New Delhi: The Indian Navy has once again deferred the induction of a new class of indigenously built stealth frigates, the latest in a series of delays stretching over five years.
Building capability: The first Indian stealth warship, INS Shivalik. AFP
Once commissioned, the hard-to-detect warships will form a crucial component in India’s bid to build a blue-water navy capable of operating across oceans, defence analysts said. But the delays in induction reflect the need for “stronger political will” to carry the process through, analysts said.
INS Shivalik, the first of 12 Shivalik-class vessels, will be commissioned “by the second week of April,” said Parvez Panthaky, spokesperson of Mazagon Dock Ltd, which is building the ship in Mumbai. “The commissioning date is being finalized with the navy.”
Two more Shivalik-class frigates, INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri, “will be commissioned within a few months of each other,” he said.
In January, when a model of the 4,800-tonne INS Shivalik was showcased in the Republic Day Parade, the navy had announced that the ship would be commissioned in March. The project, envisaged way back in 1997, was initially scheduled for commissioning in 2005.
Stealth frigates have advanced features designed to reduce a warship’s signature.
“INS Shivalik has stealth features against radar and heat seekers,” a senior naval officer told Mint on condition of anonymity. “Its underwater signatures are also reduced through technical means.”
The navy already has three Talwar-class stealth frigates, bought from Russia. But the Shivalik-class vessels are being built entirely in India.
Shivalik-class vessels have both air and anti-submarine capability and are fitted with a mix of Indian, Russian, Israeli and Western weapons. This includes Club anti-ship missiles, Shtil surface-to-air missiles, Barak air and missile defence systems and RBU 6000 anti-submarine warfare rockets. They will carry two advanced helicopters each.
Powered by gas and diesel turbines, the ships are capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots (55.5km) per hour. The cost of building each ship will be close to Rs2,500 crore, the officer said.
Sweden and France were the original builders of stealth ships, followed by Russia. While most major navies are now buying the ships from those countries, India is among the few developing them on its own.
The Union cabinet approved the navy’s so-called Project 17 to construct the 12 stealth frigates almost 13 years ago. The navy ordered the first three vessels in 1999 and the construction of INS Shivalik was launched in 2003, while INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri began in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Deba Ranjan Mohanty, defence analyst and author of Arming the Indian Arsenal, said the Indian stealth frigates were on a par with the best in the world. But he added the navy needed at least 36 stealth frigates and destroyers in the next 10-15 years.
“Blue-water navies require longer reach. Frigates and destroyers are essential. We should be able to acquire two more aircraft carriers in the same period, and at least one of them should be indigenously built,” said Mohanty, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
The US, the UK, Russia and France are widely regarded as having true blue-water navies, while Italy, Spain, Canada, China and Australia have limited blue-water capabilities.
Both Mohanty and the naval officer said the development of the frigates was “capability-oriented” or driven by India’s increasing maritime responsibilities and interests, rather than the result of a threat perception.
“India’s aspirations are a blend of both offensive and defensive capabilities—offensive for force projection and defensive for constructive purposes,” said Mohanty.
The commissioning of INS Shivalik would raise eyebrows in Pakistan, which has no stealth frigates, and China, which has a fleet of around 30 such warships, he added.
“China is very closely watching the development, though it won’t make any noise about it. We may hear some reactions from Pakistan,” Mohanty said.
He added Pakistan’s navy has been acquiring advanced submarines such as the Agosta 90B, and may also try to induct stealth frigates in future as a response to India’s soon-to-be-augmented capability.
The Chinese and Pakistani missions in New Delhi declined to comment on the issue.
The delay in INS Shivalik’s commissioning reflected the need for the defence agenda to remain constant, regardless of political change.
“Priorities should be consistent,” he said. “The sanction for such programmes should be continuous.”