The Indian Navy has acquired the laudable distinction of converting itself from a ‘buyer’s Navy’ into a ‘builder’s Navy’ by dint of steady accretion of design capabilities in warship building since the establishment of the Directorate of Naval Constructions in 1954.
Today all 46 of a wide mix of different-sized warships from aircraft carrier to submarines to fast attack vessels, are being constructed in Indian shipyards.
Its success lies in the culture of commitment to incremental growth that has been nurtured by far-sighted naval constructors.
Hopefully in the decades to come the Naval Design Organisation will be able to provide the leadership in creating what is emerging as fast-intervention platforms that are stealthy, swift and potently armed.
Evidence of its intrinsic orientation became available when it decided to shift systematically from licensed production of the British-designed Leander class frigate to an indigenous program of a ‘stretched Leander’, the Godavari class, wherein even while adding a thousand tonnes in deadweight to the in length and width it was able to achieve a marginally higher speed with the same set of engines. That is innovation.
In fact, such was the zeal of this organization that in the order for six ships of the Leander class the first four followed the blueprint supplied by the British original equipment manufacturer.
But India made significant changes in the design in the last two to incorporate among other things a Recovery Assist, Secure and Traverse (RAST) system to ensure safe recovery of an airborne helicopter in choppy seas and heaving deck.
Even as the Leander design was stretched a hangar capable of accommodating two large Sea King helicopters became the hallmark of the succeeding Godavari class of vessels.
It is a commentary on the state of affairs in the Navy that at the moment there are not enough helicopters to be deployed in each ship that has a hangar and operational deployment and ‘show the flag’ exercises require a lot of juggling of the helicopter fleet.
With 46 vessels on the assembly lines of four Defence Public Sector Undertaking shipyards -Mazagon Dockyard Ltd (the oldest in the country)-Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Cochin Shipyard Ltd and Hindustan Shipyard Ltd- it is clear that capacity utilization is at its maximum.
Yet, new ships will, perforce, have to be farmed out to private shipbuilders thereby adding to the general competence building that will take shipbuilding in India to a higher level both in terms of cost-benefit and assimilation/creation of more advanced technology.
The 46 ship order book acquires a specific dimension when taken in the context of plans to raise the Order of Battle of the Indian Navy to 100 fighting vessels by 2020.
There will have to be concerted effort both in the public sector as well as in the private sector shipyards to not just become involved in transfer of technology (ToT)-which is just another form of the trap called licensed production out of which only the Navy Design Organisation has showed the gumption to take India out of its clutches-but an enhancement in research and development and design capability.
In the Naval arena India lost a great deal of expertise by failing to build on the designs and blueprints supplied by the German HDW shipyard for its diesel-electric submarines because of the scandal in kickbacks and sharing of design with South Africa by the German firm.
This disability affected the Scorpene project with France where assimilation was a major drawback and the production was delayed by more than four years.
The first of the six Scorpenes is expected to be commissioned in September 2016 thereby beginning the process of closing a vital chink in India’s maritime defence.
India will also commission the nuclear powered and armed Arihant submarine in early 2016 thereby putting in place, along with the Russian Nerpa class nuclear submarine, the Chakra, a credible nuclear deterrent.
The second of the Arihant class of nuclear submarines-the Aridhaman-is being readied for launch by the end of 2016 and will be in service within two years.
To some extent the dearth of operational submarine fleet will have been covered up.
But the nuclear submarine fleet has to grow and the direction that it should take would be to be able to carrying a larger number of even longer-ranged underwater-launched ballistic missiles with multi-independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV) warheads.
Plans to take a second nuclear submarine on lease from Russia have not as yet fructified. The deal is expected to be signed soon.
The first indigenous aircraft carrier under construction in Cochin Shipyard dry dock the INS Vikrant has been launched and is being fitted out. Sea trials will begin in 2017.
The Indian Navy, which already has the Russian Krivak III in service in the Talwar class of guided missile frigates built under a joint venture has ordered six more of the improved Krivak III from Russia.
Five of these are expected to be built at the Anil Ambani-owned Pipavav Shipyard in Gujarat as part of the Make-in-India scheme indicating a major private sector entry into the Defence sector.
However, this also indicates the extent of continuing dependence on foreign sources for maritime security equipment.
The Naval Design Organisation along with identified private sector players will have to lead the way to new innovative uses of the marine environment for war fighting.
High on the list of future requirements in naval vessels is the need for high-speed platforms packed with multi-role weapons packages for anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine and asymmetric warfare use.
This means the whole spectrum of conflict management from anti-piracy, contraband transfers, marine terrorism, conventional warfare and deterrence in the nuclear background.
Indian designers will have to match the speed with which the Indian Navy will be able to reach threats on the edge of the Indian Ocean littoral from a standing start from either Mumbai, or Karwar or Cochin or Goa with the onboard firepower and intrinsic armored protection.
Given the presence of the hypersonic Chinese Dong Feng-21D aircraft carrier killers it is relevant to know how fast an evasive manoeuvre can be executed and what kind of compromises will need to be incorporated in the hull design.
How best to facilitate such interventions by either forward basing or pre-positioning with a minimum of support ships or whether it would be more fruitful, at least in the short term.
Before the new hull designs are proved and existing platforms upgraded, to forward-base the platforms and ensuring rapid and measured support for fuel, food, munitions and other replenishments on new kinds of hulls and propulsion systems.
It will also be of advantage to re-examine the potential of one of India’s major contributions to seafaring-the Tamilian catamaran or the double hulled or outrigger craft.
Shallow of draft and lending themselves to a wider, more stable, beam the catamaran design potential may not as yet have been fully exploited and therefore worth re-examining.
There is also the tri-maran or the triple-hulled vessel. Powered catamarans are known to have achieved a speed of 93 kmph.
And then there is the hydrofoil technology where the requirement to prevent bending of the hydrofoils at high speeds will have to be tackled. It is a challenge that will have to be confronted for the sake of national security in the future.