Captain (retd) Joyjayanta Saharia
(Formerly of the Indian Navy, the author can be reached at email: [email protected])
Not all nations can build warships. It needs grit and will, equally with skill and means. After decades of toil and hardship, warship building in India is established as a matured industry, however with a legacy unknown to many.
It is not a coincidence that all economic superpowers have navies which are potent and powerful. The concept and philosophy of “whoever rules the waves rules the world” professed and advocated by Alfred Thayer Mahan, a United States naval officer, historian and ‘the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century’, holds good even today.
With handful of ships post independence, the Indian Navy too embarked on a journey to show its flag, in a maritime environment in a neighbourhood which was volatile, challenging and constantly changing. From the advent of the French Daphne class submarines, the Exocet sea-skimming anti-ship missiles in the Pakistani naval inventory, to the adventurous deployment of the Chinese ships and submarines in the neighbouring waters, the power dynamics in the subcontinent and in the Indian Ocean Region remain unpredictable.
The Indian Navy continued its journey relentlessly, and it is a matter of immense pride that the Navy, despite imposing constraints and challenges, has emerged as a powerful and dominant force in the contemporary maritime world. This has been made possible due to the foresight and planning of the leaderships at the helm of this fine organisation from the beginning. Constraints of funds often tended to be a limiting factor, more so in the initial years when ships and submarines had to be procured from abroad, forcing to scale down the requirement due to prohibitive costs. This, however, could never put obstacles to the aim and aspirations of the Navy, as innovative minds at shore and sea soon became the most potent weapon to establish it as a force of eminence.
The recent admission of the Chief of Naval Staff about the Navy’s declining budget (from 18% in 2012 to 13% in the current financial year) forcing planners to relook at the Navy’s perspective plan of fielding 200 warships by 2027 merits attention. In this context and for a better appreciation, it would be prudent to see how the Navy has so far navigated and traversed the journey.
The Indian Navy was born from the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) of British India, with apportioning of naval assets after the split. In the initial years after independence, India did not have large scale overseas interests, and the role of the Navy at that time was limited to defend the country from seaward aggression. However, the difficulty started in 1947 itself with Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. The situation got further complicated with the onset of Cold War. Alliances were actively forged with aid and arms. India declined the US invitation, while Pakistan grabbed the opportunity and became a US ally receiving generous military aids. The aid was to counter communism; however, Pakistan’s objective was clear — to use it against India.
The share of warships, which India received after partition, was grossly inadequate considering the vast coastline, including the security of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Despite meagre allocation of funds to the Navy in the initial years, a modest force was gradually built up. As part of the ‘Commonwealth’s defence against the Soviet Union’, Britain provided warships to India, as it did to other Commonwealth members. For this, India paid Britain from the ‘Sterling Balances’ that had accumulated for the services India provided to Britain during the Second World War. While India was able to obtain immediate requirements for the Navy, Britain could also dispose of its war surpluses, clearing the war debt (Sterling Balances) at the same time.
The Government after independence did not seem to be too inclined to build up a formidable Armed Force, which was evident from the allocation in the defence budgets. And the Navy’s share, after meeting the pressing requirements of the Army and the Air Force, crawled from 4% in 1950/51 to 9% in 1956/57 and 12% in 1959/60, which fell again to 4% in 1964/65 due to the expansion and modernisation of the Army and the Air Force post Chinese aggression.
As against this, Pakistan got substantial assistance from the US (being part of the CENTO and SEATO pacts). Pakistan Navy received two destroyers and eight mine sweepers from the US; the US also paid Britain for refurbishment and delivery of a cruiser and four destroyers to Pakistan.
To counterbalance the growing Pakistani fleet, the Indian Navy procured destroyers from Britain. In Oct 1964, a landmark agreement was signed with Britain for transfer of technology and construction of Leander class frigates in the Mazgaon Docks, Mumbai. This was the first stepping stone towards construction of modern warships in the country.
In May 1965 defence procurement from Britain suddenly took a new turn. Britain, which was thus far the traditional supplier to the Indian Navy, declined India’s request for extension of the credit facility as done for the Leander Frigate Project, for additional destroyers and submarines to be built in a British Shipyard, citing financial constraints. This eventuated the naval acquisitions from the USSR in 1965.
Induction of Russian technology along with the existing British ships (with western technology) soon introduced two different philosophies of exploitation and maintenance. The Navy encountered newer technological challenges. The cost and lead-time for assistance from the overseas Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) often clashed with the operational requirement of the platforms. Teams and units with in-house experts were thus formed to tackle the challenging maintenance issues. This included involvement of academia, institutes, defence PSUs and labs. As a result and over a period, the Navy garnered enormous expertise and confidence to explore warship construction with indigenous design. A Design Cell which was initially established with this objective formally got renamed as the Directorate of Naval Design in 1970, with bigger role and responsibility. The initial design and constructions (between 1972-82) were small Seaward Defence Boats (SDBs) and Landing Craft Utilities (LCUs), which acted as the launch pads to embark on larger scale projects. The Navy mentored and assisted the shipyards, the PSUs and all other stakeholders to iron out their functional and operational philosophies (mismatches) for improved synergy and efficiency. This helped creating efficient production lines in the defence shipyards, resulting in production and induction of a series of new generation capital warships starting from the Godavari and Brahmaputra class frigates to the Delhi and Kolkata class of destroyers, and their state-of-the-art follow-ons.
These indigenous warships are hybrids with the best of the indigenous, Western and Russian technologies. The majority of the weapons and sensors are now either of indigenous design, developed with joint collaboration or manufactured under transfer of technology. This has imparted immense flexibility in terms of efficiency of maintenance and logistics, apart from reducing the reliance on foreign OEMs and savings to the exchequer.
Indigenous warship production is a dream come true for the Indian Navy. It is a success story, scripted by generations of unsung heroes; a legacy and a tradition set and drawn by the forebears, which remain un-smudged with time and tide. The infrastructure that exists today in the defence shipyards are so advanced and inspiring that many leading private industries have now replicated similar models and are in the process of constructing warships not only for the Indian Navy, but have also bagged orders for export. The Indian Navy has gifted the nation an industry which very few nations are fortunate to possess. It is imperative that constraints of funds should never be allowed to be a limiting factor in the Navy’s pursuit of ensuring a favourable power balance in the subcontinent and beyond. This will also assist in the sustenance and growth of the Indian shipyards, which have the potential to transform India into one of the global nodes of warship production and export.
Note: There is no classified information in the article