India’s warship-building capability is ramping up with its most experienced shipyards, Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) and Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE), soon to deploy vastly improved infrastructure. Their new integrated yards, which are geared for “modular” shipbuilding, are expected to reduce the time needed to build a warship while also improving construction quality. This will help create the 160-ship armada that the defence ministry requires for the Indo-Pacific region, which is looming ever larger as the world’s most vital geo-strategic patch. Defence shipyards like MDL and GRSE have been building for decades, hamstrung by global technology denial regimes and Indian industry’s technological limitations. Over time, these shipyards have gained invaluable experience in the many complex facets of building warships. Their prime customer, the Indian Navy, is pleased with the battle-worthiness of the vessels that it gets. Speed of construction, however, has remained well below international benchmarks.
It would be tempting to conclude that the inauguration of MDL’s and GRSE’s new shipyards would ensure that warships are now delivered in short order. But, for that, the ability to build quickly is not enough. As important as new shipyards is the need for a new mindset among navy and defence ministry (MoD) planners, which could better balance between two conflicting requirements: first, the imperative to build and deliver warships without delay; and second, the desire to incorporate the most modern weapons, sensors and systems in the warships under construction. With the new Project 15A destroyers being built by MDL, for example, construction has been held up because some of the weaponry that was developed alongside the warship is not yet ready to enter service.
This is the textbook dilemma of warship designing. On the one hand, developmental delays can be minimised by designing the warship around only tried and tested systems. On the other hand, building a vessel that will remain in frontline service for three to four decades demands that it be absolutely state-of-the-art at the time that it is built. The temptation for every user – the Indian Navy is not alone in this – is to adopt “concurrent development”. This involves designing many of the key systems even as the warship is being built, delivering these just in time to be fitted in the new warship. The risks of this strategy are evident in Project 15A, where developmental delays in its new air defence missile, the Long Range Surface to Air Missile, have stalled the construction of three warships. Fortunately, war is not imminent, but such a delay would be ruinous if it came.
It must be noted that MDL and GRSE are not India’s first integrated shipyards that are capable of “modular” construction. In the private sector, Pipavav Shipyard already has such capabilities, as will L&T’s shipyard at Kattupalli, when it is commissioned later this year. What these private shipyards do not have is the experience of building complex warships, a task that is to commercial shipbuilding as tight-wire walking is to a stroll in the park. The defence ministry must build up their experience with progressively complex warships, rather than bestowing its warship-building projects to defence shipyards already loaded far beyond their capacities. This will multiply India’s capacity and help the navy reach and maintain the force levels that it needs.