INS Vikrant’s first victory: being built from Indian steel - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 7 August 2013

INS Vikrant’s first victory: being built from Indian steel

By Ajai Shukla
Bhilai Steel Plant, Chhattisgarh

However one dresses it up, a steel plant is not a pretty place. A blast of heat hits us as we enter the gigantic shed that houses Bhilai Steel Plant’s largest blast furnace, which converts ore into pig iron. Our eyes still attuned to the bright Chhattisgarh sunlight outside, we peer into a smoky version of what can only be described as Dante’s inferno. Amidst the deafening hiss of steam-operated machinery, a gleaming rivulet of molten pig iron flows past us and into an enormous ladle. Sparks dance up from the molten metal, iron particles that are literally aflame. Another glowing rivulet of slag, the waste material left after ore becomes iron, flows away into a murky darkness. Suddenly, sheets of flame shoot out of the base of the furnace as helmeted steelworkers “tap” the melt.

In this hellish battleground, defence indigenisation has won a significant victory. Bhilai Steel Plant and its sister plants of the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) --- at Rourkela, Durgapur and Bokaro --- have manufactured 26,000 tonnes of high-grade “warship steel” that has gone into INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier that will be launched into water at Cochin Shipyard on Monday.

Simultaneously, SAIL supplied steel for four corvettes that Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata, is building under Project 28. And Essar Steel is providing steel for four destroyers that Mazagon Dock, Mumbai is building under the Indian Navy’s Project 15B.

“Warship steel” is a challenging specialty metal. It must be hard and also tough, just as a champion gymnast must be strong as well as flexible. It must remain so at temperatures of minus 60 degree Celsius, when normal metal plates shatter easily. In its maritime working environment, it must resist endless corrosion from seawater and air.

Small wonder then that India has long relied on Russia, Poland, the UK and others for steel for its warships. But that created two major problems: firstly, warship production was often delayed due to the whims of steel suppliers. And secondly, multiple sourcing, with multiple specifications, created logistical problems over the four-decade service life of a warship, with a multitude of different spare plates and welding consumables required, often in tiny quantities, sometimes from sources that had shut down.

Says Commodore Saibal Sen, who is overseeing the construction of INS Vikrant, “Developing our own warship steel was a technological imperative”.

And so the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) took up a project in 1999 to develop and mass-produce warship grade steel. Russia provided the chemical formula of warship steel called ABA, but the challenge in steelmaking is to translate science into manufacture.

There was little time to lose. The 37,500 tonne INS Vikrant needed to start construction but awaited confirmation that indigenous steel could be supplied. Also in the pipeline were a series of warships --- four 2,500-tonne corvettes of Project 28; four 6,800-tonne destroyers of Project 15B; and seven 4,900-tonne frigates of Project 17A.

The Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL), a part of DRDO, began working with SAIL, finding a way to produce warship steel cheaply in quantities that ran into tens of thousands of tonnes. Rourkela Steel Plant found that “tempering and quenching” --- which involves heating steel to red heat and then plunging it into water --- gave the required grain structure, but would cost too much. And then came the breakthrough: Bhilai Steel Plant developed a “continuous casting” process and warship grade steel was now affordable. In 2004, Cochin Shipyard was given the green signal and INS Vikrant started taking shape.

Says SAIL chairperson, CS Verma: “Our steel costs twice as much as normal steel, but is still half the cost of imported warship steel. As volumes increase, and our production techniques are refined, we hope the cost will come down.”

Today, Bhilai Steel Plant casts warship steel plates of up to 20 millimetres thickness without quenching or tempering, supplying the bulk of the requirement for large warships. But thicker steel plates are also required, albeit in smaller quantities. That is done at the Special Plate Plant (SPP) in Rourkela, which produces plates up to 120 millimetre thick through quenching and tempering.

Special Plate Plant, Rourkela is emerging as a major special steels centre for defence equipment. It produces armoured plate for the T-90 and Arjun tanks, and the BMP-II infantry combat vehicle, which are built at Avadi and Medak respectively by the Ordnance Factory Board. Its annual capacity of 2,000 tonnes is being upped to 12,000 tonnes.

“(The DRDO’s) research project worth about Rs 14.2 crore has now led to the supply of steel worth about Rs 550 crore,” points out Dr G Malkondaiah, former DMRL Director who oversaw this project closely.

Being used on the INS Vikrant are three special steels --- DMR 249A for the hull and body; and DMR 249B, a more resilient steel, which is used for the flight deck that must take the repeated impact of 20-30 tonne fighter aircraft landing. In 2008, DMR Z25 was developed for the floor of compartments that housed heavy equipment like engines and generators. This absorbs the compression and decompression from the heavy equipment.

In the pipeline now is DMR 292A, which will be used for the hull of submarines. This could be used in six conventional submarines that will be built under Project 75I, and in India’s entire fleet of nuclear submarines.


  1. Bravo!! what a contrast to air force's and army's attitude!

  2. I have to say this is a very refreshing article.Generally news always tend to focus on issues that are controversial and fail to report things where we do well. This is a good change from your past few articles. I would hope you post more such articles to let everyone know where India is doing well

  3. Without a basic linear particle accelerator, our DRDO fools have to go around asking for "formula" to make novel materials. What a waste of PhDs! Also what a waste of universities such as IITs and IISc. All useless, when it comes to real research.

  4. Indian steel was used earlier as well but for the repairs of our ships. There was a big price to pay for that some years ago.

    I sincerely hope that those issues have been sorted out and it is not that twenty odd years later, old lessons have been forgotten. In our system, that seems to happen all too frequently

  5. Why is India going for steel submarines when even the Russians prefer Titanium ??

    A Titanium sub can dive deeper, is more resistant to wear and tear and has fewer problems in the long run and is lighter giving the submarine more speed from a power plant.

    Further building up expertise in Titanium welding will be essential if India want to be a serious naval power.

    The draw backs may include high cost of Titanium and some troubles with the casting and welding but the price is definitely worth the reliability and robustness desired for our second strike nuclear facilities.

  6. @ Anonymous 09:38

    What on earth has does a linear particle accelerator got to do with making warship grade steel for the navy? DRDO is not into particle physics research, last I checked. The Navy wont be shooting Higgs-Boson particles at our enemies any time soon.

  7. iits r total waste of money all that talent brought nothing to the nation for past 60 years

  8. sir, what happened to kaveri gas turbine engine, has it been certified for naval applications or the research is going on

  9. Great News Sir, Would like to see how things actually turn out when she finally goes to sea and launches an aircraft......

  10. The article is very informative and previously I didn't have much idea about what special type of steel required for warships. Good to hear a PSU is delivering. Still there remains space for further innovation when it comes to stealthiness of steels.

  11. Its pains me that a country of 1.3 billion still have to rely on others for basic formulas...

  12. Ahhh. Shuklaahhhhh! . Writing fiction now about Russians giving "formula" for ship quality steel called "ABA". Now when "ABA" actually stands for American Bureau of Shipping Grade A , commonly abbreviated as AB/A steel, how can the Russians who have their OWN standards called GOST (that is the Roman literal of the Cyrillic) come up with ABA etc classifications ?

    Now, the specifications are freely available,from the standards body to everyone and his mother in law and the composition is no secret either, it has been known for god knows how long. A simple google search will give you the composition , even if you really don't put the steel in a mass spectrometer to get the exact percentages of each. The reason why no one made it in India until now,was it was UNECONOMICAL to do so. There was really no technical challenge in it , either in creating it or manufacturing it. Now that the Navy has a large number of ships under construction, they bit the bullet and decided it was worth the while to make it here and they did.

    That is the short point and the whole point. Now making it into a B grade Bollywood flick with "Secret Russian Formula" (for an American Specification ???? Ha .. haa..) and trying to paint a picture of heroic toiling in making it, is stretching things a bit, dont you think?

  13. @ Anonymous

    You, of course, know everything. And in your world, making warship grade steel is easy as jam.

    The people at SAIL, DRDO, the Indian Navy and Essar Steel, who have productionised warship grade steel with what they say is great difficulty are just talking rubbish.

    Actually, I think I'll listen to them rather than to some guy who posts anonymously on blogs.

  14. what does this process innovation mean for commercial ship building, you know the super tankers and such large vessels?

  15. Hi Ajay, A great news for Indians. Can you also reply to some comments like the one about ABA composition supplied by russia while it is available in the net

  16. Great Article Shuklaji.

    Can you pls cover the Arjun Mk 2 also?

    Ohhh come on, you're a tankman!

  17. Dear Ajaiji,
    I think you have slightly got it wrong when you said-
    Russia provided the chemical formula of warship steel called ABA, but the challenge in steelmaking is to translate science into manufacture. I guess we are so happy procuring scientific know-how from other countries, that we sometimes do not appreciate how hard it is to do science. Hence I get a feeling that many who read defense blogs feel that things like rocket launches just happens when you put people together and paying them. The trial and error process involved is frustrating, time taking and filled with failures. When it is brushed aside with impunity it is demeaning. Research is not like Harry Potter's wand waving.

  18. All the IIT's and IISc PhDs and Grads are basically just show-offs. Most use American software, hardware to perform their simulations and Google to "plagiarize" their thesis work. The professors are the most arrogant bastards, comparable to Brahmins of yore! If you are good at ass-licking, you will get your PhD defense passed easily, without much questioning. With such fake Indian PhDs at dime-a-dozen, ordinary Indians (non-PhDs) wonder why Indians can't make World-class products. And unfortunately Ajai'ji believes, what the PSUs (managed by most useless people) tell him. Ajai'ji, if you really want to know how research is done, take a look at MIT or Stanford and other US universities. How their model of research is based and done, and then compare that with what IITs and IISc cannot do. Its this model of research that attracts Indian grads to USA and become successful. So stop believing Indian academics without internationally proven credentials. Sorry my writing might seems very critical of our esteemed educational institutes, but somebody needs to tell the "King is not wearing any clothes". Yet they boast of their prowess. If they are so adept, then why doesn't it show in their output. Same goes for our politics, they are without any coherent policies. Hence the circus being played out between MoD and forces. Policy doesn't mean a specification paper, but it means a vision! Unfortunately the only Indian with vision, Dr. Kalam, is now relegated to the side-lines. Instead our current President is a total Ass-licker.

  19. It is a good sign that we are making warship grade steel and we already know the chemical composition. Now can't we take a step further and try to better the steel. (increasing the tensile strength and hardness.)
    Secondly indigenization of Naval ships were started long time back. (Remember Godavari class frigates.) where as we (army and airforce) are very lethargic to induct quality researched product like Arjun or Tejas. Reasons are best known to them.

  20. Hello Amol @ Mumbai!
    Man... take a chill pill and drink some cold nimbu pani!! That will make you feel better. Maybe then you will not generalize so much :-))

  21. Good step forward. Now for HAL and DRDO to start really working rather than just being a nut and bolt company. And also for Colonle Ajai Shukla to call a spade a spade and admit that these two organisations have been letting down our Air Force and Army time and again!

  22. amol @ mumbai - aap gadhe hai.. looks like some ghati speaking out in frustration doing some shitty work.. I would like to know your credentials and work..

    Do you see the budget of MIT research vs. IIT research.. Things would take time with the leadership which india got, nevertheless talking about shitty state of gunda politics in Mumbai..

  23. To Anon @ 9 August 2013 22:59:
    Let me confirm my credentials in brief. US Electrical Engineering grad working in software research. Previously worked at major Indian pvt. sector company in R&D.

    - As for your "Ghati" comments, its morons like you who dirty the waters!

    - Budget: Do you think pouring money = Research? I am sure you are not from R&D background. Fundamental research needs Math and scientific approach. Its productizing the research which needs money. How much money do you think Shockley needed for materials to create a transistor?

    - IITs: I have studied at IIT and hence speaking from experience not just mine but of fellow students.

    - Indian leadership hasn't produced anything worthwhile in past more than 60 years. Do you really believe the fragmented national leadership is really capable of any vision other than turf-war politics? You are trusting the wrong people.

    Anyway, my comments are not only directed at you, but in general to the unaware and ignorant people of India. Indians need to take their destiny in their own hands.

    Finally, I appreciate the work done by SAIL and others in producing what is needed by the forces. I don't deny that. However, there is a distinct pattern to follow others (international research), than to lead from front in research. Why can't Indians invent some new materials domestically, better than ABA steel, why does it need to be even Steel, use Carbon! That's where the public sector fails in research. They lack the mandate for pursuing pure research from which flows technology. Until this thinking doesn't change and priorities are not put straight, India will remain a developing nation. And all of Ajai-ji's and others hopes of modernizing the forces will remain but an elusive mirage.

  24. Grand achievements.

  25. Amol @ Mumbai:

    "US Electrical Engineering grad working in software research"

    Ah, unique creds - I see you didn't mention your IIT background till an afterthought. Don't see how that gives you insight into R&D in India. You know, others too have gone to colleges in India and abroad, know what our problems are, but don't just sit back and pass comments and denigrate ourselves. Oh, speaking of 'ass-licking' (sorry Col sir, just quoting this guy), I knew a guy driven to suicide simply 'cause this thesis was not approved by prof over many attempts. Sounds like 3 Idiots? Happened in the esteemed US of A you glorify. So please don't generalize so much.

    "- Indian leadership hasn't produced anything worthwhile in past more than 60 years. Do you really believe the fragmented national leadership is really capable of any vision other than turf-war politics? You are trusting the wrong people."
    What have you done to right this - fighting keyboard wars? Good luck, then. There is one thing Indian leadership has provided in the last 60 years - keep the country together and somewhat secure under the circumstances. If people like you had your way, we would be 'ass-licking' not professors, but the dude sitting in Penn Ave.

    "Anyway, my comments are not only directed at you, but in general to the unaware and ignorant people of India. Indians need to take their destiny in their own hands."
    Thanks for referring to Indians as 'they' - shows where your priorities are and where you belong. Good luck, and stay away. Oh, and don't worry about reimbursing the money the GoI spent on your useless IIT education, consider it a gift.

    People like you are enough to keep us in a 'third world' and 'developing' mentality. Thank you very much. /s

  26. Amol@Mumbai
    I am with you.
    Baring a few IIT-ians, rest are just a drain and the products are high-end coolies for companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon etc that too at operational side not in the innovative side. Google has bought 100s of companies, how many were started by IIT-ians may be less than 5%. Reason is IIT-ians even after 60yrs. can barely think out of the box.
    You are talking about Carbon and refinement. Let us take plain software languages which just require creativity, out-of-box thinking and coding. How much is from these elite? You'll hear zero. On the other hand if you give them a product they will refine it using their algorithms. Earlier they did it in service companies like Infosys and now moved up the chain into companies like Google, FB etc.
    Reason is the rote and Kumon style learning keeps their right-brain under developed. Until then our rural and less funded colleges will beat IIT's hands down in creativity.

  27. Actually Shuklaji there is no "secret formula" of warship grade steel. Those are just ruses for these PSU guys to get approval for huge sums of public money for Russian consultants getting Russian commissions in return. It's about getting the processes right to get the desired chemical composition. SAIL has consulted small private sector companies in India too. Their are many experts in India's private sector. Frankly, many of these SAIL PHDs of metallurgy and IITwallahs in PSUs are mere theoreticians. An ounce of experience is worth more than tonnes of theory.


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