The commissioning of INS Kolkata in Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) Mumbai, with due pomp and circumstance, on Aug 16 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an event of considerable significance for both the Indian Navy (IN) and the nation. So far the biggest Indian-built warship to join the navy, the size, firepower and advanced technologies incorporated in this 7,500-tonne guided-missile destroyer make it a formidable weapon platform.
What places the Kolkata many notches above most of its contemporaries is the advanced multi-function radar embedded in its mast and a long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM) to be delivered shortly.
Two sister ships of this class will join the IN in due course, adding more punch to our navy which is rapidly approaching world-class status. While the successful commissioning of this potent warship does call for celebrations, exaggerated claims about the levels of indigenisation and hyperbole about self-reliance also demand quiet introspection.
Excessive self-delusion can prove just as damaging as unnecessary self-denigration; and nothing proves this better than the sorry state of defence research and production that has pushed India to No.1 position as an arms importer. Kolkata's commissioning is an opportune juncture to strike a balance sheet which may help us break out of the vicious circle of delayed indigenous projects and increasing import dependency.
On the positive side, the Directorate General of Naval Design, which started in the 1960s with the modified Leander class frigates, has over the years brought great credit for itself by creating a series of elegant, functional and combat-worthy warships of the Delhi, Shivalik and now the Kolkata class. The Kolkata's design claims 'stealth' features, which should render it difficult for the adversary to detect. The navy's unique Weapon and Electronic Systems Engineering Establishment (WESEE), undertook the herculean task of integrating the melange of Russian, Israeli, Dutch, French, Italian, and Indian systems which went into this ship. Nowhere else in the world is such a complex undertaking attempted, but WESEE's endeavours have been invariably rewarded with success. To WESEE also goes huge credit for developing the electronic nerve-centre of the ship, its combat management system or CMS - again a unique and sterling achievement.
MDL, a public sector shipbuilding yard, deserves praise for having skilfully built and steadily delivered high quality warships and submarines to the IN for the past half-century. At the same time there is no denying the fact that every MDL project has been dogged by huge time delays (Kolkata took 11 years to build) and embarrassing cost overruns, which have had an adverse impact on the navy's force levels and fiscal planning. Warship building is supported by a network of dedicated ancillary industries which produce most of the systems required for 'domestic and hotel services' on board warships. It is their contribution, added to the steel hull of the ship, welded in MDL, which appears to underpin inflated claims of indigenous content (perhaps by weight or volume) made for all our warships - including the Kolkata.
However, we need to squarely face the fact that the ability of Indian built warships 'to move, to see and to fight' comes almost exclusively from high-technology systems imported from abroad. A media scan shows that the Kolkata's gas-turbine engines, generators, propellers and shafting, gear-box, gun systems, the surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, and radars are all imported. Most systems claimed as 'indigenous' have been assembled under licence - with minimal value-addition by Indian scientists. Thus, if the value of imported content is reckoned, it may come to as much as 70-80 percent of the ship's cost.
Here it is appropriate to cite two outstanding success stories related to the DRDO. One emanates from its Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL) which has provided a state-of-the-art 'Humsa' sonar, as well as other anti-submarine warfare (ASW) devices for the Kolkata. The provenance of Humsa sonar goes to 1975 when a brilliant naval electronic engineer, Lieutenant Arogyaswamy Paul Raj, led a NPOL team to develop an advanced panoramic sonar; then at the cutting edge of technology. Since then, the IN and NPOL have worked in close collaboration to successfully develop a series of ASW systems that equip our front-line ships today.
The second instance relates to an offer made by the Israeli Navy to the IN in 2004-05, on behalf of their industry, of a long-range missile with superior anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence capabilities. The 'cherry on the cake' was to be the new multi-function phased-array radar that accompanied it. There was no altruism behind this offer; the small numbers required by the Israelis made the project economically unviable for them, and there were not many nations they could trust with such sensitive technology. Driving a hard bargain, the IN obtained Israeli agreement for joint development and co-production of systems.
Showing eminent good sense and pragmatism, the DRDO leadership agreed to the navy's proposal for a path-breaking tripartite collaborative arrangement with the Israelis for the development of the LR-SAM. The funding as well as manpower liabilities were shared by the IN and DRDO. The project, involving DRDO scientists, naval engineers and the defence-industry has rendered tremendous benefits to all three participants and, notwithstanding development delays, will bring the IN to front rank of navies technologically.
Are there any lessons to be learnt from the Kolkata experience? Should we not replicate success stories? As the new government takes stock, the import dependence of our armed forces must figure on top of its national security agenda, because it extracts a huge toll in terms of combat-readiness and renders 'strategic autonomy' a meaningless nostrum.
Trapped in a time-warp, our defence research and production establishments are verging on dysfunctionality, but there is no one to either take responsibility or demand accountability. The PM's recent exhortation to DRDO scientists to accelerate research and produce timely results will remain rhetorical till a dedicated Raksha Mantri sits in South Block.