ICGS Vikram during its launching

by Mrityunjoy Mazumdar

If this week’s DefExpo show near Chennai is all set to see India flaunt its front-line naval shipbuilding prowess with greater energy than ever before, an event scheduled to take place on the show’s first day not far from the venue will be heavy with significance. India’s largest offshore patrol vessel (OPV), built by industrial giant Larsen & Toubro will be commissioned into the Indian Coastguard.

L&T Defence Shipbuilding Business Unit has completed the construction of the first of seven Vikram class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) for the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) at its Kattupalli shipyard north of Chennai, with the the brand new ship expected to be handed over to its owners on 09 April ahead of a tentative April 11 commissioning date during the DefExpo event. Minister of State for Defence Dr Subhash Bhamre is expected to do the honours during the ships’ commissioning ceremony.

The commissioning is significant and will draw attention to private sector efficiencies in military shipbuilding, focused on quick turnaround and delivery. The MoD plans to flaunt a raft of front-line Indian-built ships off the Chennai coast during DefExpo, including a Shivalik-class stealth frigate and Kamorta-class anti-submarine warfare corvette, both built by state-owned shipyards. L&T’s Vikram is a smaller ship, but there are notable things about this seven-ship INR 1,432 crore OPV project.

Vikram Offshore Patrol Vessel during sea trials

Vikram is the first Indian built OPV of its size – these 2140 tons ships are almost 100 m long – to be completed and delivered in line with the contractual schedule of delivering the first hull 36 months from contract signing. No other Indian shipyard that is engaged in building naval or ‘defence’ vessels has managed this feat for an OPV sized vessel on their first try. The remaining ships are to be delivered at six month intervals although L&T officials say this pace can be bettered.

Another notable feature of these OPVs is their high levels of completion prior to ‘launching’ which is when the ships enter the water for the first time. This was immediately evident at the launching ceremonies of the Vikram in October 2017 and second ship in class, Vijaya in January 2018.

Yet another notable feature is that the lead ship – or first of class as they are known– are often given to teething problems on their sea trials – which then require more repairs and retrials – thus resulting in delays. In the case of the Vikram, the ship trials went smoothly. In fact, L&T officials were quite confident of this outcome from the outset. This is a testament to the build quality of L&T’s Kattuppali yard. The Vikram class project is currently the flagship of L&T’s Kattupalli facility, though reports like this one show that the road to warship orders are proving to be very rough.

For a comparison, public sector or ‘PSU’ yards that specialize in building OPVS like Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL) have progressively reduced build times for similar sized OPVS from 72 months just five years ago to about 36 months, and they are targeting a shorter timeline for their current batch Coast Guard OPVs under construction. True, GSL has also been delivering ships ahead of schedule with minimal defects recently but left unsaid is that these schedules are often revised with timelines moving to the right.

On the other hand, GRSE could not build the single 74m, 1350 ton OPV MCGS Barracuda for the Mauritius Coast Guard within the contractual timeline of 42 months a few years ago. The delivery of the Barracuda should have taken place by September 2014 but the ship was delivered in early 2015 and commissioned in March 2015. In the private sector, the only other private sector yard engaged in building OPVs – Pipavav, now known as Reliance Naval Engineering – isn’t having an easy time building five OPVs for the Navy. The project is now at least three years late.

Industry observers believe L&T, which has been engaged in quiet strategic work for the navy for decades, including the nuclear submarine program, has raised the bar for the other defence shipyards in the country.

“Hopefully, the right lessons will be drawn by the other naval shipyards who will do well to focus on improving productivity and build quality standards instead of lobbying the MoD for more projects on a ‘nomination’ basis even when several of these yards cannot deliver their ongoing projects on time,” says an industry observer. To L&T, its yard capacities remaining under-utilised is unmissable symbol of the lopsided way warship contracts are currently handed out — and the enormous clout state-owned shipyards still have at the cost of the private sector.

The Vikram class OPVs have been designed in-house at L&T’s Warship Design Centre at Manapakkam, Chennai. They were designed using 3-D computer aided design (CAD) and assembly modelling tools to facilitate ease of construction. For example, cabling and piping routes in a ship are very complex. The use of 3D CAD software meant that these were clearly defined long before construction started, so that when construction started, it essentially boiled down to a mechanical version of ‘plug and play’ with piping, cabling and the myriad bits that make up a ship. As with other Indian Coast guard ships, these ships are designed and built to dual ship building certification standards from the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) and Indian Register of Shipping (IRS).

L&T Kattupalli builds these OPVs using modular construction technology. The shipyard production line is laid out in a L-shape with some 20 production shops. All fabrication and assembly work is undertaken in covered shops thus allowing for comfortable, year round working conditions for shipyard workers who do not have to contend with the elements.

Broadly speaking, the production process starts with pre-prefabrication facilities such as steel treatment, shot blasting and priming, a plate cutting line with computer controlled (CNC) cutting machines, panel forming, unit assembly bay, a hull block assembly where large hull blocks are assembled and ‘outfitted’ with doors, hatches, bulkheads, large piping assemblies, etc.

These partially ‘outfitted’ hull blocks are then sent to the blasting and painting shops and then to the final assembly hall where further outfitting takes place at the block level. Several of these hull blocks and superstructure blocks (the top part of the ship above the main deck or ‘weather deck’) are then mated together like giant Lego blocks to form the complete ship. The hull blocks are mounted on frames or ‘trestles’ that are positioned over rails. These rails, which are part of a gigantic ship transfer and shiplift system, facilitate the movement of the entire ship.

The completed ship hull is then moved onto a large, shiplift for launching. After the ship is launched, further outfitting, ‘setting to work’ of shipboard equipment as well as static ‘harbour trials’ of key equipment like generators and engines take place at one of the four large wet berths at the shipyard. Upon completion of harbour trials, a series of ‘sea trials’ commence. These sea trials must be concluded successfully with minimal or zero defects for a ship to be accepted by the customer – in this case, the Coast Guard.

It remains to be seen if L&T’s performance with this OPV project and the nearly completed interceptor boat project with 54 hulls for the Coast Guard translates into more substantial orders for naval vessels from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). L&T’s nuclear submarine work demolishes the oft used argument put forth by PSU naval shipyards that private shipyards lack the experience to build complex warships and therefore, they need to build up these skills.

Given the relatively unimpressive performance by other private shipyards on naval and coast guard projects to date, this logic does have some merit. But L&T is an exception. If the MoD is serious about building up naval and coast guard force levels in a timely manner, maybe it needs to step out of its comfort zone and look to use the efficient but underutilized shipyards that are hoping to prove their capabilities more and more. The Vikram class is, near literally, a drop in the ocean of what could be.