By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's first indigenously designed and manufactured stealth frigate, commissioned late last month, sees the country join an elite of just eight nations that have built warships with naval stealth technology - it's also a likely boost for New Delhi's hopes to establish a warship-building industry.
The 6,200-tonne Indian Naval Ship (INS) Shivalik, commissioned into the navy by Defense Minister A K Antony in Mumbai on April 29, is the world's largest stealth ship. Despite its weight and size, Shivalik will be able to tiptoe through the high seas and approach enemies largely undetected thanks to its many stealth features.
Radar-absorbent paint and the ability of the ship's sides to be angled by 10% to bounce off radar waves reduce the chances of the hull being detected by up to 90%, and the ship's engines are placed on shock-proof mounts to reduce vibration. Highly effective insulators reduce the ship's thermal image, as does a special device which cools and diffuses smoke from its funnel.
Shivalik is the first of three "Project 17" multi-role stealth frigates being built at the government-owned Mazagon Docks Limited (MDL) in Mumbai. Another two, the Sahyadri and Satpura, are expected to be commissioned by end-2010 and mid-2011, respectively. These will be the navy's frontline frigates into the middle of the 21st century.
There are ships that are stealthier than Shivalik. Sweden's Visby class vessels and France's Lafayette class frigates are far more difficult to detect. But they are far smaller than Shivalik with displacements of 600 tonnes and 3,600 tonnes respectively.
Shivalik's teeth come from its mix of imported and indigenous weapon systems and sensors, which includes Barak surface-to-air missiles and a Shtil air defense system from Israel, Russian Klub anti-ship cruise missiles and basic anti-submarine warfare weapons.
It has sensors for air, surface and subsurface surveillance, electronic support and counter equipment and decoys for "soft kill measures", such as electronic jamming of incoming missiles. Shivalik is also equipped with defense systems against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks.
Opening up prospects for India's warship-building industry, the Shivalik is a "world-class frigate at Indian prices", according to defense analyst Ajai Shukla. The warship cost US$650 million to construct, a fraction of the price of a similar warship built elsewhere.
India's warship-building capability has been improving in recent years. In 2009 it launched its first indigenously built nuclear submarine for sea trials, becoming just the sixth country in the world to build such a vessel. (See India's 'enemy destroyer' sets sail, Jul 29, 2009)
Several of the warships India is building are high-tech and low-cost. For example, "Project 15-A" at MDL is building three Kolkata class destroyers, each of which will cost $950 million, a third of the price for comparative warships built abroad. Four anti-submarine warfare corvettes are also being built at the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) in Kolkata at a cost of around $435 million. Under "Project 17A", MDL and GRSE will construct seven improved stealth frigates.
The cost of India's 44,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier, Vikrant, under construction at the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) in southern India, is expected to be a third of the cost of the 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth, while another planned IAC of 60,000-tonnage - likely to be named INS Vishaal - will cost less than half of its British equivalent.
Over the next five to seven years, India will be induct 37 major warships manufactured at home, saving the country an estimated $50 billion, writes Shukla. "India has everything it takes to be a warship-building superpower: the springboard of design expertise; cheap and skilled labor; and mounting experience in building successful warships," he said.
However, while India's warships may cost less, some projects have been beset with delays. The "P75 project", under which six Scorpene-class submarines were to be manufactured at MDL, is running late by several years. That project's successor, the "P75-I" - for six additional submarines - has not moved beyond the planning stage.
While delays in decision-making are partly the cause for the delays, observers say Indian shipyards are too slow in production and delivery - Shivalik's keel was first laid in 2001. This inability of local shipyards to meet the Indian navy's needs has raised doubts on how they would meet global demands.