By Vice Admiral M A Hampiholi
What an aircraft carrier brings to the table in the strategic realm needs no introduction. If the former Vikrant gave a splendid account of herself in the 1971 war, what it also did was assure India peace till 1996, along with Viraat, which joined her in 1986. In 1998, two years after Vikrant was decommissioned and when Viraat was under refit, Kargil unfolded. No country operationally discounts another that operates a carrier. The Chinese, despite all the brouhaha of an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), are on a quest to induct more aircraft carriers.
The strategic need is unmistakable. But now that we have a glistening new Made in India Vikrant, can India really afford Indian Aircraft Carrier (IAC)-2? It takes close to a decade to construct a carrier – anywhere in the world. In our context, though, by the time an approval is received, the order placed and work completed, we must aim to prevent a capability gap between IAC-2 and the time for bidding adieu to Vikramaditya somewhere towards the end of the next decade. If a minimum of two aircraft carriers are to be ensured, then IAC-2 would have to be operationalised by 2035, latest. Contrary to reservations on expenditure, the cash outflow on account of such a project is always spread over the decade, and most of it ploughed back into the Indian economy – a win win!
Major programmes such as, say, the P15A class of destroyers, including their follow-ons, and the P17 and their follow ons have had a major advantage of the human skills being retained and therefore enabling easy improvements to the original, while making it less expensive to meet the inescapable requirements of warship construction. 1 But it is often assumed that these skill sets are only about the ship-builder or major industry partners with reference to the entire hardware-software ecosystem built for indigenous warship construction.
Today, a small-scale industry is a unit which has an investment of Rupees 10 Crore and Rs. 50 Crore of turnover; a medium unit with an investment of Rs. 20 Crore Rs. 100 Crore of turnover; a medium scale unit with an investment of Rs. 50 Crore and Rs. 250 Crore of turnover. Many of these big industries source their components from Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), and in other cases, the MSMEs directly provide complete systems to the ship-builder.
Construction of any ship begins with its hull on which the complete structure is further built. MSMEs such as M/s Autokast Limited, M/s Cathodic Control, M/s Champak Industries, M/s Geeta Engg Works, M/s Indian Chains and M/s Max Steel played the bulwark for structural components such as cast iron bricks, sacrificial anodes, steel plates, anchor capstan, anchor cable and steel angles, respectively.
The mammoth task of undertaking approximately 2500 km of cabling, which forms an exhaustive network across the ship, energising every piece of equipment onboard. MSMEs such as M/s Craftsman Automation, M/s Polycab India, and M/s Precision Power have supplied cables of various specifications towards the above endeavour. Numerous electrical systems which are required onboard the ship to enable internal and external communication and power distribution have been conceptualised and entirely manufactured to an Indian design as in the case for Sound Power Telephone developed by M/s Elcome Marine Services, Distribution Panels manufactured by M/s Marine Electricals, and the lighting system supplied by M/s Zeal Tech.
A complex network of pipes spanning 150 km onboard Vikrant are running across the length and breadth of the ship connecting different systems such as fuel, oil, fresh water, sea water and aviation fuel etc. All related fittings such as valves, flanges, strainers, gaskets, brackets and supports have been fabricated through our enterprising MSMEs such as M/s Fit Tech Industries, M/s Arya Crafts & Engg, M/s Govardhan Das P A, M/s BJ&P Engg, M/s Champion Jointings, M/s Eften Engg, M/s H&H Precision and M/s Kannan Tools & Dies. In the course of delivering Vikrant to the nation, the MSME ecosystem too has grown and downstream employment generated.
But is the sustainment of MSME or generating employment the main objective of building another indigenous aircraft carrier? No. At the same time, losing the skill sets would be detrimental to this nation. In the 1980s, the Mazagaon Docks Limited built Shishumar class submarines under a transfer of technology. A gap of two decades ensued before work on Kalvari class began. Those involved on ground retired. Much of the skill sets were lost in between. It was a steep learning curve for those who had to work on the Kalvari class, two decades on. India does not have the luxury of retracing the path of losing skill sets and relearning them. As a country, it would not be prudent to retrace this path.
As a nation, Vikrant enabled trained design engineers, built skill sets, taught the processes by which we put such complex design to water. And of a complexity never attempted in India before where the numbers of interconnected and interdependent systems were made to reliably work in harmony. Above all, we built teams that interacted with each other; overcame obstacles together and made the end product better. To start all over again, with many as a fresher to surmount a near identical challenge, would only be reinventing the wheel, especially when a second aircraft carrier is inevitable.
Therefore, the infrastructure and skillsets developed by these MSMEs must be put to use before they lose them. Indeed, amongst all the services, the Indian Navy has been at the forefront of indigenisation. Many of the MSMEs involved in the project are now a primary source of spare supply to the Indian Navy, not just Vikrant. In contrast, the same spares were earlier being procured through either more expensive or less efficient alternatives.
In a welcome step, the government recently announced the National Logistics Policy. The policy aims to streamline the logistics chain, principally in the transportation and handling segment while addressing the overall issues. A core attribute towards national logistics is to address the supply chain, including the spares management philosophy. Standardisation of spares, i.e. going back to the same firms over a wide ranging system, benefits the supply chain, expenses, expertise and proficiency of the end user. If we don’t encash on building the next aircraft carrier now with the MSME ecosystem already developed in the past decade, then, as a nation, the expenditure in terms of finances and time would in all probability, become a bigger challenge than ever before.
VAdm. M A Hampiholi is Flag Officer Commanding-In-Chief, Southern Naval Command