Word-class warships; Indian prices - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 14 April 2008

Word-class warships; Indian prices

Top:  A unit of the third Project 15-A destroyer in the Assembly Shop at Mazagon Docks Ltd.

Right: The INS Shivalik, readying for commissioning in Dec 2008.

Left:  The INS Satpura, the second Project 17 stealth frigate, in the seconds after its launch. You can still see the flotsam of the launch structure.

by Ajai Shukla
(An abridged version of this post was published in the Business Standard on 15th Apr 2008)

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 Directorate General of Naval Design (DGND) --- 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. (Author’s note: I sailed into Beirut on the INS Mumbai, on my way to cover the Israel-Hizbollah conflict… ohhhh, the pleasure of sailing into war on your own country’s warship!)

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 Limited (MDL) to join the Indian Navy, it will feature in defence journals as one of the world’s cutting edge warships.

The DGND has gone a long way in developing skills in advanced stealth technology. Admiral Badhwar elaborates, “We do noise levels for each system, and the complete prediction in-house. This is world-class design work and are doing it predominantly in house with the industry in the country.”

India hasn’t just learned to build world-class warships; it’s 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 2600 crores (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 crores (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 6250-tonne destroyers, fitted with the hot-selling Aegis radar and fire control system, will set Australia back by Rs 32,000 crores (US $8 billion). At about Rs 11,000 crores 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 that, “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% indigenous by cost. We may have to buy the odd gun from the US, or radar from Russia. But the design itself is 100% Indian. And tens of thousands of Indians earn their living from building warships”

India is in 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 crores (US $50 billion) when compared with the cost of acquiring those 37 warships from the international market.

India’s DGND labours under a disadvantage, when compared with a country like the US, whose navy maintains 1000 designers, tasked to ensure a technology lead. Those are in addition to the designers who work with the defence-purpose shipyards. The US Navy draws its designers from some 120 institutions in that country, which teach subjects directly associated with warship design. In India, however, only IIT Kharagpur and Cochin University have naval architecture on their curriculum; India’s annual output of naval architects never crosses 20. And those designers are fiercely competed for not just by the defence shipyards, but now also by private shipyards like L&T and ABG, which are also eyeing the warship building market.

Landmarks in Naval Design

1954 :   Corps of Naval Constructors formed on the lines of the UK Royal Navy.

1964 :   A low-kay Naval Design Bureau is formed in naval headquarters.

1970 :   The Directorate General of Naval Design (DGND) is instituted.

1986 :   A submarine design wing is added to the DGND 

(Tomorrow) Part II: Defence shipyards eye the global ship design market)


  1. Mr Shukla

    Well done Sir! Nicely done article!

    Is it possible for you to provide newer pictures of the P-17 vessels? The picture of the Shivalik is almost two years old.

    A comment: the Aegis radar system is really a very powerful system with unparalled capabilities so it should not be so easily discounted. For one, it can easily track a minimum of 256 targets. I should imagine that the Ozzie version on the Hobart class AWD will be comparable to the newest USN Aegis radars that have been adapted to better operate in the ability to operate in litorral areas with the ability to discriminate small objects against all of the prevailing surface clutter. The individually controlled Tr-Rx elements/arrays also allow selective focusing of power to sectors of interest. This will be coupled to the SM-2MR missile with a published max. range of 90 nm (160 km).

    Presumably, the 2248 radar on the 15A vessels will feature similar technology and capabilities. One also assumes that the Barak-NG missile's max useful range may be much greater than the published 75-90 km what with technology enhancements form the 150 km LR-SAM, which is based on the Barak-NG. Relative to the Hobart AWD, the 15A vessels carry 2 helos viz 1; have a similar missile loadout capbility with 48 barak-NG, at least 32 Barak-1 (or something similar), 16 Brahmos/Klub.

    Where the P15A vessels possibly lag behind other contemporary DDG is in the area of integrated platform management, Battle Damage control systems, propulsion systems and some elements of acoustic and thermal signature management systems. In this respect, the P17 vessels have a far superior system, not to mention superior signature management systems. However, the Fregat & RAWL-02 radar combo is clearly not in the same league as more modern PAR. The P-17'S single arm 3S-91 launcher for the Shtil SAM is not really state of the art any more.

    In summary, the P15A vessel's design is a significant technological achievement over the P-15 and P-17 vessels. It remains to be seen if the DND SSG decides to incorporate elements of the P-17's automated IPMS and propulsion system into the P15B design.

    Looking forward to seeing the rest of the series.

  2. About not more than 20 Naval Architects. That is simply not true. India used to produce lot more. IIT Madras used to offer Naval Architecture in addition to IIT Kharagpur. Cochin and Vizag univs too used to offer it. The sad truth is that becuase of the socialist raj and the terrible state of Indian industry which had kept away private participation, especially in ship building, aircraft, metallurgy and a host of other areas, all the folks in disciplines like Naval Architecture, Aero Space Engg, Metallaurgy , Material Sciences,Solid State Physics,Turbo Macinery etc had to either migrate or if they were lucky take up jobs in places like MDL , HSL or HAL, BHEL etc at close to starvation wages , the PSU environment with no prospects with the sense of decay, despair and gloom. So India really hemorrhaged talent in all these areas, which were built up so painstakingly for all those years. Other branches like Mech, Electrical, Civil etc had some outlets in the private sector in India. For those branches which I mentioned, it was migrate or perish.

    The situation might be different today with ship building with a host of private guys entering. But the skill base is lost and you have to rebuild it from scratch . That is a cold naked fact.

    The Navy guys, were highly insular and cloistered. They never recruited from the IITs and other places , preferring to train their own people in some captive facility at IIT Delhi. Even the Navy had it's own ups and downs. It is only recently that with India having money to spend and opportunities opening outside the govt, things could change in the future.

  3. Another great report, merci

    I wonder if a joint chief of staff would be able to alleviate the R&D/ indigenous problems of the IAF/IA. Perhaps some naval bonhomie could seal the deal!

  4. Ajai:

    Great piece.

  5. Ajai:

    Fantastic article. I am dying to read more! This is a fine example of exactly why I visit this site religiously.

    Could you possibly chip in with some responses to the two points posted by anon1 and 2? I think they were:

    1) The Aegis factor. How is the IN countering the superiority of this piece of kit - or will that be a part of some future vessel?

    2) How is the IN encouraging the growth of more ship-building engineering expertise in the county ?

    Thanks in advance, and am eagerly waiting the next installment!

  6. Glad you all liked the piece. Here's my response to the observations.

    Anon, you are absolutely right when you say the Aegis system is top-of-the-line stuff. Like it or not, the Americans set the benchmark in technology, and the rest play catch up.

    But the downside to that wonderful technology is that you end up paying SO MUCH MORE... that for a country like India, it really isn't worth that added technological edge. Let me put it like this: when you look at what Australia has paid for the three Hobart class destroyers --- $8 bllion --- and compare that with what we could buy for that amount, what would you choose?

    Three Hobart class destroyers with the Aegis system... or eight and a half Kolkata class destroyers for that sum?

    Also throw in the fact that you are supporting a domestic industry... domestic technology... laying the base for a more advanced system later... and providing employment to tens of thousands of workers in shipyards and ancillary industry.

    So admiration of technology is good... but technology must always be seen in a context. Especially when that technology is not with your likely opponents!!

    The point on naval architects is taken. As long as salary equivalence is not institutionalised, they will inevitably leave for better climes. Which is why the navy has to train people in-house. The 6th Pay Commission has recommended special rates of pay for scientists... but naval designers don't qualify for that.

  7. "Also throw in the fact that you are supporting a domestic industry... domestic technology... laying the base for a more advanced system later... and providing employment to tens of thousands of workers in shipyards and ancillary industry"

    Ajai its good you brought this. There are several examples when strong leadership take bold decisions against "military wants", which finally pays huge dividends. I suggest someone do a google search on"Margaret Thatcher+challenger 2" and check what you get. The country needs strong leadership for such bold steps.

  8. Ajai, great article! Are you planning on doing a piece on GRSE and/or the Project 28s?

    Mazagon gets a lot of the press coverage, for good reason, being the largest shipyard. But it would be nice to put some limelight on the smaller yards like GRSE and Goa.

  9. Ajai,
    Are you sure that the Aussies are paying $8 billion for their 3 AWDs and not A$ 8 billion (Australian $)?

  10. Ajai Ji,
    Good article. A question on the first picture, according to your caption it is INS Sahyadri. But the name pf the picture says it is the third of P-15A. Could you clarify?



  11. Left wing nut job... there's not much difference between the Australian dollar and the US dollar. Eight billion Australian dollars... add up to 7.4 billion USD.

    But I'm sure that it is US $8 billion!

    Anonymous, thanks for pointing out the error in captioning that photograph; it is indeed the Project 15-A destroyer. I've amended the caption.

  12. "Also throw in the fact that you are supporting a domestic industry... domestic technology... laying the base for a more advanced system later... and providing employment to tens of thousands of workers in shipyards and ancillary industry"

    Does this enter into picture only for the navy or does it matter for Indian army and air force too?

    P.S.: based on your history I guess, you would have anticipated this question :)

  13. Anon @ 3:23. I cannot comment for the Arjun tanks, but the entire point for defending the LCA is the local industry and expertise:

    To quote on a *fantastic* article on the Economics of the LCA (and is applicable to indigenous efforts):


    "The LCA project represents a considerable investment in advanced infrastructure relating to the crucial aviation industry. Subsequent to the flight of the TD-1, at least some of the R&D effort supported by this investment has met with visible success. A large portion of the investment so far has gone into development of a base of research and academic institutions vital to foster a sustained presence in this in this field."

    Sorry Ajai - I know that this question was directed at you, but I could not resist!

  14. Stupendous work Shuklaji.... fast work indeed.

    Only wish we had better pictures of the Shivalik... it does seem unfinished, especially if it has to be ready by this June. The good thing is that it looks like a perfect stealth frigate, at least until the sensors are installed.

    Do you have any info about the status of these projects Ajaiji?

  15. Will respond in detail to your questions on what you consider a contradiction in my approach to land systems... as compared to ships.

    Will post in detail.

    Sniperz, pics on their way. Hopefully I'll be able to deliver better, and more current, ones soon.

  16. I wish you cover some good article on the Indian Hydrography and on the Indian Oceanography.


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