In the hot Kolkata sun, on the banks of the Hooghly river, craftsmen from Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) swarm over what will be the Indian Navy's most high-tech stealth warship. For GRSE, the navy's order for four anti-submarine warfare (ASW) corvettes is its flagship project. But Project 28, as it is termed, is two years behind schedule.
The first corvette was to join the fleet early next year. However, it will be delivered only in June 2012. The other three corvettes of Project 28 will follow at one-year intervals.
The major reason for the delay: the Indian Navy has stipulated such unprecedented standards of stealth for every piece of equipment on board that suppliers have struggled to develop engines, transmission, air-conditioning and power-generating systems that work silently enough to meet those requirements. Furthermore, the Navy mandated that Indian suppliers would provide much of that equipment.
The Project 28 corvettes are 2,500-tonne warships that will protect Indian Navy battle groups and coastal installations from lurking enemy submarines. In the deadly cat-and-mouse game between ASW corvettes and submarines, the stealthier vessel is usually the winner, detecting and destroying its opponent after sneaking up undetected. The challenge of Project 28 has been to minimise vibrations and noise from the ship's machinery, propellers, and from water swirling past the hull.
Success has come late in developing some of this equipment. The Kirloskar group has delivered the engines, albeit after a delay. Earlier this year, DCNS of France supplied the Raft Mounted Gearbox, which almost completely suppresses noise from the power pack. But Wartsila India is still struggling to reduce vibration in the four diesel alternators that will power the corvette's electronics.
Once all this is in place, six huge spaces will have to be cut open in the corvette's hull, through which giant cranes will lower monster-sized equipment like the 65-tonne engines. Then the hull will be welded shut once again.
For the Navy, which has implemented indigenisation as something of a religion -- the Naval Headquarters includes a full-fledged Directorate of Indigenisation -- the delay in Project 28 is a regrettable, but acceptable, consequence of its twin objectives: building cutting edge warships and, simultaneously, developing an Indian warship building industry.
Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta says that the Navy has carefully laid down stealth standards that were absolutely necessary in war. Admiral Mehta explained, "We cannot compromise operational requirements for suppliers who are having difficulties meeting standards. We cannot come second in war."
The Navy's top designer, Rear Admiral M K Badhwar, says the Navy is determined to nurture an Indian supplier base, to develop increasingly high-tech products for warships. He points out, "Initially, they (the private companies) had real problems in meeting the sophistication levels that we were demanding. But we insisted and now most of them have done so. This is vital for an indigenous shipbuilding industry."
All this has taken the cost of Project 28 from a sanctioned Rs 2,800 crore (Rs 700 crore per corvette), to an estimated Rs 7,000 crore now. This is approximately in line with cost increases for previous Indian-built warships.
GRSE's Chairman and Managing Director, Rear Admiral K C Sekhar, explains, "Fortunately, our shipyard will not take a financial hit, since this was a cost-plus contract (in which the actual cost of construction of the first ship will be the basis for paying for the entire project). But we have learned valuable lessons. The complexity of the project was totally underestimated."
The Project 28 corvettes, when they join the navy's fleet, will be silent and heavily armed. An Otomelara Super Rapid Gun Mount on the bow can pour 76 millimetre shells onto aerial and surface targets. Flanking it will be two Indigenous Rocket Launchers that can fire at both submarines and ships. Submarines can also be engaged through six torpedo tubes. Two AK 630 Gatling guns, one on either side, can shoot down attacking aircraft. Finally, vertically launched missiles are likely to be mounted for engaging surface targets.