Dock For ‘Made In India’ Ships

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floating dock

L&T builds first indigenous dry dock

In under 2 years, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) has commissioned the first home-built dry dock using digital 3D technologies for accurate implementation of specifications. The diversified engineering, construction, defence manufacturing, infrastructure building, financial services etc major has created a new milestone both for itself and the country. And this at a time when government policy, crucially, is supportive of such an initiative.   

The brand new high-tech facility (FDN-2) that floats at 8,000 tonnes displacement will mainly target the repairs of Indian Navy ships and submarines plying between the mainland and Port Blair in the Andamans. It is located at the company’s own L&T Shipyard at Kattupalli near Chennai in Tamil Nadu.

Winning an Indian Navy tender for the purpose at Rs 468 crores in May 2015, the floating “dry dock” was designed and built on time by L&T. Launched this week by Indian Navy Vice Admiral DM Deshpande, Controller of Warship Production & Acquisition, and his wife Anjali Deshpande, the 185 m long and 40 m wide floating dock will now go operational within 8 weeks.

It features an automated ballast control system, the latest machinery and control systems, and all necessary safety features to protect docking naval assets.

While ship-repairs and dry-docking has been operational for over a century in India, starting in colonial times, it has never before been part of a massive and comprehensive ‘Make in India’ initiative, particularly in the lucrative defence production area.

The defence production sector has been opened up to the privates, foreign enterprise, and joint ventures with suitable international partners for the first time in a determined manner. This, in order to save foreign exchange, make savings, acquire technologies and skills, gain strategic control of the military machine, achieve force multipliers, and increase implementation speed.

What was lacking in recent times, with the exception of another private defence oriented shipyard built and owned by Reliance in Gujarat, were state-of-the-art facilities. This is because the government resources are stretched and the smaller privates could not cope with the capital-intensive and high-technology nature of keeping up with international shipyards and dry docks.

Almost all significant ship-building and repairs conducted within India, even as bigger jobs went abroad, have been in government hands so far, despite under-funding, expertise gaps, inadequate technology and the lack of a sense of professionalism that comes from the profit motive. While these continue even now, the big boys from the private sector have also made an entrance.

The Pipaphav shipyard and dry dock, for example, created by Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence and Engineering Limited (RDEL), has some Rs 5,700 crores of small craft repairing in hand. These include offshore patrol vehicles, small naval refits, offshore supply vehicle repairs, servicing a couple of oil rigs, a clutch of fast patrol boats and even a Panamax bulk carrier. But this is not particularly representative of the potential. RDEL has recently been permitted to bid for Rs 30,000 crores in Indian Navy contracts.

Reliance-both arms, Mahindra, Tata, etc like L&T, expect defence manufacturing/ maintenance/ repairs/ refitting, for all the sections of the Indian military, to become a major part of its business in years to come. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants at least $150 billion worth of defence production to be carried out within India in the near future.

This L&T homegrown floating dock is a first piece of enabling infrastructure for the company. It implies that soon much bigger shipyards and dry docks will also be built locally by L&T and other Indian companies along and around the coastline.

This might obviate the need to go abroad for commissioning or refurbishment/repair of much bigger Indian Navy ships. This move to set up our own cutting edge facilities will also attract foreign investment and overseas business from countries that wish to tap our resources and exponentially improve our skilling in this specialised area.

According to an occasional paper from the Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM) from 8 years ago, India’s public sector Cochin Shipyard and Hindustan Shipyard had the infrastructure to build vessels of 1.1 lakh dry weight tonnes (dwt) and 80,000 dwt respectively in 2009. This has not changed much since then.

In 2009 also, Indian shipyards had orders for 260 ships representing just 1% of general tonnage (GT) globally and 2.8% in terms of bookings. This is negligible in the global scenario. By way of contrast, China was building 3,523 ships, South Korea 1675, Japan 1286 and Europe, all told, was building 447 ships in the same year.

Though global ship-building has halved since the economic crash of 2008, the need for India to build up its Navy to counter the challenges from China in the region  has grown urgent.  

Servicing this need can, and will, lead to exponential growth for both the private and public sectors, given the indigenous policy thrust in 2017. The old orthodoxy of keeping privates and foreign investors/collaborators away from defence production has been scrapped.

The civilian ship repair industry in 2009, itself stood at about $12 billion, but India was tapping under $100 million  of it.

The potential to grow in various directions, is massive. The opportunity in repairs and refurbishment of  international commercial shipping, perhaps with their entrenched arrangements in recessionary times, is not so great for India.

But under the present enlightened and liberalised policies, nothing can prevent a resurgent Indian capability, or even high tech joint ventures with suitable expertise from abroad, from servicing the growing needs of the Indian Navy.

It is not just in repairs,refits and refurbishments, and not even in building new warships and submarines according to Indian Navy designs, but in R&D and the use of new technologies such as digital 3D that can transform our design and build capabilities.

India, working through its  Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), is currently collaborating on transfer of technologies on 6 of the Kalavari variant of the French diesel-electric Scorpene class submarines, being made in the government’s Mazagaon Docks in Mumbai. There is no reason why it cannot build the next 6, perhaps along with the private sector, and on its own.