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Monday 3 December 2007

Next generation shipbuilding for next generation frigates

(Part II of a series on warship-building)

by Ajai Shukla
Mazagon Docks Limited, Mumbai
Business Standard, 4th Dec 07

“It takes half a century to build a navy”, said India’s Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta a year ago and he repeated that yesterday at a press conference in New Delhi. India’s smallest service, which celebrates Navy Day today, is on track to build indigenously one of the most modern navies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Much of that construction is taking place here, at the Mazagon Docks Limited (MDL) in Mumbai. Even with a host of craftsmen swarming over the four major warships that are being fitted out here, after having already been launched --- three Shivalik-class frigates and one Kolkata-class destroyer --- the ships radiate power as well as aesthetics.

India has developed a tradition of making not just capable but also beautiful warships. At a major International Fleet Review in the UK in 2005, the Duke of Edinburgh, a naval veteran himself, interrupted his schedule to compliment the INS Mysore as the handsomest warship in the review.

But the present construction facilities at MDL, and at the MoD’s other two shipyards at Goa and at Garden Reach in Kolkata, are struggling to build enough warships to make up for the decade-long hiatus from the mid-1980s, when not a single warship was ordered due to paucity of funds. In addition, the navy needs replacements for an average of five warships that complete their service lives each year. The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) sharpest focus, therefore, is now on creating world-class shipyards that can churn out efficiently, the warships that the navy needs.

Vice Admiral Krishnan, the Chairman of MDL, revealed to Business Standard that a global tender is being floated for a top-class foreign shipyard that will partner India’s defence shipyards in their transformation to the “modular” form of shipbuilding. Within six months, some 8-10 global shipbuilders --- including Northrop Grumman from the US, DCN from France, Hyundai from Korea, Hyundai, and British shipbuilder, Bath Iron Works ---- will each receive a Request for Proposals (RFP) for becoming India’s partner in modular shipbuilding. 

The traditional method of building warships involves building the hull and then launching it into water. Once that is afloat, hundreds of craftsmen labour for months in cramped and dangerous conditions, installing heavy equipment like engines and electronics and crawling through the ship’s innards to lay hundreds of miles of electrical cables and pipelines. In contrast, modular shipbuilding involves building the ship in huge 300-ton blocks, in the friendly conditions of a “modular workshop”. The craftsmen enjoy easier access, and once the blocks are ready, an enormous overhead “Goliath Crane” carries the 300-ton blocks to a dry dock where they are assembled into a warship.

This modular method will be used to build the navy’s next-generation warships, three futuristic Project 17-A stealth frigates. The foreign shipyard partner that wins the tender for modular construction will build one Project 17-A frigate abroad, using craftsmen from MDL and Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) Kolkata. This will be the learning process, after which MDL and GRSE will each construct one Project 17-A frigate in their new modular shipyards.

Secretary of Defence Production, Mr KP Singh told Business Standard, “Either one or two (Project 17-A warships) will be constructed in the foreign yards, but by our men, so that they will get trained to those systems. We’ll be spending workers (on the construction)… that is the idea.”

The navy would have preferred to construct in Indian yards. Vice Admiral Birinder Randhawa, until last week the Indian Navy’s Controller of Warships Production and Acquisition, says that constructing one warship abroad is part of the price for getting the know-how for modular shipbuilding. Admiral Randhawa says, “Nobody wants to part with this technology without getting orders in their own yard.”

While modular construction could make warship building faster, the MoD and the navy are also grappling with another major bottleneck in warship building: warship design. But there’s also a plan to overcome that hurdle.


  1. Thanks for finally bringing out with the details of Project 17-A. The plans make much more sense now, compared with what was reported earlier as the whole project going to a foreign shipyard. Do you have any idea when the first Shivalik and Kolkata class ships will be commissioned?


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