Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mazagon sees opening in submersible drift

Offers to make more Scorpene submarines.

With India's submarine acquisition programme tangled in a decade-old logjam, defence shipyard Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) has staked claim for Project 75I, a line of six advanced submarines for the Indian Navy.

MDL is already building Project 75, for six Scorpene submarines, using technology from Armaris, the Franco-Spanish shipbuilder. It believes the decision-making paralysis that has stymied Project 75I will allow MDL to build at least three, and possibly six, more Scorpenes after completing Project 75.

Project 75I is in the doldrums, after three Ministry of Defence (MoD) committees failed to zero on the Indian shipyards capable of participating in such a project. Besides MDL, already engaged in Project 75, Larsen & Toubro is competing fiercely for Project 75I, flaunting its role in building INS Arihant, the country’s first nuclear submarine. As time has passed without a decision, new contenders, particularly Pipavav Shipyard and the MoD's newly-acquired Hindustan Shipyard Ltd have also emerged as contenders.

Meanwhile, the MoD is more fuddled than ever after its third and latest high-power committee, headed by

V Krishnamurthy, chairman of the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council, failed to agree on which shipyard(s) should be awarded Project 75I. The MoD is currently pondering the Krishnamurthy committee's divided recommendations. An earlier MoD decision to build three Project 75I submarines at MDL, one at HSL and two in the private sector or abroad now stands scrapped.

With tendering nowhere in sight, the chief of MDL, Vice Admiral (retd) H S Malhi, says their Project 75 Scorpene production line provides a handy springboard for Project 75I. MDL, as Malhi notes, has the facilities, the experience, the workmen and an ongoing workflow that make it easy to extend the six-Scorpene order of Project 75, improving the specifications if the navy so requires.

Malhi mobilises a powerful financial argument: India has already paid Rs 6,000 crore for Scorpene technology. Building additional Scorpenes would only require the payment of licence fees. Choosing another design would require paying for technology afresh.

“If the tender for Project 75I is going to be delayed by another two-three years, we can easily extend the current Scorpene order by another three submarines. Else, Project 75I could be a Scorpene-plus, a more potent submarine, with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) and the ability to launch missiles. The technology we have already paid for would be amortised over a larger number of submarines, making these cheaper,” he argues.

Sections of the Indian Navy would welcome more Scorpenes quickly, in the face of a worrisome submarine build-up by China and Pakistan. However, a powerful lobby within the navy, which favours Russian submarines, opposes extending the Scorpene order. They have a potent political argument against ordering more Scorpenes, that Project 75 was not competitively bid but was a controversial, single-vendor purchase. Enlarging the order would be fraught with political risk.

Further, going by the navy's 30-year Submarine Construction Plan, which the apex Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) okayed in 1999, Project 75I must build Russian submarines. The 30-year plan for constructing 24 conventional submarines in India envisages two simultaneous construction lines: one building six submarines from western technology and another building six submarines from eastern bloc (i.e. Russian) know-how. Based on the experience gathered, India would build another 12 submarines to an indigenous design.

Project 75, for six Scorpenes, is the western technology line. The next six must incorporate Russian technology, according to the 30-year plan. Indian Navy submarine folklore believes Russian designs feature greater endurance and firepower; while western designs are stealthier and harder to detect. Indian designers are to incorporate the best of both traditions into the 12 indigenous submarines.

MDL faces flak for a three-year delay in Project 75, but Malhi has strongly defended his shipyard's record. Admitting the first Scorpene would indeed be delivered three years late (in mid-2015, instead of 2012), Malhi says he will deliver the remaining five submarines at eight-month intervals instead of the 12-month interval originally planned. That means all six Scorpenes will be delivered by September 2018, just nine months later than the scheduled completion of Project 75.

MDL plans to achieve this by setting up a second Scorpene line at a recently acquired shipyard, the Alcock Yard, within its premises in Mumbai. After mid-2013, all six submarines will be outfitted simultaneously, the first three in the current workshop, and the next three in Alcock Yard.

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