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5 shipyards earmarked for Rs 53,000 crore sub project

India plans to build a new line of 6 submarines under the long-pending project.

VISHAL THAPAR  New Delhi | 4th Apr 2015

ive Indian shipyards have been shortlisted by a high-level committee of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for bidding to build a new line of six conventional submarines under the long-pending Project 75 (India), which will cost an estimated Rs 53,000 crore. This is expected to set off the most intense contest in the global arms bazaar after the IAF's MMRCA fighter jet competition.

The shortlisted shipyards include the public sector Mazagon Dock, Hindustan Shipyards, Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE). Private sector shipyards figuring on this list are L&T and Pipavav. This is for the first time that the MoD will consider private sector shipyards for a major Indian Navy ship-building project in a head-to-head competition with the public sector.

The new line of submarines, along with the Scorpenes — six of which are currently under construction at Mumbai's Mazagon Dock — will comprise the future non-nuclear submarine fleet of the Indian Navy.

The MoD committee under the supervision of Secretary, Defence Production, G. Mohan Kumar conducted a survey of public and private sector shipyards for arriving at the shortlist. These shipyards will be invited to submit bids in partnership with a foreign shipyard to meet the Navy's specifications. An Expression of Interest (EOI) is likely to be issued soon to these companies. This will finally kick-off the long-delayed proposal initiated in 2007 for a second line of diesel-electrical submarines to stem the rapidly depleting submarine force levels.

The likely foreign collaborators are French DCNS, German HDW (TKMS), Russian Rubin Design Bureau (Amur Shipyard), Spanish Navantia, Swedish Kockums. The surprise packet could be the Japanese consortium of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI), which is likely to offer the Soryu class submarines, touted as the world's most advanced non-nuclear attack submarines.

"We are very much interested in Japan's technologies," Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar told Japanese media ahead of his visit to Tokyo last week. "We are looking at all kinds of defence cooperation with Japan in all fields," he said, when asked if India would consider the Soryu submarine. If this intent materialises, this will be the first time Japan will bid to supply military equipment to India. It'll be a transformative move laden with considerable geo-political significance.

This will be a landmark tender also because the private sector will be given a level playing field with the deeply-entrenched public sector in a major project. So heavily tilted is the current equation that as against military shipbuilding orders worth Rs 86,600 crore for the PSUs, the order book for private sector shipyards stands dwarfed at Rs 6,300 crore.

"India needs to acquire 95 warships by 2027. Defence PSUs cannot even meet half the requirement on time. To close the gap, involvement of the private sector is a necessity," points out an insider. According to a recent study by the consulting group Ernst & Young, the total value of warship and submarine building programmes over the next 15 years will be Rs 847,000 crore. After considering the maximum capacity of PSUs, this study puts the scope of defence business for private sector shipyards at Rs 25,000 crore a year.

With the contours of the long-delayed Project 75 (I) finally falling into place, observers view this as a desperately-needed relief for the Indian Navy, which is facing rapid depletion of its submarine arm. With a current strength of just 13 conventional and one nuclear-powered submarine, India is not just a way behind China, which has more than 50 submarines, but is even losing its underwater combat superiority to Pakistan, which has eight.

Age is also eroding capability. Against a recommended life span of 25-30 years for safe and reliable underwater operations, a staggering 84% of Indian submarines are more than 20 years old. Eight of the 13 conventional submarines are, in fact, more than 25 years old. Retirements or decommissioning of several old boats is looming large on the Navy. "For India not to be in trouble, at least 40% of its submarines must be less than 20 years old," pointed out a senior submarine veteran.

A CAG report disclosed that 63% of Indian submarines were scheduled to complete their intended lifespan by 2012. So, many of submarines are clearly operating beyond their intended lives. It had also pointed out that the usable strength — or operational availability — of in-service submarines is down to about 40%.

The situation looks desperate because not a single new conventional submarine has been inducted since the year 2000, and the 30-year submarine building programme approved in 1999 is running way behind schedule.

The ageing underwater arm will begin getting relief from September 2016, when the first of the six Scorpene attack submarines will be inducted. The subsequent five are scheduled for induction at intervals of nine months thereafter.

Going by traditional timelines for big ticket defence deals, the first of the second line — shipyards for which have been shortlisted now — is unlikely to be available to the Indian Navy before 2025-26.

Sources point out that the effort is not just aimed at augmenting the underwater fleet, but also developing a strong warship and submarine building base. But that's not going to be an easy road. The only Indian shipyard to have built submarines is the government-owned Mazagon Dock, which is choc-a-bloc with orders. The dependence of newbies on foreign technology providers will be obvious.

In fact, opinion in the MoD committee was divided on the capability of private shipyards like Pipavav, sources disclose. "It took a lot of convincing by Pipavav to make it to the short-list," sources told The Sunday Guardian. Pipavav, in a communication to the MoD and Navy last week, sought to impress that the recent acquisition of a controlling stake in the company by Anil Ambani's Reliance, and the debt restructuring, making Rs 5,500 crore working capital available, makes it well poised.

 
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