The realisation of India's grand 'naval engineering' dreams
An explosion on the submarine Sindhurakshak off the Mumbai coast must not obscure India’s recent great naval strides, Samar Halarnkar writesindia Updated: Aug 14, 2013 22:30 IST
The floating of India’s first home-built aircraft carrier earlier this week echoes an epochal event 101 years ago.
In 1912, the first iron ingot rolled out of the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur , the modern era’s first great Indian technological achievement, reviving an ancient but temporarily forgotten tradition of metallurgy.
When India gained Independence, one of the first things Jawaharlal Nehru did was to launch a steel industry. In 1955, the Russians built independent India’s first steel plant at Bhilai. By the time construction work started on the fourth plant at Bokaro, 13 years later, India was clear that even if the Russians helped, the design and engineering would be homegrown. More than 30 years after Bokaro, as Indian expertise and ambition grew, a private steel company called Ispat International, owned by a gentleman called Lakshmi Mittal, began a worldwide steelmaking foray that ended in the creation of Arcelor-Mittal, the world’s largest steel maker.
The realisation of grand engineering dreams requires tradition, talent and perseverance. Defence engineering is no different. This month has seen the partial realisation of two big dreams — the firing-up of the nuclear reactor in India’s first domestic nuclear submarine INS Arihant and the launch of the first indigenous aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant. These warships are special for three reasons:
No one would have made them for India or shared the technology required.
Their development is a milestone that will greatly narrow the distance to many technological frontiers.
Nothing in recent times has made the Chinese more uneasy.
The Arihant is a denouement of the country’s quest for nuclear power, started from scratch by Nehru and Homi Bhabha — the father of India’s atomic programme — more than half a century ago. Modern India’s reasonably sophisticated nuclear capability began as bobs and bits, often sourced from scrap markets and cobbled together in tin sheds.
Shrinking and shoe-horning a nuclear reactor into a submarine and getting it to work is something only the US, Britain , Russia, China and France have achieved. Building an aircraft carrier is the preserve of only a slightly larger club that includes Japan, which has just launched a powerful new cruiser thinly disguised as its first post-World-War-II aircraft carrier.
India has operated an aircraft carrier since 1961, when the original Vikrant, a World War 2 design, joined the navy. Both the now-decommissioned Vikrant and still-floating INS Viraat were vintage British hand-me-downs. The INS Vikramaditya, likely to enter Indian naval service within two months, is a modified Soviet design.
The launch of the Vikrant’s hull, presently little more than a shell with an engine, has missed many deadlines. The pace of construction cannot but be slow because the engineers at Cochin Shipyard Ltd have never done anything like this. No country outsources aircraft-carrier construction.
To understand the importance of tradition in constructing aircraft carriers, consider that the first steel for the Vikrant was cut in April 2005, five months before it was similarly cut for the USS Gerald R Ford, the US’ latest aircraft carrier. The Ford is more than three times heavier than the Vikrant, substantially more powerful and complicated, but it will likely be commissioned by 2015, roughly three years ahead of the Indian ship.
It is important here to acknowledge flaws in India’s engineering tradition, such as poor maintenance, which causes fighter aircraft to frequently crash and — probably — caused yesterday’s explosion aboard the submarine INS Sindhurakshak.
Yet, ecosystems of expertise are quietly emerging, much as the ancillary units and supply chains around a new steel or automobile plant. The construction of the Vikrant and the Arihant provides defence engineers, shipbuilders and Indian industry — public and private — new talents and invaluable experience.
The Vikrant’s steel comes from the public-sector steel factories of Nehru’s dreams. The plant at Durgapur learned to make new kinds of steel for both ships. The carrier’s private subcontractors who pushed to upgrade skills include: Kirloskar Pneumatic (1974) for the refrigeration systems, Larsen and Toubro (1938) for the steering mechanism, and Elecon Engineering (1951) for the gearbox.
In the Arihant, L&T built the hull, Walchandar Industries (1908), the drive system and Tata Power (1910), the control systems. Foreign consultants fill in the Arihant’s gaps. These include the Italians (propulsion), Russians (aviation), and Israelis (weapon systems and electronics).
Both the Arihant and the Vikrant are forerunners. Later this year, a naval shipyard in Visakhapatnam will launch the INS Aridaman, the Arihant’s sister ship. The hull of another unnamed submarine (likely to begin with ‘A’, much as Indian aircraft carriers begin with ‘V’) is being prepared.
The 37,500-tonne, 260-feet-long Vikrant will be followed by its larger sister, the INS Vishal, whose construction began last year. As the name suggests, the Vishal will be larger (roughly 65,000 tonnes), possibly a traditional flat-deck carrier with catapults instead of ski-jumps like the Vikrant and the Vikramaditya.
In comparison, the USS Theodore Roosevelt — at more than 1.17 lakh tonnes and 333 metres long — is the world’s biggest carrier, one of a class of 10 nuclear-powered ships. The US has 10 other carriers, all behemoths compared to India’s.
But India’s aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines will be enough to deter rivals Pakistan and China and boost its global military influence. The Vikrant’s launch has already elicited reactions in China, which launched its first aircraft carrier last year, a refitted Ukrainian ship, and is struggling to build one of its own. Zhang Junshe, the vice-president of China’s Naval Research Institute, told local media that the Vikrant and other Indian naval additions “will further disrupt the military balance in South Asia ”.
It is well and good to unsettle the Chinese, but the greatest triumph of the Arihant and the Vikrant is the ecosystem of new expertise that they create, much as Tata Steel’s first ingot eventually spawned their birth more than a century later.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal