India shows subs skills curve starts steeply

There are abundant lessons in India for the Australians negotiating the huge and complex $50 billion contract for the navy’s 12 new submarines.

The Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) yard in Mumbai is halfway through a program to build six conventionally-powered Scorpene-class submarines in collaboration with the French shipbuilder Naval Group, which has just changed its name from DCNS.

Against competition from Japan, Germany and, earlier on, Sweden, Naval Group won the contract to design and help build 12 very large Shortfin Barracuda submarines in Australia. The Shortfin is a conventionally-powered version of another Naval Group class, the nuclear-powered Barracuda submarine.

One issue to be dealt with quickly is the view that lingers in some quarters, mainly in South Australia, that 100 per cent of the components of Australia’s new submarines must be made in Australia.

The Mumbai dockyard has a very strong focus on the “make in India” policy of the Modi government but despite its best efforts, local, or “indigenous”, content is expected to reach just 30 per cent in the sixth boat.

The Indians are very conscious of a weakness in their national economy that hindered early efforts to get the submarine project moving. The economy had made a major jump from an agrarian base to one heavily focused on IT but along the way it did not develop manufacturing capability on anything like the same scale.

The Modi government is strengthening the manufacturing sector with a big push to skill the population.

Naval Group says that if it gets to build more Scorpenes for India after the current six, its goal will be to meet the government’s target of at least 50 per cent local content.

The major Indian effort to modernise and significantly increase the size of its own submarine fleet is driven by concern about a steady increase in Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean with regular visits by the PLA Navy to the port of Karachi in neighbouring Pakistan.

The strong Chinese naval presence comes amid a standoff between Chinese and India troops on the Sikkim-Bhutan border region.

The six Scorpenes are just the start for India. They may be followed by three more Scorpenes and then by six more conventional submarines to be designed in India as it focuses on strengthening its own strategic industry capability.

At present India’s navy operates 13 conventional submarines and two nuclear-powered boats, one of them leased from Russia. Older Russian conventional submarines used by India are likely to be extensively refurbished to extend their lives.

Naval Group clearly wants to convince those sceptical about its Australian project that if its submarines can be built in India, they can be built in Australia.

Captain Rajiv Lath, a retired Indian Navy submariner who leads the engineering side of the Mazagon building program, said that after initial problems and delays, the project had come together very effectively. Each boat got easier, Captain Lath said this week.

The first of the Indian Scorpenes, INS Kalvari, was launched in October 2015 and has successfully test fired a torpedo and an Exocet anti-ship missile and carried out diving trials. The boat is expected to be delivered to the navy within weeks. The second submarine, INS Khanderi, was launched in January this year and is now carrying out sea trials.

Work is under way simultaneously on the other four boats and the goal is to launch them at nine-month intervals.

Captain Lath said he believed that while Australia had ordered 12 conventionally-powered submarines, it was likely that a decision would eventually be made to switch the program to include some nuclear-powered boats.

The Indian project was a big test of the technology-transfer process, Captain Lath said. “The first of class was very tough. We had a lot of problems in the beginning but we’ve got through the difficult part and learned from our mistakes.”

Early in the project, three welders were sent to France to learn the high-level skills needed to put together the pressure hull. These respected “welding gurus” then trained dozens of Indian welders. But it would have been better to send 15 or 20 welders to France to start with, Captain Lath said.

On the issue of technology transfer, Indian engineers said they could fully understand why, after building submarines for 100 years, a nation such as France would be reluctant to hand over its technology for nothing. The goal in future would be to design as much as possible of the technology in India and acquire the capability to make the platform there.

French engineers said a major early lesson was underestimating the difficulty of building the first boat in the series in the purchasing country.

The key was to allow enough time at the start of the project to learn the basics. “Don’t set out to build a submarine,” said a Frenchman intimately involved in the transfer to India of key technology who declined to be named because he worked in a high-security area. “You must go from bottom up. Start with the smallest design details and build upwards from there. And don’t go too fast. It takes time to build the skills your workforce needs and you can’t buy that.”

Naval Group has overseen the modernisation and expansion of the Mumbai yard that has been building fighting vessels since 1774.

The managing director of the French company’s arm in India, Bernard Buisson, said he was proud that the first in the series of six submarines was able to be built from scratch in India, rather than being build in France.

Keys to this were the technology-transfer process, the development of crucial quality-control skills and the training of skilled local manpower.

The submarines are built in five large sections which are then welded together. Cutting and rolling the steel for the first section took several months and then that section was rejected because the work did not meet the stringent standards required. Since then the rate of defects has declined rapidly.

The government-owned shipyard and the French company want to build the three more Scorpenes that they hope the Indian government will order. But they are up against a Modi administration policy obliging any foreign companies building in India to operate with a local private-sector partner. MDL is considering relaunching as a majority public company.

With two of the state of the art Scorpene submarines undergoing trials in the ocean off Mumbai and construction of the others moving rapidly along, a French specialist compared building the first submarine to assembling a piece of flat-packed Ikea furniture. “You’re up to midnight shouting in frustration at the first one — but once you’ve got it right the rest are much easier.”

 

 

 

 

 

Source:- The Australian

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