by Sandeep Unnithan

In November 2018, India joined an exclusive club with the operationalisation of an indigenously developed nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). Until then, only five other countries had managed this feat.

This was the result of the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) program, begun in 1983—a shining example of an indigenous defence project that surmounted major challenges to deliver an enormously complicated weapons platform. This required a mastery of several of cutting-edge technologies—compact nuclear reactors, nuclear-tipped missiles and submarine hull construction—which few countries possess. One Indian SSBN, the INS Arihant, is in service, with a second, the Arighat, under harbour trials. Two more SSBNs are under final assembly at the Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam.

In the ATV’s project management and production blueprint lies its formula for success, which is now being replicated in other defence projects like the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’. To understand how the program hit its target, India Today Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan spoke with a former Director General of the ATV program retired Vice Admiral Pramod Chander Bhasin.

Sandeep Unnithan (right) speaks with a former Director General of the ATV program, retired Vice Admiral Pramod Chander Bhasin.

Q. The ATV program is a very successful example of indigenisation. What was the key to this?

A. The building of the Indian nuclear submarine project and its associated weapon systems was an audacious task, undertaken by the country under the aegis of the Directorate General Advanced Technology Vessel (DG-ATV). The ATV [program], since its inception, was married to the concept of Atmanirbharta. To achieve this, it was decided that the project should be undertaken through a public-private partnership model. With the participation of the private sector, Indian industry, MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) and a host of Indian high-tech labs and institutions, the DG-ATV undertook the professional integration of the design, construction and overseeing of the project. The synergy of the efforts of [all stakeholders] ensured speed with professional acumen.

Professional processes were adopted, the apex management board under the Prime Minister advised and guided the project and also ensured help from international agencies as and when required. The program paid rich dividends and provided continuity to personnel for future builds of the [platform].

Q. What were the key decisions taken at an early stage which helped this project?

A: There were two very mature decisions taken under the guidance of the Prime Minister.

One was that we did not want to reinvent the wheel, so we decided that we would buy the design from an international agency and proceed with that. Here, we primarily wanted the ‘know how’ and the ‘know why’ of the design. We were also fortunate that we were able to get the normatives from the suppliers—the norms around which the design of a particular item, like a car, a motorcycle, a ship or a submarine is established. Companies [generally] never tell you anything of the normatives—this is their [intellectual property]. Our supplier was very kind—though we paid a very tidy sum for it, we got the normatives. The advantage was that with these, we could alter the design to our requirements or update it. For example, [suppose] we had designed a submarine with a maximum diving depth of 100 metres, but [later] wanted to increase that to 150 or 200 metres. To do that, we do not have to reinvent the wheel—we already have the normatives, so we update the design and change it as required. With this we had made designs for an SSBN. We have also been quite successful in [modifying] the design for an SSN (non-ballistic nuclear submarine). Though we didn’t have the build parameters for this, we are quite happy with [our design].

The second key decision was that the Navy wanted the private sector to enter the field. We were married to the concept of Atmanirbharta, and we could achieve that only if the private sector came in to the project and worked with us, because the Navy cannot continuously provide the necessary manpower the way the private sector can. This being a special project, all the private sector firms and MSMEs [we brought in] were very keen to join.

Q. Could you give some examples of how you reached out to indigenous firms, whether for the supply of components or for other tasks?

A. We followed the norms set up by the Government on this. We were very open with it—we [interviewed] several agencies [for the job], had several discussions, and eliminated the firms who were not serious [contenders]. If there were 10-12 [firms] that had applied for a particular task, we [selected] two to four and then [conducted background checks] on those companies and then selected one. There were various features incorporated in the selection process. And like I said, the agencies themselves were very keen to join the project, even though it was never an advertised program. We can say that our terms and conditions were good, and our working relationships were good. That’s how we managed to get the small-scale industries [involved].

Q. Could you give us an idea of the size of the industrial eco-system that was created for this project?

A. The industrial ecosystem we created was massive. For the builder of the submarine, there was only one company, but there were 100 other vendors [involved]. We had BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) working with us—as far as the nuclear [reactor] aspect was concerned, we allowed them to lead, and we followed. As far as the weapon systems were concerned, we ourselves had a lot of knowledge, the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) scientists worked with us, and we produced the goods. The DRDO complex itself was well-established—they had 99 laboratories, and we were allowed to make full use of them. Each one of us understood the other, and we never had any problems with any agency, because before we entered a room for any discussions, we left our egos outside.

After we had built relationships with the companies [working with us], in 1997, [we began developing] the digital side of it. We now started giving them [more freedom]. For example, we told a company ‘this is a fire control system, this is the input to a fire control system—this is the output we want. [How you develop the system], whether analogue or digital, this is the space you have’. And they did the rest. We never interfered with them. Control systems were developed like this.

Q. You mentioned the design aspect and the normatives for the design. How can these be used for future submarine programs?

A. I hope the conventional submarine builders—MDL (Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders) for the Russian and the French submarines—have collected [enough technical information for the job]. We were passing on [this information] to them, so they must have set up normative programs. In fact, there are only two companies in the country—MDL and L&T (Larsen & Toubro)—which are capable of building submarines. L&T has 20-25 years of experience in ship building, and MDL has 40 years. We should be able to [develop future submarine programs] ourselves.

Q. The Navy is now putting out contracts to build conventional submarines—the Project 75I program. Should these contracts go to one of these two companies rather than a consortium?

A. Why a consortium? We are building six submarines—it should be ‘you take three, you take three’. Make a lead yard. There are [also] five or six foreign vendors, and we are very happy with the basic parameters of all of them. You can choose any one of them. All [the Navy] has to say is that beside this design and the parameters which these submarines already meet, we want the following weapon systems in these submarines—we want such and such torpedo systems, air independent propulsion systems, and so on. Then, L&T and MDL can be put in competition with each other [along with the foreign vendors they choose to partner with].

The competition will ensure that if foreign vendors want to come in, they can only win if [their Indian partners] quote the lowest rate. And you can quote the lowest rate only if you can get the maximum amount of work done in India. If [one foreign vendor] doesn’t give the design or the other parameters we want at a lower price than the other chap, they will not get the contract. These parameters and designs are available at naval headquarters, and [the companies] can decide [how to proceed]. We are not designing a submarine de-novo—we are just developing and indigenously building with outside agencies. In the future we won’t even have to [rely on outside agencies].

Q. So the navy has a requirement for six SSNs—nuclear powered attack submarines?

A. There is no help required from anybody whatsoever for this. The country can manage it.

Q. The ATV project seems enormously complex. You have submarine hull construction, you have the reactor being built by the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) and the missiles being built by the DRDO— how does the DG-ATV coordinate such a massive program?

A. By delegating authority. Whatever systems we adopted were working very well. The bureaucracy was involved at a much higher level than normal—in a normal set up, if a letter is written to the defence minister, it [is enters the bureaucratic system] at the deputy secretary level, who then starts clearing the file upwards. In the ATV program, the file does not go below the joint secretary level. It was a [major] coordination effort.

Q. What can other defence projects learn from the ATV program?

A. The Navy was itself very involved in the project—it was very keen on this program. The other two services (the Army and the Air Force) have not been [historically as involved in defence production]. Maybe in the last five to ten years they might have gotten more involved, but while we were working on our indigenous projects I never saw the other two services contributing their best officers to the industry. The Navy had some of its best officers guiding [this program]. Also, for the ATV program, we ensured that people who retired from the service while working on the program were [hired] by the company concerned. So every company that we worked with kept two or three positions open for retiring [Naval officers] so as to [ensure] continuity in the projects. This meant that the country, the company, and the individual all gained.

Q. So you’re saying that this is an extension of the Navy’s commitment to the indigenous defence industry. The Navy has been at the forefront of indigenisation—you’ve been building your own ships for almost 50 years now. That spirit, you’re saying, translated into the ATV program?

A. Not only to the ATV program—the spirit was inculcated in the [people involved] also. When I was a commander—I had come back from the UK, where I was Deputy Naval Advisor—I said we will do this indigenously. Even at that time, we were talking about indigenisation. Of course, you could say that what we were doing was import substitution, etc., but we were already setting up departments like the WESEE section (Weapons and Electronics Systems and Engineering section, which lays out the requirements for combat systems and works with industry to develop it), and facilities like workshops at the two dockyards. I would say the Navy itself was married to Atmanirbharta.

Q. Has the ATV program given the Navy the capability to design other nuclear submarines?

A. Yes it has, because of the design ability and the normatives, which we are now building up. So that’s why we paid a lot of money for the normatives—it’s not being kept in somebody’s almirah. It’s being used by the industry, by the [systems] designers, by the professional directorates, it’s all available. This information was distributed to the concerned people. [Thanks to this information], we can enter the design and modify it as necessary. Also, the ATV program was not only about building the submarine—it was also about building nuclear weapons. Those nuclear weapons are 100 per cent indigenous. We take credit for that—we did it ourselves.