| It was an uncharacteristically forthright A.K. Antony at a recent seminar in the Capital. "The delays caused by India's shipyards are not good for the country's prestige. They must modernise," the defence minister emphasised, breaking away from his speech to sound a warning on the problem dogging the Indian Navy. On the face of it, the navy has embarked on an unprecedented buildup, acquiring 33 warships and last year, it received a generous Rs 9,000 crore to bankroll its ambitious shipbuilding plans for a blue water navy. |
The problem lies in the defence shipyards building a majority of these warships: Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL) in Mumbai, Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Limited (GRSE) in Kolkata and the Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL). "The current shipbuilding capability does not match our requirements," says Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta. Here's why. To maintain the existing force of 135 warships-each with an average lifespan of around 25 years-the navy will have to, every year, induct six new warships and one submarine to replace retiring ships. At present, primarily because of the snail's pace at which they are built, only two to three warships are inducted every year. The 33 warships currently under construction are meant to replace the navy's retiring warships as per present estimates. The question is whether they will be completed on time. For instance, the Shivalik, the first of the three stealth frigates, is yet to join the navy even four years after it was launched by MDL. Similar delays plague the other shipyards. GRSE Kolkata takes nine years to build a frigate (a 5,000-tonne warship), which is nearly three times what it takes a South Korean shipyard.
Of the two main stages in warship construction, first is fabrication, wherein the bare hull is welded together and launched into the water. This is followed by outfitting, when the warship is fitted with radars, electronics, sensors, guns and missiles. As in the case of the Shivalik, Indian shipyards launch the hulls on time but take years to outfit the warships because they lack the expertise. "Due to such prolonged delays, when the equipment to be fitted out already completes half its life, we have to buy new equipment, further delaying the process," says a senior naval officer. The end result is inflated costs.
|AIRCRAFT CARRIER: |
One being built in Kochi; Vikramaditya (left) being refitted in Russia
Three are under construction by MDL in Mumbai. Delayed by two years.
Three are being built in Mumbai; another three in Russia. Delayed by two years.
Four are under construction by GRSE in Kolkata
|PATROL VESSEL |
Three are under construction by GSL in Goa
Six of the Scorpene class are being built by MDL in Mumbai
Converted into shipyards without any modernisation to keep pace with emerging technology, most PSU shipyards are mired in archaic trade union laws, poor project management and an aging workforce-average age at GRSE is 56 years. Moreover, with no competition from the private sector, the indigenous shipyards feel little compulsion to shape up. None of them have invested in modernisation after 2004. "Shipyards in India use cheap labour, yet they are not cost-competitive compared to foreign shipyards. The navy is terribly overcharged by the PSUs," says Rear Admiral (retired) Raja Menon.
"Earlier, we had problems because the navy placed orders in batches of two. Now, orders are placed in batches of four ships, allowing us to improve on our record," says Vinod Kumar, director shipbuilding, GRSE. MDL officials refuse to comment.
Echoing the navy's long-cherished dream of transforming from a buyer's to a builder's entity, Antony said, "We must build more ships within the country. India cannot depend on foreign shipyards." Yet, it remains an unfulfilled aspiration over which successive chiefs have gritted their teeth. Over the years, the navy has built 85 warships indigenously but imported an equal number. "Our shipyards must accelerate the pace of production. While we are deeply committed to PSUs, we cannot allow our force levels to decline. If left with no alternative, we shall import warships to make up our force levels," said former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash on a visit to GRSE last year. Present at the commissioning of the INS Beas in 2005, his angst is understandable: the warship had been ordered 19 years ago in 1986.
|Nine years |
Time taken by a shipyard in India to build a frigate.
|Five years |
Time taken by a shipyard abroad to build a frigate.
|Six warships |
The annual requirement to replace the navy's current fleet.
There are indications imports may resume. Early in 2006, the navy inked a $1.1-billion (Rs 5,000-crore) contract to import three more Talwar-class frigates from Russia. Over the next decade, the navy plans to spend over $25 billion (Rs 1.1 lakh crore)-more than an year's allocation for the three armed forces-to buy ships and aircraft. Just how much of it will be spent on acquiring warships within the country depends on how soon local shipyards deliver. A few months ago, the navy quietly dispatched a Request for Information-or RFI, the first step in procurement-to various foreign shipyards for building seven 5,000-tonne frigates worth Rs 4,000 crore each. This is a fall-back option the navy says it will exercise if it does not get warships on time from the domestic shipyards.
|"Delays by our shipyards are not good for the country's prestige. They must modernise." |
A.K. ANTONY, DEFENCE MINISTER
Yet, even modernisation may not be the panacea: MDL has run out of room for expansion while GRSE stands on still-more uneven ground-the Hooghly river. "The solution lies in encouraging more greenfield projects or new shipyards," says a senior naval officer. In 2008, ABG Shipyard will be the first private sector firm to venture in with a facility capable of building large warships in Dahej, Gujarat where even Larsen & Toubro plans to set up a shipyard. Until they come on board and bring in much needed competition, India's slothful PSU white elephants will continue to graze off its captive customer.