India’s Project 17-A Stealth Frigates
In July 2006, “India Orders 3 More Krivak III/Talwar Class Frigates” noted that the Talwar/Krivak Class were better described as modern multi-role designs, given the presence of contemporary classes with far better stealth features. The follow-on Project 17/ Shivalik class program offered improvements in that area, with 3 ships ordered and the possibility of more too follow.
In December 2006, India Defence reported that India was looking to acquire up to 7 more frigates with stealth improvements, plus some level of joint development and technology transfer. The Request for Information (RFI) was reportedly issued to about 12 international firms, mostly in Europe and Russia. These “Project 17A” ships could be worth up to 45,000 crore (INR 450 billion, about $9.23 billion as of June 2009), according to a recently-approved budget. Further reports appear to be confirming 100% construction in India, however, even as they clarify an extended timeline for design and delivery…
- Project 17-A [updated]
- Contracts and Key Events [updated]
- Additional Readings
Though Project 17 was approved in 1997, delivery of the first Shivalik class ship was only expected in 2009, thanks to construction delays and other hold-ups. In the end, it took until April 2010, and continued to encounter delays into 2011.
The overall Project 17 program envisages a total of 12 ships, and the 7 Project 17-A ships would be part of that plan. The question is how different they might be. India Defense characterizes this P-17A project as the next generation ships beyond the ongoing Project 17 Shivalik Class multi-role stealth frigates. Ship “signature reduction” levels are expected to rise to fully modern standards, similar to Singapore’s new Formidable Class frigates from France (a Lafayette Class derivative).
Beyond that, political battles, India’s culture of semi-transparency, and the nature of this procurement process have left 3 key areas of uncertainty.
One is dollars. The proposed P-17A acquisition has had different figures floated. Early figures mentioned Rs 30,000 crore (300 billion Indian rupees, then about $6.7 billion), with expected costs of Rs 4,000 crore (then about $892 million) per ship. March 2009 reports give figures of Rs 17,000 crore, or about $3.3 billion at that time. By June 2009, however, reports of DAC approval mentioned Rs 45,000 crore, or about $9.23 billion total and $1.3 billion per ship. As a basis of comparison, India’s July 2006 order for 3 more Talwar Class frigates amounted to Rs 5,114 crore, or between $400-550 million per ship.
The 2nd area of uncertainty involves ship design. By soliciting tenders from so many foreign firms, and insisting on improved stealth requirements, India is implicitly creating the option of having Project 17-A ships use a very different base design than the Project 17 Shivalik class frigates. That question will not be resolved until a foreign shipbuilding partner is chosen and ratified, and possibly not even then.
The 3rd area of uncertainty revolves around the program’s industrial arrangements, though current reports indicate that a resolution is close. Typical Indian contracts involve some number of ships built by the manufacturer, and others built at Indian shipyards like Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) in Mumbai, or Garden Reach Shipyard Engineers (GRSE) in Kolkata. On the other hand, in 2006 Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta specifically referred to force modernization problems stemming from both constraints on defense budgets, and Indian shipyards’ record of slow delivery. He added that:
“It is not necessary that we will take this route [of using MDL or Garden Reach], adding that the other Indian shipyards may step up warship production to meet the projected force levels.”
That multi-shipyard option would disappear, and new complications would be introduced, if these ships use modular construction. That approach would involve a series of 300-tonne ship “blocks” that are fully equipped, and must fit together so precisely that pipes, wiring, and other components all align exactly when they’re joined. MDL and GRSE are the only shipyards with the depth of experience to pull that off – but neither has ever used modular construction.
Which leads to India’s final option: build some of these ships at foreign shipyards, as the government is doing with its July 2006 “Improved Krivak class” frigate order. The Navy would prefer to have MDL and/or GRSE workers learn by working at a foreign shipyard with experience in modular construction, then bring those important skills back to India to build additional ships. The alternative would involve trying to learn a completely new shipbuilding method, while trying to build important Navy ships, and having the Navy foot the bill for any mistakes.
Based on past history, and the experience of other countries, India’s Director of Naval Design Rear Adm. Badhwar is clever to be cautious. Mistakes using the new modular method would be extremely expensive to fix. The level of rework required could easily turn the Indian shipyards’ purported 100% cost advantage into a deficit, while creating project delays that would extend for months – and might even be measured in years.
Despite these risks, it appears that India’s government intends to move forward with a dual-build strategy at MDL at GRSE, using modular construction, without any work or co-build efforts performed in foreign shipyards.
Contracts and Key Events
Aug 11/11: Could India be interested in Britain’s developmental Type 26 frigate? Their current and planned frigate projects are all Russian designs, but India’s Project 17-A, and Britain’s budget squeeze, might create an opening. Pitches to Brazil and India are showing a common theme: invitations to be part of the ship’s design phase.
“BAE Systems has described to Business Standard how Whitehall envisages the designing and building of the GCS. The countries that eventually form the consortium would join heads to frame broadly common specifications for the warship. Presently, the GCS is planned as a flexi-role frigate. This means each vessel could be optimised for any one of the three traditional frigate roles: anti-submarine, air defence or general-purpose. To cater for these different roles and the different requirements of participating countries, the basic GCS design would have 80 per cent commonality in design and components, with 20 per cent remaining flexible.”
July 27/09: India’s Business Standard reports that shipbuilders MDL and GRSE have prevailed over the Indian Navy’s objections, and will divide Project 17A between them with no foreign construction. GRSE Chairman and Managing Director Rear Admiral KC Sekhar promises that GRSE will have a fully equipped modular yard with a 250-ton Goliath crane by mid-2011. The report adds:
“Each Shivalik class frigate of Project 17 was priced at Rs 2,600 crore, and the navy plans to insist on the same price for Project 17A… But Defence Minister AK Antony stepped in to order entirely indigenous production… Explaining the time-line, Admiral Sekhar said, “The MoD has informally told us that MDL and GRSE will build Project 17A; we are awaiting [formal sanction]. Once the navy finalises the size and design of the new frigate, we will decide our build strategy and costing. Then, hopefully, by the end of 2009, the MoD will issue a Request for Proposals (RfP); GRSE and MDL will submit separate quotes; and then the MoD will place a formal order on the shipyards. Construction should start by end-2011.”
June 19/09: India’s political Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) clears India’s largest ever indigenous defense contract: about Rs 45,000 crore (currently $9.29 billion) to manufacture 7 Project 17A frigates. The DAC reportedly made one major change, however, insisting that all 7 warships must be manufactured in India by the Mazagon Dock Ltd. in Mumbai (MDL), and by Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) in Kolkata. Work will be divided between the 2 shipyards, making P17A India’s first dual-shipyard contract.
The DAC has essentially placed a bet that the modular construction approach will be successful without foreign shipyard training during construction of the first 2 ships of class, or that the budget increase to Rs 45,000 crore will cover any unpleasant contingencies. Time will tell whether that proves to be an expensive decision. Indian Express.
March 27/09: French shipbuilder DCNS’ board approves a 3-party design consultancy with Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) of Kolkata, and the I.T. engineers of Infotech Enterprises. The consultancy will design ships for global clients, including back office work for DCNS itself. As India’s Business Standard reports:
“But the first design job that the JV is shooting for is Project 17-A, [which] needs a design partner… because all seven frigates will be built using an advanced manufacturing process – modular shipbuilding… Each 300-ton block is built separately, complete with all the piping, electrical wiring and fitments that would be a part of the ship. These must precisely connect… This is the expertise that DCNS is hoping to sell as the foreign design partner for Project 17-A.”
indian shipbuilders GRSE and MDL are lobbying to have the frigates built entirely in India, and have joined forces to that end. The result may be India’s first dual-shipyard naval contract. Meanwhile, the firms are investing in the equipment required for modular construction, including large covered workshops with sliding roofs for module lift-out, and a 300-tonne, 138m span Goliath crane from Italy’s Fagioli and McNally Bharat Engineering.
March 27/09: India’s Business Standard reports that the crore 17,000 ($ equivalent) Project 17-A contract is stalled due a dispute between India’s Navy, and its 2 major shipyards. The Navy is insisting that the first 2 ships be built in a European shipyard, even if it doubles those ships’ bid cost.
Why? Because these ships will use modular construction based on 300-tonne “blocks” that are fully equipped, and must fit together so precisely that pipes, wiring, and other components all align. Neither Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL) in Mumbai, nor Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) in Kolkata, has ever used this method. The Navy would prefer to have their workers learn by working at a shipyard with experience in this approach, before bringing the skills back to India. Rear Admiral MK Badhwar, India’s Director of Naval Design:
“This will also make the vendor demonstrate ‘buildability.’ He must demonstrate that his design can be actually built into a warship, using modular construction, in four years. That will create a demonstrated benchmark for GRSE and MDL; otherwise, if there are delays later, our shipyards could argue that the foreign yard too would have taken a long period to build each frigate.”
March 6/09: India’s Business Times reports that an overzealous US State Department bureaucrat appears to have created a serious delay in the related Project 17 program, after ordering GE to stop work on the program. Unlike the Krivak III Class, Shivalik Class ships use 2 American LM2500 turbines in place of Russian designs.
If India is lucky, the delay will be only 2 months. If the State Department’s actions cause India to miss sea trials due to the monsoon season, the delay could be many months longer. In the end, all the State Department may succeed in doing is jeopardizing the chances of other American companies under consideration for Indian defense buys. Read “US State Dept. Throws A Wrench Into Exports, Allied Shipbuilding” for more.
Dec 24/07: India Defence relays a story which suggests that state-run arms export agency Rosoboronexport may be negotiating with Indian authorities for the construction of a fresh lot of 3 “stealth frigates.”
From the reports, it would appear that negotiations are for an order over and above the follow-on order for 3 Talwar Class frigates – either more Project 17 Shivalik Class ships, or the initial Project 17A contract. As with all such reports concerning India, however, a wait-and-see attitude is advised.
December 2006: India issues an RFI for “stealth frigates.” They are looking to acquire up to 7 ships under “Project 17A”, along with some level of joint development and technology transfer.
These ships could be modified “Project 17″ Shivalik Class frigates, which are an enlarged and enhanced design derived from the Kirvak IIIs. On the other hand, the RFI was issued to a number of foreign shipbuilders, raising the possibility that Project 17A ships could use an entirely different base platform.
- Bharat Rakshak – Talwar (Krivak III) Class
- Bharat Rakshak – Modified Krivak III Class
- DID – India Orders 3 More Krivak III/Talwar Class Frigates. Modified Krivak III Class.
- Bharat Rakshak – Project 17 (Shivalik) Class. Modified from the Talwar Class, adding more stealth, different turbines, and other improvements.
- GlobalSecurity – Project 17 P17 Shivalik Class Frigate