The ghost of Gorshkov - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 20 July 2015

The ghost of Gorshkov

If private sector is to build three more frigates, why the Talwar-class? Just boost the Project 17-A order

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st July 15

The Indian Navy, clearly, has an appetite for punishment. One might imagine that the nightmarish experience of refurbishing the Gorshkov --- now the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya --- in a Russian shipyard would be enough to forestall any more such warship building projects. But no! Although the Gorshkov took more than twice the contracted time (118 months instead of 52 months) and almost thrice the contracted cost ($2.3 billion instead of $947 million), the navy now wants to involve itself in building three Russian Talwar-class frigates.

Frigates are versatile, multi-role warships of 4,000-6,000 tonnes that can deal with threats from the air (fighters and missiles), surface (missiles and guns) and underwater (submarines). The navy is 61 vessels short of its planned strength of 198 warships and this shortfall is most keenly felt in capital warships like frigates, the business end of any navy, with their ability to operate independently in the face of multi-dimensional threats. But there are capacity limitations to building more frigates in India: our yards that can do so are already stretched to capacity. Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) and Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE) have orders for building seven Project-17A frigates in India. So the navy has proposed that Yantar Shipyard, located in Kaliningrad, Russia, should tie up with an Indian private sector shipyard to build three Talwar-class frigates in India, to add to six such frigates procured from Russia earlier.

To be sure, the navy’s experience with the Talwar-class (Russian name: Krivak-III; or Project 1135.6) has been more reassuring than building the Gorshkov. The six Talwar-class warships were delivered at the price contracted and with less than a year of delay. The first tranche of three frigates (INS Talwar, Trishul and Tabar) was contracted in 1997 for about one billion dollars and delivered between 2003-04. The second tranche of three (INS Teg, Tarkash and Trikand) was contracted in 2006 and delivered in 2012-13 for a slightly higher price.

But the proposed third tranche has a less than wholesome odour, and not just because they are at least twice the cost. In December, Russian president Vladimir Putin urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take three Talwar-class frigates off Russia’s hands for three entirely self-serving reasons. First, Yantar shipyard has six frigates languishing in various stages of build, but the Russian Navy wants just three. Yantar began building six because Moscow was certain it could persuade perpetual-buyer India of the need for another three frigates. Second, the frigates that languish in Yantar have no power plants (engines). Ukraine has refused to supply Russia the Zorya gas turbines that power earlier Talwar-class frigates, and which were contracted for this batch too. Ukraine’s refusal comes after Moscow’s military adventure in Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea. Squeezing another power plant into the Talwar-class hulls would involve major re-engineering. India, on the other hand, with strong defence ties with Ukraine, could obtain Zorya turbines without much problem. Thirdly, even though Moscow’s proposal has been cloaked in the rhetoric of “Make in India”, the Talwar-class features mainly Russian systems, sensors and weapons, which cannot be changed without adversely impacting on delivery time lines.

To select an Indian partner shipyard, Yantar experts have toured, and approved, at least three Indian shipyards --- Larsen & Toubro’s new Katupalli shipyard, near Ennore; Pipavav Shipyard in Gujarat, recently taken over by Anil Ambani’s Reliance Infrastructure; and Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL). It is unclear whether the build plan involves transporting three partly built hulls from Russia to India and finishing the construction here; or whether it is planned to build three frigates in India, ground-up. Either way, the ghost of Gorshkov looms over this hare-brained project.

There is no convincing reason for New Delhi to contemplate a government-to-government proposal with Moscow, in which competitive tendering is abandoned, and a foreign design adopted, to build the Talwar class in India. Instead, the navy, with its proud tradition of developing and building Indian-designed-and-built frigates, should insist on another three Project 17-A frigates, to add to the seven that are slated to start construction shortly.

Even the predecessors of Project 17-A --- the three 5,600-tonne Shivalik-class frigates built under Project 17 --- are regarded as superior to the Talwar-class. Project 17-A will obviously be another notch ahead. Like the Shivalik-class, Project 17-A frigates would embark two medium helicopters, greatly enhancing their anti-submarine and airborne early warning capability. Much of the weaponry that will equip Project 17-A frigates is indigenously built, including rocket launchers, Brahmos cruise missiles and the world-class Long-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM). Vitally, the indigenous frigates would have secure Indian-designed electronic warfare (EW) systems and a tested indigenous “combat management system”, the computer brain that controls the frigate’s arsenal in battle. The levels of “Make in India” achievable in Project 17-A could never be matched whilst building the Talwar-class in India (see chart below). Furthermore, adding another three frigates to the seven already being built under Project 17-A would enhance economies of scale, reducing per-unit price of the frigate. And, with the Directorate General of Naval Design having already finalised much of Project 17-A’s design, build time would be greatly reduced, eroding one of the key arguments presented to justify buying the Talwar-class.

Russian 1135.6
(Talwar Class)
Project 17-A
(Shivalik follow-on)
4,000 tonnes
5,600 tonnes
Zorya gas turbine (Ukraine)
General Electric LM 2500 gas turbine (built in India)
Surface to Air Missile 
LR-SAM (Indo-Israeli)
Surface-to-surface missile
Klub / Brahmos
Brahmos (Indo-Russian)

Electronic warfare suite
TK-25E-M (Russian)
Ellora (Indian)
Fregat M2EM
Russian IFF

MF-STAR (Israeli)
Fregat M2EM
Indigenous BEL Aparna
Indigenous IFF System
100 mm gun (Russian)
Super Rapid Gun Mount (built in India under licence)
Digital CMS (combat management system)
Tribovaniye-M (Russian)
Indigenous CMS-17
Helicopters on board
Ship data network
Not fitted
Indigenous AISDN

Instead of the bizarre solution of Russia deciding which Indian shipyard should build naval frigates, this should be decided through competitive tendering between Pipavav, L&T and other eligible Indian shipyards. The defence ministry must evaluate proposals, with greater indigenization being a key parameter for selection, along with a company’s track record and warship construction infrastructure. The contract should include exemplary penal clauses that impose stiff monetary penalties on delays and quality shortfalls, as well as cancellation of defence production licences for inordinate delays. The defence ministry must also promote scale manufacture by coordinating common sub-vendors for all three shipyards that would simultaneously build Project 17-A --- MDL (four ships), GRSE (three ships) and the selected private shipyard (three ships). This would also be an opportunity for a comparative evaluation of three shipyards to deliver on time, on cost and as per quality standards.

There is no war looming that forces the defence ministry into the messy business of hybrid solutions --- Russian hulls, Indian build, Russian fitments, sensors and weapons. If the ministry has a pressing compulsion, it is to demonstrate that it can, coherently and logically weave together the numerous threads of warship building into a strong fabric. Its decision on these three warships would be an important signal of intent.


  1. NSR says ---

    Col. Shukla ji,

    Great article and India should go with Project 17A so many of Indian systems can be built into them...

    I was wondering why they were going with Talwar and then your timely article cleared it all up...

    A very good read and to take actions immediately...

    Also to set up a submarine building facility like Pipav in Gujrat is dangerous as it is close to Pakistan and they can fire large number of short range rockets to desroy it easily...Suc facilities should always be far away from borders...hope that you will dwell on this idea...

    Thank you.

  2. The problems are well highlighted in the article but such things will always exist the important point is how well they are addressed, India has to be innovative in its negotiations with the Russians, On one had we talk of shortage of ships so we should not worry about issues whether Russia is palming off extra ones to India or not. Just focus on whether they meet our requirement, price and timelines.

  3. the headache... combat ship building capacity... takes time... GSL instance... not upto speed yet... vizag... point of soreness... let them have... The Headache...

  4. yes very rightly said. At least the navy which has gone on the indigenous route should refrain from such self serving intentions of another country. All projects should go through the tendering route rather than gifting the Ambanis contracts after contracts. If one goes by pedigree, the L&T is the most qualified shipyard to undertake such tasks. It is really puzzling to understand, when we have a fantastic design of a frigate, why import.Parikkar seems to have lost his way.

  5. Mr Shukla.
    Your article can be succinctly expressed as a wholesome exercise in incoherent thinking. Now, I do not wish to sound overtly critical, but the chain of logic that you exert (or dont) compells me to point out couple of fallacies in your arguments.
    Firstly, the comparison between Gorshkov Class aircraft carrier and Talwar class frigates. I ask you, do you really believe that a fair comparison can be made between completion dates of a frigate and a freaking 45000 ton aircraft carrier? Isnt there a difference between the complexity of completing a project in which they had to essentially reinvent the wheel, learning to refurbish a missile cruiser into a carrier to that of building frigates which they've done before (Efficiently and nearly in budget, if i can quote you). Isnt this simply an exercise in generating bullshit out of thin air, simply for you writeup (appear) to make sense.
    Secondly, you're talking about Project 17A as if the boats have been floating in the yards for quite some time now, just lying there for commisoning. Is that how manufacturing works out? What you are essentially suggesting is that, instead of procuring time tested weapons systems that ARE in production currently, you would have the navy wait for systems that are in design stage, not combat tested, and not going to be commisioned atleast by 2022. By that logic, i should wait for the more capable systems that are a generation ahead of project 17a, and then the one after that, and the one after that, effectively procuring nothing.
    Thirdly, make in India sounds awesome, it truly does, but quoting your own article "there are capacity limitations to building more frigates in India: our yards that can do so are already stretched to capacity". Well crap. Now we gotta build us a new shipyard, dont we. Wait, a next gen shipyard, built on Indian soil. Isnt that Awesome? Or we could get back from the La-la land, and buy what we can. Also, the ludicrous argument that you put forth, of having a competition for who gets to essentially ASSEMBLE the boats in India. Right after the govt gets into an arrangement with its Russian counterpart? Are you being serious? Man, when you go to buy stuff from one vendor, do you actually get a competition to who delivers it to your doorstep? Is that your headache or the vendors? The navy has quality standards, its most certainly has time bound delivery standards. What it surely doesnot have is either the time, nor the desire to actually carry out what you are suggesting (like that wont take any more time).
    Finally, talking about time. Eh, times are good, eh? "No war looming", as you say. Lets just shut our shops, and watch cricket and tv soaps. Or better, go on a cruise trip around the world and NOT come back home, because, actually in the real world scenario, war is around us, and closer than you might think, and by the time you'll get to home with that thinking, you might not have one.

    Please, and i'm actually saying this because you do have a forum, and people do actually read your opinions. That includes me as well. You can post one article a month, and instead of it being thin skinned conjectures as one is, please do one which actually is wholesome, and provides relevant, and actual information which can help us develop a perspective, not align or disalign with yours. You've done it in the past, and i would hate to see you not do it again.

    1. Woow, more than article your comments makes me think twice.

  6. Notion that Russia was ordering 6 Talwars just to push 3 of them to India is ridiculous. Russian 11356 are desperately needed at Black Sea Fleet which is currently relying on it's only relatively modern blue-water warship - 1164 missile cruiser, also 30+ years old.
    Anyway, currently there are only 5 ships at the Yantar shipyard, the 6th hasn't been even laid down officially, although building of the blocks has started. The first batch of 3 has engines from Zorya, they were shipped before trouble with Ukraine started. So, Russia, probably, wouldn't mind selling the 4th and 5th hull which are ready for launch, bar the engines, just to free up the building space while they manage to start producing their own naval GTE.
    But really outstandingly ridiculous is the price. India is willing to pay for 3 slightly upgraded Talwars 4 TIMES as much as Russia has contracted 3 of their. 4 TIMES, Mr.Shukla. Does it raise some thoughts??

  7. Shukla,
    You do have a point. Building Shivalik/Improved Shivalik class frigates instead of Talwar class frigates is definitely a better idea. Even Shivalik frigates' technology is better than Talwar class, including its CMS, Radar and engines. As you argue, the technology is mostly local so transfer would not be a problem. Moreover, when you are getting a frigate at US$ One Billion a piece now, why buy Talwar when you can build Shivalik.

    However, Talwar frigates are smaller i.e. 4000 ton so they may be low cost and cheaper to acquire and operate. Some political maneuvering is also going on especially when Russian orders have dwindled over the years..

    Nevertheless, building more numbers of Shivalik and Kamorta class would always be a better idea. Indian Navy calls itself a Builders Navy, but then again, it is also the sister service of India's Imported Air Force. Some influence is expected.

  8. The blog is quite informative. I think it's high time India should start building more frigates while going with Project 17-A or any other such project/s. And this way we can absolutely become a 'builders navy' from a 'buyers navy'.

  9. Rocky said...
    For what I have read on this issue, these 2 will be half built in Russia( due to Ukraine crisis) and then transferred to India,(along with the engines) and the rest of the armament and EW suite would be fitted in India. Now Reliance is building facility for 1st time for this class of ships and the ship cost includes the cost of infrastructure also(only 1st time, I guess).
    My guess : The Govt is planning to drop some extra money in hands of reliance for first time(these 2 ships), and then further onwards ask them to build or develop new ships with new technology. this may the start for the private sector(at least for Reliance to get its feet off ground).

    I see a Win-Win-Win for Russia-India-Private sector.

  10. Public money not to be used for creating pvt assets. Pvt company may take market loan and run profitable business.future Talwar class should be significantly cheaper to project 17 A ships proportionate to their capabilities or else its just public money siphoned off to pvt co.

  11. Makes sense, this is exactly the comment I left of one of your earlier posts.

    3 additional shivaliks would be much better.

  12. Sir.
    Please inform us the status of development of Marine Kaveri engine. What is the plan for utilizing the turbine in our warships.

  13. NSR says ---

    USA realized that they love their old work horse Arleigh Burke Class destroyers that they ordered additional 10 ... numbers makes them cheap ...

    India needs to build Shivalik class ships or even advanced ones with more local content to keep the ship building and design and development activities going on...It will afford India to develop partnerships for other critical items too..

    Very important to achieve self sufficiency and availability of spares for security...


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