by V Adm Suresh Bangara (Retd)

Those who are familiar with the armed forces would know that periodic exercises under simulated combat conditions are primarily the method used to keep units combat ready at all times. In so far as the Navy is concerned, newly built warship/submarines/aircraft go through a well laid out plan of activity to prove the operational capabilities of all systems which include propulsion, sensors, weapon systems, firefighting and damage control facilities, power generation and backup systems which include emergency backup, air-conditioning, ammunition storage and a host of logistics support facilities.

Every warship is equipped to fight a nuclear, biological and chemical war as well. Thereafter, the platform is put through crew competence assessments before the assigned authority inspects and declares her combat ready. It is after this certification that the ship joins the fleet where she is integrated with multi-dimensional forces to drill her for war.

As compared to platforms of Army and Air Force, ships are like floating cities of various sizes which carry a large number of personnel with facilities to accommodate, feed and support them to sustain at least three months of deployment.

These floating cities are built using several thousand tons of steel and include varieties of engines of several thousand horsepower which propel the ship using huge room-sized gearboxes and long and heavy shafts ending in large propellers. The ships are also equipped with electrical generators of several thousand kilowatts capacity which supply electric power to various equipment starting from basic lighting, air conditioners/ refrigerators, ventilation fans to a variety of sensors like radars and sonars for detecting enemies and weapon systems encompassing high calibre guns and cannons to guided missiles, rockets and torpedoes. Modern-day warships also have very sophisticated computer-controlled combat management systems. The warships are also equipped with a very complex system of piping and valves for conveying fuel, water, hydraulic power and compressed air.

When warship construction commenced in India in the mid-1960s with INS Nilgiri, we obtained the design and drawings from the British and started building our warships at MDL, Mumbai. GRSE, Kolkata and GSL, Goa soon joined the warship building effort. Later, the Cochin Shipyard and HSL, Visakhapatnam too became a part of the team.

For the first few ships, as the design was from abroad, practically everything including even the steel used that went into its construction had to be imported. However, gradually technologies for producing them in India were developed and more and more Indian items found their way into the warships. Stringent specifications and quality standards were established and slowly but surely Indian industries became competitive not only in terms of costs but also quality.

Although a lot has been done for the production of warship materials and equipment by Indian industries in both the public and private sectors, a number of items such as gas turbines and other propulsion equipment and some radars and weapons are taking time to find indigenous suppliers. Economies of scale have been one of the impediments along with assured supply orders which were not forthcoming from the concerned Ministry. These are systemic inadequacies given the inability of the Finance Ministry to project the defence budget with any degree of certainty. Assured allocation of the capital budget is a prerequisite to building warships. From design to commissioning a Destroyer it takes a decade or more in the present system.

Every naval vessel has several hundred and in a large ship like an Aircraft Carrier – thousands of kilometres of electrical wires and cables for supplying power and also conveying data from and to various equipment.

Even a layman knows overheating of these wires and cables either due to electrical overload or due to any other type of external fire causes the insulation to overheat, melt and burn. The insulation material, which is a polymer containing some halogen elements, when overheated, produces toxic gases like chlorine which greatly hamper the efforts of the fire-fighters and sometimes when inhaled, resulting in casualties.

All the ships that were imported from UK/ Russia did not have (and may not have) non-toxic wires and cables as most navies evolved their own specifications based on the capacity of indigenous industry to supply the requisite number of cables.

It was fortuitous that modern nontoxic cable technology was developed indigenously by Navy through the private sector in India. The Russian industry, however, continues to use toxic cables for their warships. Our Navy was quick to harness the indigenous content by suitably modifying the cable specifications so that all new warships now under construction are equipped with it. Having lost lives due to electrical fires in the past, this measure would ensure appropriate firefighting techniques to combat electrical fires without loss of life.

Indigenous construction of warships including the first aircraft carrier at Kochi, destroyers with state of art weapons and sensors at Mumbai and Kolkotta, conventional submarines at Mumbai and their strategic counterparts in other yards, make it imperative that top of the line accessories and materials be used in these platforms.

Make in India is a mantra which is yet to reach its intended capacity. It is likely that ships now on order from Russia are not entirely utilising new capabilities that exist in India. The offset clause, inter alia, is meant to create and sustain technological standards of indigenous production, but the off-set clause is not available for ships being procured from Russia, for instance. It’s possible that by default we would be forced to accept toxic cables due to contractual obligations. If these assumptions are true, remedial measures need to be initiated to prevent loss of precious human lives.

It’s time that we leverage the modern subsystems of higher quality being produced by the private sector in India. In all the three pillars of warship building processes to improve the platform’s capacity to FLOAT, MOVE and FIGHT, we need to involve the private sector as indeed done by ISRO, IGMDP and our own strategic submarine projects. No need to reinvent the wheel but there is a need to reinvent the attitudes of those involved in executing contracts.