India's largest warship builders -- Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai; and Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata - have prevailed over the Indian Navy's objections. MDL and GRSE will divide between them the entire order for seven improved stealth frigates, code-named Project 17A.
The Navy was insisting that the first two frigates of Project 17A be built abroad, so that MDL and GRSE could learn how to build ships using new modular methods that are preferred by European shipyards. This would have raised the price of Project 17A by more than Rs 5,000 crore.
MDL and GRSE countered that they possessed the technology and the experience for building cutting-edge warships entirely in India.
Each Shivalik class frigate of Project 17 was priced at Rs 2,600 crore, and the navy plans to insist on the same price for Project 17A. Building abroad would cost at least twice as much as building at MDL and GRSE.
But the navy was focusing on early delivery, rather than cost. Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, insisted on presenting before the Defence Acquisition Council, the highest decision-making body in the Ministry of Defence, the advantages of kicking off Project 17A in a foreign shipyard. But Defence Minister A K Antony stepped in to order entirely indigenous production.
At GRSE, a modernisation programme is underway to create the facilities needed for building Project 17A. The Chairman and Managing Director, Rear Admiral KC Sekhar, said a fully equipped modular yard with a 250-ton Goliath crane will be ready in mid-2011. By then, MoD sanctions will be in place and the Navy would have completed the design of Project 17B.
Explaining the time-line, Admiral Sekhar said, "The MoD has informally told us that the MDL and GRSE will build Project 17A; we are awaiting [formal sanction]. Once the Navy finalises the size and design of the new frigate, we will decide our build strategy and costing. Then, hopefully, by the end of 2009, the MoD will issue a Request for Proposals; GRSE and MDL will submit separate quotes; and then the MoD will place a formal order on the shipyards. Construction should start by end-2011."
This is the first time that India's two major defence shipyards are sharing one project between them. And while MDL and GRSE are bidding separately, they are working in close consultation.
Admiral Sekhar points out that both shipyards have a common aim: to construct this largest-ever order of seven frigates without any delays. He explains, "We will have a common design for all seven ships of Project 17A. MDL can be the lead shipyard, since they have more experience in building bigger ships. They can start work on the first frigate; after six months, we will start work on the second one."
While MDL takes the lead in construction, GRSE will lead the design effort. A month ago, three companies - GRSE; French shipbuilder, DCNS; and Kolkata-based IT engineering company, Vision Comptech - formed a joint venture to design marine products, including warships, for customers globally. This JV is expected to work with the Navy's Directorate General of Naval Design on the design for Project 17A.
If all goes well, say the shipyards, the first Project 17A frigates should be delivered to the Indian Navy by 2016-17.