Building a similar kind would leverage the technology, says official

Unfazed by mounting criticism over time and cost overruns in building six Scorpene submarines for the Navy under the beleaguered Project 75, Defence shipyard Mazagaon Dock Limited (MDL) would rather have the Navy go in for bigger Scorpenes under the proposed Project 75-I.

“The decision [to choose the type of submarine] is left to the powers-that-be in Delhi, based on their requirements and needs. I cannot really comment on that. But as a shipbuilder, I think we would be tremendously leveraging our skills and expertise attained over a period of four to five years [of building the Scorpenes] if we carry on with a similar kind of submarine. It will certainly make us happy,” Vice-Admiral (retd.) H.S. Malhi, Chairman and Managing Director of MDL told The Hindu at a recent interaction in Mumbai.

“The money shelled out for transfer of technology [ToT] for the Scorpenes currently under construction would be well worth it if you have similar submarines, the Scorpene Plus. Then you are leveraging the technology over many more submarines,” Mr. Malhi added.

With depleting submarine force levels staring it in the face, the Navy had, last year, sought information on bigger conventional submarines with improved attack and stealth features, besides endurance. A request for proposal (RFP) in this regard is awaited. While two of the P75-I submarines thus contracted would be built at the collaborators' yard, the remaining four would be split between two Indian shipyards.

Mr. Malhi said there was no official communication on the MDL being handpicked by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) to build three of these. He, however, maintained that the yard “should be the natural choice, having made six [Scorpenes].” (Reportedly, another PSU, Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), Visakhapatnam, would get to build one).

It was to MDL's credit, Mr. Malhi said, that it reconfigured all German equipment and stations set up for the construction of HDW submarines in the 1980s and early 1990s to suit the French Scorpenes. So, if the Navy chose a submarine type other than Scorpene, the yard would have to reconfigure the stations all over again as different submarine types used different grades of steel and welding technology. This would also engender teething issues such as difficulty in absorbing technology.

“Since material and technology for different submarine types are different, the skill sets required to build them are varied, too. In terms of pressure hull fabrication, MDL is rated very high and our collaborators sometimes say, not entirely in jest, that they wouldn't mind sourcing pressure hull for the submarines they are going to manufacture for Brazil from us,” said Mr. Malhi.

On the Scorpenes under construction, he said, procurement of material posed a problem in the initial stages. “As we started procuring, we realised the sanctioned amount for material won't be enough to buy the entire lot. So we approached the government with revised figures and got the go-ahead in turn.”

The revised timeline envisages commissioning of the first Scorpene in 2015 following which a submarine would be delivered every nine months. “September 2018 is when the last boat would be due for delivery. The first may take a longer time than originally planned, but when the entire project is completed, the delay would be no more than nine months,” he said.

“The structural and regular outfitting [laying of pipe and cabling] of the first Scorpene has begun and the second is soon to follow suit. Now we are absolutely on track to meet the new contractual provisions. The teething issues are way behind us. Supply of material and armament is steady and the steel comes from France, but ironically, DCNS, the company originally manufacturing Scorpenes, buys it from ArcelorMittal.”

To fastrack Scorpene construction, the yard is setting up a new workshop and a launching platform in the adjoining Alcock Yard. “From the fourth submarine onwards, construction will concurrently take place in two yards. Which means you will have two lines of construction, which will be fully operation when P75-I commences.”

Asked about the reported breach in the East Yard in July that led to submergence of components in the submarine dry dock, the CMD said the flooding would have ‘zero impact' on the course of construction. “We are making a wet basin jutting out into the sea. The basin is also connected to the dry dock of the East Yard. When it was dried up for construction, it was checked for leaks. There was a fissure and water came into the dry dock. We have now filled up the fissure and water is being pumped out. There has been zero impact of this on the Scorpene project,” he said, adding this would have no cost or time implication.

To a query, Mr. Malhi said the termination of collaboration between Spanish Navantia and French DCNS — the developers of Scorpene — had not affected the yard. “We have people from Spain here as part of the ToT agreement carrying out their contractual obligation.”

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