The Indian Navy's insistence that warships built in India must have cutting-edge weapons systems is having potentially dangerous consequences: half-built warships rusting in the dockyard, waiting for fancy weaponry that gets more and more delayed.
Such is the story of Project 15A, the construction of three 6,800-tonne destroyers by the public sector Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL), India's premier warship builder. Project 15A was sanctioned in June 2001, and construction began in 2003, with delivery of the first ship, INS Kolkata, promised in June 2008. The second (INS Kochi) and third (INS Chennai) vessels of the Kolkata Class (a warship class is traditionally named after the lead ship) would follow at one-year intervals.
Instead, as Business Standard saw on a visit to MDL, the three hulks float aimlessly, seawater corroding their steel as they wait for key systems that are not yet ready. INS Kolkata was launched in March 2006; it has already spent seven years in the water. But the navy will be lucky to get it next year, five years late. INS Kochi and INS Chennai will follow in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Meanwhile, the navy's Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) exists only on paper. Formulated in 2005, the MCPP projects a 160 ship-strong navy, including 90 front-line combat platforms (major warships like aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes). Actual numbers are far more modest. The INS Sahyadri, the navy's latest warship that was commissioned last month, is its 134th ship.
According to a 2010 CAG report on warship building, this year the navy will have just 44 per cent of the destroyers it needs; 61 per cent of the frigates; and 20 per cent of its requirement of corvettes (destroyers are heavy warships, above 6,000 tonnes; frigates usually weigh under 5,500-6,000 tonnes; while corvettes are usually below 2,500 tonnes).
The navy has only itself to blame for delays in Project 15A. With MDL having successfully built three destroyers under Project 15 (INS Delhi, INS Mysore and INS Mumbai), Project 15A was to be a follow-on class, three more destroyers built quickly using basically the same design and technologies. Instead, the navy demanded 2,363 modifications, including major changes in weaponry, sensors and helicopter systems.
According to the CAG's audit report, the Kashtan surface-to-air missile was replaced with the Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM), which the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is still co-developing with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). To strengthen the destroyer's anti-submarine capabilities, it was decided to include a bow-mounted sonar, the DRDO's Humsa sonar. And the entire helicopter hangar was redesigned to accommodate a bigger helicopter.
To make matters worse, many of these decisions were taken late, necessitating major reconstruction. The CAG points out that the decision on the Humsa sonar was taken "after MDL had completed the detailed design, production, assembly and erection of the bow structure without sonar", which called for major redesign. Similarly, the navy decided to change the gun mount in March 2008, after the first ship was launched. This "necessitated redesign of the entire structure around the gun mount " says the CAG.
Naturally, the delays have been enormous. While Project 15 vessels were built in 108 months, Project 15A vessels will take 140 months to delivery. This is twice as long as Korean shipyards like Hyundai and Daewoo, which take 66-72 months (including the pre-build period) for a comparable warship. Western shipyards like DCNS (France), Fincantieri (Italy), or Northrop Grumman (USA) typically take 78-80 months.
MDL's new chairman, Rear Admiral (Retired) Rahul Kumar Shrawat, plays down the delay, pointing out that the vessels are now close to completion. "It is the navy's endeavour to put the latest equipment on a new warship. That is a legitimate user aspiration," he says.
But Shrawat would not like the same mistakes to be made in Project 15B, another follow on project, under which MDL will build four destroyers similar to the Kolkata Class. Shrawat hopes that Project 15B destroyers, which will start being constructed this year, will incorporate the same LR-SAM, Brahmos cruise missile and helicopter hangar that is being installed in Project 15A.
"The lesson learnt is that the systems that are proven on one platform, unless they genuinely require upgrading, should perhaps be used for the follow-on platform as well. But, as a shipyard, we do not control that. We can only recommend to the navy," says Shrawat.
The Rs 29,325 crore contract for Project 15B was concluded in Jan 2011. Production will start by year-end, with the first destroyer being delivered in 2018 and the other three at one-year intervals.