Warship Building and the Professional Patron

“…all carpenters, blacksmiths and other artificers are prohibited being employed in the building of boats…” [1]


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Indian Warship building, Indigenous Shipbuilding, Higher Defence Management and Shipbuilding, Indian Maritime Doctrine, Naval Design Bureau

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Geopolitics Magazine

Death of Private Indian Shipbuilding—An Improbable Preamble
In November 1788 an intriguing order was passed by the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company. On the one hand it sounded the death knell for private shipbuilding activities in Bengal; while on the other, it underscored the strategic linkage between economic power as a function of British colonial venture, and the challenges that an opposing maritime capability may pose to it.[2] Specifically, it prohibited ship construction of any nature on pain of physical punishment and forfeiture of properties; but far more insidious was the systematic obliteration of a vocation and the skills intrinsic to it by targeting blacksmiths, carpenters and artificers who were singled out for special retribution.[3] The shipbuilding industry, through this instrument passed into the hands of the colonists, worked to its bidding and grew under its decree. Whether it was the shipyard at Bombay or Calcutta, their purpose was to service The Company’s enterprise, and in time the Crown’s imperial ambitions.

Ancient India was one of the leading maritime nations of the day. The tidal dock at Lothal which dates to 2300 BCE stands in testimony to the vibrancy of the tradition. It had colonies in Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo and Socotra. Indian traders had established settlements in Southern China, in the Malayan Peninsula, in Arabia and in Egypt. Through the Persians and Arabs, India had cultivated trade relations with the Roman Empire. There is also a treatise named Yukti Kalpa Taru,[4] offering a technocratic exposition on the art of shipbuilding. It sets forth minute details about the various types of ships, their sizes and the materials from which they were built. Such a vast undertaking could never have occurred without a close union between a deliberate imperial policy and a nautical strategy to realise it.[5]

Significant to early Indian maritime endeavour was the mercantile pursuit that drove shipbuilding. The nature of hulls—deep and bulkhead free—was designed for carriage of cargo rather than for survival in action damage. Even the colonisation of South East Asia was more on account of a migratory stimulus than one urged by conquest. This outlook changed with the coming of Vasco da Gama and his fleet of four small vessels. The difference was the Papal Bull that he carried and the cannons onboard that sought to enforce the edict that it proclaimed. [6]

Linkage between Policy and Strategy
The events mentioned above (The Papal Bull and the Regulation of 1788) are sinister in intent. But, from the colonizer’s perspective the first event articulates the critical prerequisite to link and formulate Strategy around Policy; while the second is symptomatic of strategic suppression of a potential adversary. Nations develop power in all its dimensions to assure the well being of the State, security of the Nation and the development of its people. If this be, in the broadest of terms, the existential theory of a State, then national strategies are formulated to chart a long term course in order to seize and exploit (peacefully in the main) the opportunities that the global environment offers and, where perceived distortions to their concept of sovereignty exists, to iron out and bring about a favourable outcome. In this context the nation’s strategic posture is a declaration, more by deed than words, of its orientation, will and intent. The strategic posture purports to mould and shape a future that would benefit its larger objectives of development. The process is always fraught with the hazards of conflicting interests and therefore it demands the weight of the nation’s comprehensive power, both soft and hard, to uphold posture.

It was Clausewitz who first noted an area of darkness when it came to characterizing the complex relationship between national strategy and the military resources that were needed to muscle and enable that strategy. He perceived this region of obscurity as one caused by a lack of an understanding of the nature of power and the need to sculpt it in a manner that it promoted national strategy. Specifically within the framework of the military as a tool he identified this as a failure to distinguish between the maintenance of armed forces and their use in pursuit of larger objectives.[7] This quandary was not unique to Clausewitz’s period as the dilemma continues to contemporary times when the momentum that propels the development of armed forces builds logic of growth that defies purpose and is often self fulfilling.

The absence of a cogent theory which integrates the promotion, nurturing and maintenance of force (and indeed naval forces) with a convincing contract for use is one of the first imperatives that the State must seek to reconcile. From this resolution emerges the concept of ‘Strategic Poise’. India’s armed forces have traditionally evolved to cope with operational scenarios. At genesis this may have been attributed to the military’s role in creation and upholding colonial empire, however post independence to have deliberately brought about a separation between the armed forces and the strategic decision making process was a paradox that defied norms of nation building progression. The operational canvas (inexplicable not to have been apparent), is a transient that abhors futuristic force planning. So it was year-after-every-five-year the planner was condemned to an exercise that perceived possible threats and acquiring/building force structures that attempted to cope with those threats. It was, therefore, the immediate intimidation of the changing global scenario that drove plans and consequently resulted in the accretion of forces. Unfortunately, this inspiration of the instantaneous intimidation was the pretender that served to fill the strategic space. The significant pitfall that plagued the operational perspective was the continuous struggle to catch up and keep pace with a future that the planner neither sought to shape nor forecast and contend with. The malaise of our current strategic situation is the emerging time, technology and planning gap in the materialization of appropriate force structures that work to shape the future. The case of our strategic maritime posture and the resources needed to promote it as a function of declared policy is the study in point. Such a strategic approach, primarily, derives from two critical characteristics of the international system. The first of these is the endemic instability of protagonists involved in the system; whether it is their politics, national interests, alliances or even their historical antagonisms which when interacts with the larger global settings causes’ friction, a sense of deprivation and generates a chemistry of volatility. The second is the function of a state as a sovereign entity that is charged with guardianship of certain specific and at times unique set of values sometimes contrary and at others in opposition to the macro system.

In bringing this section of our debate to a conclusion, the words of the Admiral of the Russian Fleet, S.G. Gorshkov, when addressing the issue of linking Policy with Strategy of building a powerful oceanic fleet, are particularly significant. “A most important factor that was taken into consideration was a firm recognition of the alignment of forces in the world arena, the strategic situation existing in the oceanic theatres… the prospects of developing naval technology and weapons and also the economic potential of our country.”[8]

 Maritime Orientation
Strategic maritime orientation derives from policy and encompasses a theory of naval war, force planning and warship production, consistent with both policy and theory. From the maritime perspective the overarching policies that would drive both planning and construction ought to be the ‘Look East Policy’, ‘The India-Africa Forum Summit’, a yet to be articulated maritime energy security policy and a potential maritime security concord with Japan and the USA. The common thread in all these security compacts will be the ability to control far flung oceanic spaces and, should the need arise, deny access to these very spaces driven by a collaborative logic.

A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated naval thought since the Second World War. The grouping is largely functional and task oriented. The differentiation comprises of aircraft carriers, strike units, escorts and scouts, denial forces and auxiliaries (the last include logistic and other support and coastal security ships such as patrol vessels, seaward defence boats, mine layers, sweepers, tenders etc). In addition contemporary thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate. The constitution of fleets must logically be a material articulation of the strategic concepts and ideas that prevail. The principal demand of the theory of naval war, as deliberated earlier, is to attain a strategic position that would permit control of oceanic spaces or deny these spaces depending on circumstances and the correlation of forces. Against this frame of reference the fundamental obligation is therefore to provide the means to seize and exercise that control. Pursuing this line of argument, the rational formulation that remains consistent with our theory of naval warfare is that upon the escorts and scouts depends our ability to exercise control over  sea area; while on the aircraft carrier group assisted by strike and denial forces depends the security of control. Control and Security of Control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces and therefore must lie at the heart of the force generation programme.

Higher Defence Management and Shipbuilding
Higher defence management in India suffers from two critical flaws that impact unfavorably on the ability to adopt a strategic approach to maritime force planning and naval ship construction. The first of these is the lack of sincere integration of Naval Headquarters (actually Service Headquarters) with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) such that it would be a part of the Government apex decision making structure. This condition exists despite recommendations of the Group of Ministers report for reforming the National Security Apparatus submitted in February 2001. The disjoint has led to establishments such as the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO, a part of the MoD) failing in their primary task of attaining self reliance in weapon systems without being answerable or indeed accountable to Service Headquarters and, downstream, to the shipbuilding programmes. The Navy on its part has no say in the matter other than to propose continued reliance on imported systems, the adjudication of which is presided over by the most unlikely and ill suited of agents—the bureaucracy in the MoD headed by the Defence Secretary. Consequently, delays, inefficiencies and sub-par decisions then become normal to the process.

The second debilitating flaw is another set of bizarre impediments that come to play when a comprehensively considered case from Naval Headquarters is meaninglessly put through multiple layers in the three departments under the MoD as well as its finance wing and then to the Finance Ministry before reappearing on the Minister’s table. These Kafkaesque processes not only mock maritime force modernization but also compromise attaining a strategic posture.

The Indigenous Enigma
Since the licensed production of the first major war vessel of the ‘Leander’ class, INS Nilgiri in the 1960s, Indian naval shipbuilding has come some distance, contributing much of the platform requirements for maritime forces. India is one of the few countries in the world to have the capability to compose all types of warships—aircraft carriers, nuclear and conventional submarines, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes among others. Over 90 warships have so far been indigenously constructed, with thirty more major ships being at various stages of build. However, beneath this inspiring number lie some fundamental weaknesses. The conundrum is embedded in what is meant by ‘indigenizing.’ To illustrate, in warship construction the thumb rule goes something like this: materials (steel etc.) contributes 70 % by weight, but only 10 % of cost, while the payload and propulsion plant which adds just 25 % by weight, contributes over 60 % of the cost. Therefore if by indigenising is meant sourcing materials locally then an argument can be made that the warship under construction is 70 % home-grown! This misleading notion manifests in the form of huge project delays and cost overruns; for the key to efficient warship building lies in an autonomous design capability (which does not weigh at all) and self reliance in access of pay load, both of which are weak areas in India’s shipbuilding narrative. The problems associated with the lack of accountability of the DRDO, reliance on import of payload, bureaucratic processes and the flaws in higher defence decision making have been dealt with in the previous section. What it does is to complicate and setback an already undermined situation.

India’s overall shipbuilding industry comprises of 27 shipyards, of which 6 are under central government control, 2 under state government and 19 in the private sector domain. All these shipyards are however not responsible for naval construction. Of the six shipyards under the central government, four are dedicated defence Public Sector Undertaking shipyards—Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL), Garden Reach and Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE), Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL) and Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL).These shipyards come under the administrative control of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and are at the core of Indian naval construction. Few other shipyards, notably the government-owned Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL), and private-owned Pipavav Yard (recently been awarded construction of five naval off shore patrol vessels) and the Larsen and Tubro yard (involved in the construction of submarine pressure hulls) are also involved in warship construction. Among all the shipyards, the MDL is by far the leading warship builder in India, having constructed all major types of naval ships excluding the aircraft carrier. The CSL, which comes under the Ministry of Shipping, is presently building India’s first ever indigenous aircraft carrier. Compared to the public sector shipyards, the private shipyards are relatively new to warship building with neither design competence nor autonomy in access to payload; this is not to mean that that the Government shipyards have design or payload access. Planning and professional directorates at Naval Headquarters led by the Directorate of Staff Requirements are accountable for defining staff requirements of the ship, evaluation and selection of payload which sets into motion design work. Design for naval warships, particularly major war vessels, are generated by the naval design bureau, a department under Naval Headquarters staffed by naval architects who are responsible for generating design drawings (from concept to detailed design, based on which ship build is enabled). So far so good, but behind the façade of a vast design agency are a set of small back offices which are manned by a bank of consultant designers from collaborating foreign shipyards and teams from the original payload manufacturers who are, in fact, the intellect behind the creation of the detailed design drawings. For example, in the case of the first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1)[9], Fincantieri, an Italian firm, provides total design support for the hull and its fitting out, while the Northern Design Bureau (Russian) along with Mikoyan make available aggregate design back up for the aviation facilities. While it is a statement of fact that a certain design involvement of equipment manufacturers is inevitable while generating detailed drawings, the problem arises at commencement, where the preliminary phase of design consultancy is sought and remains active through fitting out and trials at the design bureau. At this time there emerges a duality in the process since such consultancy is most beneficial in the Yard where the ship is being constructed and accountability on realisation of the ship or a specific system can be squarely apportioned. In sum, we have a design consultant controlled by a ‘super’ design agency who, in turn, dominates the Indian ship building yard which neither has design competence nor control over selection of pay load or other equipment and yet carries the burden of liability for performance. It does not take a management guru to suggest that when design competence is weak and control over payload remains in the hands of equipment manufacturers out of the country, then both design expertise and consultancy must reside in the shipyards.

Shipbuilding Programme: The Resource Mismatch
Major shipbuilding programmes (does not include Auxiliaries, minor war vessels and aircrafts) for the next two decades include the following:

  • Two Indigenous Aircraft Carriers at $5 billion each.
  • Seven Project 15A/B Guided Missile Destroyers at $750 million each.
  • Seven Project 17A Multi Role Frigates at $650 million each.
  • Three Arihant class SSBNs at $ 1 billion (?) each.
  • Three Nuclear powered attack submarines at $900 million (?) each.
  • Six Scorpene class conventional submarines at $600 million each.
  • Three Landing Platform Dock at $400 million each.

The total of capital expenditure on these projects spread over a period of two decades is approximately $30 billion. Allowing for another $10 billion expenditure on other units and aircrafts would suggest, assuming planar cash outflow over the period, an annual outlay of $2 billion. This figure, when placed in perspective of the Navy’s share of the defence budget, $6.74 billion, amounts to almost 30% of the Naval budget, putting intense pressure on the other budgetary heads, making management of the Navy untenable, suggesting a major mismatch between Policy and the Resources demanded to power Strategy.[10] This would be redolent of a need to question the a priori; that is, is there a cogent theory that links the promotion and nurturing of a maritime force with an accepted contract for its use? In other words does the Strategic approach have national recognition?

Three documents issued by the Navy intended to provide a strategic frame work for growth and development of maritime forces titled ‘The Indian Maritime Doctrine’, ‘The Future Indian Navy’ and India’s ‘Maritime Military Strategy’ neither have the ratification nor the blessings of the Government of India or in fact the MoD,[11] which ought to answer the preceding poser and underscore the wittingly left gap between Policy and Strategy.

To Run the Gauntlet: a Conclusion
The Chairman and Managing Director of one of India’s PSU shipyards in a moment of misplaced vainglory proclaimed that his “order books had been full for the last fourteen years.”[12] His memory had to be jogged that the Yard had not delivered a single warship over the same period! This anecdote is symptomatic of the hobbled state of shipbuilding in India. The root cause lies in the lack of integration of the professional patron, the Navy, into the highest decision making structure that appropriates and dispenses warship building tasks. Left in the dilettante hands of the MoD the casual participation of the bureaucrat leads to, as mentioned elsewhere, Kafkaesque progressions that confounds maritime force modernization. There also exists the perverse anomaly of an approved shipbuilding programme strangled by the hesitancy to commit resources; not for want of capital since the defence budget as a part of GDP is at a low of barely 1.79%, but more for lack of resolve and discernment of the demands of a strategic approach, its linkage to growth and the nature of power play in contemporary geopolitics. The need for public-private partnership and initiatives which unshackle the PSU Yards from the tyranny of MoD control and devolution of design expertise from the central bureau to the Yards, along with selective empowerment to choose payload within the restraints of Staff Requirements becomes an imperative. The yards in this context will need to be given the freedom to seek out investments to enhance capacity if at all timely order-book-execution is to be achieved.

To run the gauntlet in India’s charge to suffuse maritime strategic space within the self centric power structures of contemporary world order, we have no option but to bring about a make over in orientation. Its ideational foundation rests on espousing a strategic approach and is enabled by transforming the shipbuilding edifice through the mantra of ‘integration of the professional patron into higher defence decision making, provision of matching resources to reconcile strategy with policy and to unshackle the Yards and enthuse it with autonomy.’

End Notes

[1] The order from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company (Google eBook) Published in Great Britain  Author, Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company, East India Company (London)  Publisher: Cambray, 1810.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid Clause four of the original document.

[4] An 11th Century AD compilation by Bhoja Narapati.

[5] Kautilya. Arthashastra. Translation by Rangarajan L.N. Penguin Classics, India 1990, p 53, 87, 546-548.

[6] The Aeterni regis Papal Bull of 21 June 1481 by Pope Sixtus IV granted the Canary Islands to Spain and further discoveries in Africa to Portugal. The Inter Caetera Papal Bull of 04 May 1493 granted most New World discoveries to Spain. Problems cropped up over time with these arrangements, and the Treaty of Tordesillas of 07 June 1494 attempted to settle some of these difficulties, formalizing some of the implicit understandings of the earlier Papal Bulls. The Treaty of Tordesillas settled on what came to be called the Tordesillas Meridian running through the Atlantic and separating it into the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, giving rights of  exploitation of these regions to Spain and Portugal.

[7] Howard, Michael.Causes of War Pg 102. Harvard University Press 1980.

[8] Gorshkov S.G. The Sea Power of the State. Pergamon Press Ltd., Oxford, England 1979, p179.

[9] Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC)) is a class of two aircraft carriers being built for the Indian Navy by Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), they are the largest warships as well as the first aircraft carriers to be designed and built in India. The first ship of the class INS Vikrant will displace about 40,000 metric tons, 262 metres (860 ft) long, configured for Short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) and have a tailored air group of up to 30 to 40 aircrafts. Expected delivery date originally scheduled for 2014 is now slated for 2017.

[10] For the year 2013-14, the Navy’s share was 18% of the entire defence budget of $37.45 billion.

[11] All three documents have been authored by the Integrated Headquarters Ministry of Defence (Navy) in 2004, 2006 and 2007 respectively and remain to date unratified.

[12] Personal exchange with the author.

2 thoughts on “Warship Building and the Professional Patron

  1. An eminently readable and thought provoking article. A few thoughts.

    First, as clearly brought out by the author, a maritime energy security policy is yet to be articulated. I would go so far as to say that a maritime security policy (and not only the energy security part) remains to be clearly articulated; in fact, there seems to be insufficient national understanding and indeed recognition of its various facets. The nation urgently awaits an original thinker like Mahan, Gorshkov or even a Geoffrey Till to write from an Indian perspective, rather than repeating the views of foreign authors.

    Second, the absence of amphibious vessels in the four fold classification of maritime forces (Carriers, strike units, escorts and scouts, and denial forces and auxiliaries) is striking.

    Third, the author makes a highly pertinent point when questioning whether there is a cogent theory (at our national level) linking promotion and nurturing of a maritime force with an accepted contract for its use. While much can be found in the media (even if not in policy) about the constituents of such force, the almost complete absence of discussion on the ‘nurturing’ aspect, encompassing maintenance and to a lesser extent modernisation, speaks for itself.

    Finally, the lack of strategic thought and indeed a strategic culture as well as the frailties of our higher defence management structure are much written about. Given that the current higher defence manager often has neither the time nor the inclination to read, the efficacy of all writing as a means of changing his thought process is questionable.

  2. Dear Lalit,
    Thank you for your very incisive comments and keep them coming! Just a point, in as much as the amphibious capabilities are concerned, auxiliaries included logistic units which were meant to encompass amphibious units too. Also the broad brush budgetary statement for the build program include LPDs. The point is well taken, for power projection aspirations would find such resources central to its inventory.
    In as much as the strategic culture and efficacy of the written word is concerned, I cannot agree with you more, but we plug away as we must!
    Fair winds,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s