satpura.
“I wish the crew fair winds and following seas”, Verma intoned, in the traditional naval goodwill message, before raising the Indian flag on the Satpura’s helicopter deck and unveiling the ships plaque. The band struck up the national anthem, the tricolour was raised on the helicopter deck and INS Satpura became the 140th warship of the Indian Navy.
The INS Satpura, which follows the INS Shivalik into service, is the second of three Project 17 stealth frigates that are being built by Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai. It will be followed by INS Sahyadri early next year. These three “state-of-the-art surface combatants” as Verma called them — trace their design ancestry to three Talwar-class frigates that Russia built for the navy a decade ago. However the Shivalik-class, as INS Shivalik, Satpura and Sahyadri are classified (after the first vessel in the series), are significantly heavier than the 4,100-tonne Talwar-class frigates, giving them the capability to absorb, as well as deliver, heavier blows in battle.
Officially termed a guided-missile frigate, the Satpura weighs in at a muscular 6,200 tonnes. Frigates typically weigh 4,500-6,500 tonnes; the next-higher class of warships, called destroyers, begin at about 7,000 tonnes. The Satpura carries 24 Russian Klub missiles, which can hit ground targets more than two hundred kilometres away with pinpoint precision. The Indian Navy would have liked the Satpura to carry the more capable and lethal Brahmos missile, but that is too heavy for the frigate. Only the Indian Navy’s destroyers are currently armed with the Brahmos.
The Satpura is also equipped with the Israeli Barak air defence system, to ward off enemy aircraft and missiles. It has torpedoes to deal with enemy submarines, as well as an RB-6,000 multi-barrelled depth charge launcher. Posted on board the Satpura is a tiny aviation unit, with hangars and facilities for two Sea King, or indigenous Dhruv helicopters.
Driving this 142 metre-long warship through the water are two French Pielstick diesel engines. In addition, there are two General Electric LM-2500 gas turbines. This provides the advantage of fuel-efficient operation in the normal course, using the Pielstick diesels, while the gas turbines take over when bursts of speed are required, especially in battle. This is known as CODOG (combined diesel or gas) configuration.
But the Satpura’s key advantage is stealth. Its design reduces the vessel’s radar, infrared, electronic, acoustic and visual signatures, making it difficult for the enemy to detect it. The design skills needed for building stealth vessels like the Satpura have been honed by Indian shipyards over time, and are reaching their finest in Project 28, a line-up for ultra-stealthy, anti-submarine corvettes that are being built at Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata. Stealth will also form an important component of the seven Project 17A frigates that will start being built next year as the the navy’s next line of frigates.
Along with satisfaction at the Satpura’s world-class capabilities, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) remains concerned over the high level of imported components in these warships. According to the official navy figures requested by Business Standard, the total cost of Project 17A (i.e. the cost of three Shivalik-class frigates) will be Rs 7,883 crore. Of this, Rs 2,710 crore have been spent on foreign equipment, that includes the on-board weapons, sensors and radars, engines, transmission, etc.
During the commissioning, the naval chief admitted the Satpura’s indigenous component amounted to 60 per cent. Much of that amount, however, goes towards the cost of labour etc. The high-tech equipment remains mainly imported.
Notwithstanding that, the navy justifiably claims credit for indigenising the crucial dimensions of design and integration. Vice Admiral Ganesh Mahadevan, the navy’s Chief of Materials, claims that indigenisation will rise dramatically in the next two lines of warships that are coming on stream next year, i.e. in Project 15B (four destroyers) and Project 1A (seven frigates).
An important driver in lowering the cost of imported equipment is the agreement with Essar Steel for manufacturing warship-grade steel. So far, owing to SAIL’s refusal to engage in the complex manufacture of the specialised metal, which the dockyards require in relatively small and commercially unviable quantities, shipyards were left with no option but to import from Russia. Now, Essar Steel will be manufacturing the few thousands of tonnes of warship grade steel that will be needed for Projects 15B and Project 17A.