Home > News > Columnists > Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)
Riding the waves
May 10, 2003
Amidst the cacophony and media hype of the Iraq war and SARS, an important recent event went mostly unnoticed. The Indian Navy launched its first stealth frigate, the Type 17 ship Shivalik, at Mazagon Dock, marking one more step in the navy's successful and steady march towards self reliance.
The Indian Navy's road map and the implementation of its ship construction programme is surely an object lesson on how these things should be done. Over the past 50 years, while other indigenisation programmes have either failed or got bogged down, the navy in partnership with the three defence shipyards has steadily produced a whole range of ships from frigates to missile vessels, from survey ships to landing crafts (tank), and from submarines to seaward defence boats.
Had the go ahead been given 10 years ago, the Indian Navy could have had a home built aircraft carrier in service by now. Both in the Presidential Reviews of 1989 and 2001, whole lines of Indian-built ships took the pride of place.
The navy's quest for indigenisation began more than 50 years ago. At that time the navy had neither the expertise in designing nor any dedicated shipyards to build the ships it wanted. In fact, well into the sixties the navy got all its major ships from abroad. For lack of any senior officers, the Indian Navy had to have British officers at its head and they made sure that new ships were ordered on British shipyards.
It was only after they had departed that a serious effort was made to build ships in India. In the fifties, the navy began to build its design organisation around a small group of dedicated UK trained constructor officers. A small start was made by designing and building very small vessels such as small landing craft and seaward defence boats. The inexperience was telling. These small ships were nothing home to write about. They had many defects in engineering and design but valuable lessons were learnt.
By the sixties the navy was ready to make its first major effort in indigenisation. Today, the Indian Navy has one of the best ship design organisations in the world capable of designing any kind of ship.
The first step was to have some dedicated defence shipyards where expertise in ship building could be accumulated. With this in view the government in 1962 acquired Mazagon Dock in Mumbai and Garden Reach Workshops in Kolkata. These yards belonged to the British India company and were primarily ship repair yards. They had never built major ships, leave alone sophisticated naval ships. Knowing its lack of expertise and experience, the navy decided to build the first ships with foreign collaboration. It was decided to build the British Leander class frigates in collaboration with two major UK shipyards.
The agreement was signed in 1964 and the keel of the first ship laid in 1966. Over the next six years six ships of the class were built at Mazagon Dock.
The choice of a frigate as the first major warship to be built in India was also appropriate. These ships of about 2,500 tonnes are neither too big nor too small. They are highly sophisticated and contain the same armament as ships of even larger size. They are ideal ships on which to build a yard's shipbuilding skills.
Although the first ship, Nilgiri, was built exactly as its counterparts in the Royal Navy, the navy was not happy to continue its building programme with the same design. It carried out major design changes for the second Leander, this time taking the help of a Dutch design bureau. The weapons and sensors were changed and major changes were made to the superstructure of the ship. The second ship, Himgiri, was a major departure from the original design. Soon the collaboration with the British shipyards ended and the navy was on its own.
By the time the fourth ship, Dunagiri, was completed, the navy was in a position to undertake major design changes. The last two Leanders were a departure from the first four. They were broadened and lengthened, thus enabling them to embark the massive Sea King helicopter on board.
The Godavari class, which followed the Leanders, were the first ships to be totally designed and built in India. For the first time a ship of this size was able to embark two Sea King helicopters on board. The ships drew praise from professional quarters when they visited abroad. From now on there was no looking back. The Godavari class was followed by the even more impressive three ships of the Delhi class, the 6,500 tonne all gas turbine destroyers fitted with surface to surface and surface to air missiles.
In between, the navy also designed and built the smaller type 25 corvettes, small but powerful ships carrying missiles.
Ship construction was not confined to Mazagon Dock alone. The other defence shipyard, Garden Reach Workshop was also kept busy with designs and orders. The yard built survey vessels, large landing craft and the fleet tanker. They also built the type 25 corvettes and the Brahmaputra class frigates, the follow-on of the Godavaris.
In 1966, the defence ministry acquired the erstwhile Portuguese shipyard in Goa and renamed it the Goa Shipyard. This small shipyard has also been a success story having built all manner of small ships from missile vessels to fast patrol craft. They have also produced a number of offshore patrol vessels for the coast guard.
From the very start, side by side with ship construction, the navy undertook the indigenisation of equipment. At first this was done by bringing about collaboration between foreign manufacturers and Indian companies. This policy has borne fruit and today all major equipment of the ships is made in India. The boilers, main engines, electrical switchboards and air conditioning of the first ships are made in India. Bharat Electronics built the radars and operations room control equipment. Most of the fittings were manufactured within the country. The LM 2,500 gas turbine built in collaboration with General Electric of USA, which will go into the Shivalik, is the latest example of this effort. It was built at Hindustan Aeronautics.
The navy's building programme is in sharp contrast with other defence projects such as the Arjun tank or the LCA [Light Combat Aircraft] aircraft which have been beset with problems. The DRDO's [Defence Research and Development Organisation] policy of taking on 'prestigious' projects, starting from scratch, have been one reason why these projects have been plagued with cost and time overruns.
One of the wisest things done by the Indian Navy was to keep DRDO well out of its building programme. The whole thing was kept within the navy and its building collaborators the three defence shipyards. In fact the only time the DRDO managed to get in the programme was when they decided to develop and provide the surface to air missiles for the frigates. The Trishul missile destined for the Brahmaputra frigates was expected to be delivered in 1992. The missile is still carrying out 'successful' trials ashore and the navy, unable to wait any longer, has had to make alternative arrangements.
The navy too has also made a few mistakes along the way. In the early eighties it lost an opportunity to replace the out of date steam turbine machinery with gas turbines. The Indian Navy today is possibly the only navy in the world going around with ships with steam machinery.
Similarly, whereas we have built ships and their machinery in India, we have yet to produce any weapons within the country. As of today no guns or missiles are produced in India and have still to be procured from abroad.
Yet these shortcomings should not in any way lessen the major achievements of the Indian Navy and the defence shipyards, which have successfully produced a whole fleet of ships for the country. India can indeed be proud of them.
Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)