Disaster struck the first of a new class of Indian frigates in late April 2018 when a towering, 250-ton crane came toppling down onto the vessel during heavy winds as she sat in dry dock. The vessel — which is under construction — was not damaged, according to the Indian Ministry of Defense.
The images of the disaster look bad, though. The crane is destroyed and there is an indeterminate amount of damage to nearby buildings, but the Indian Navy alleged a conspiracy to exaggerate the damage in the press. “Somebody may have taken this opportunity to tarnish our image,” one official quoted in the Times of India said.
The Project 17-A is designed as a considerably more more modern frigate and a follow-up to India’s three Shivalik-class frigates, which were built during the last decade. The 17-A is larger but otherwise similar in several respects. The design also improves on the Shivalik‘s smooth, low-observable shape, and similarly includes embedded vertical-launch cells housing Israeli-made Barak anti-aircraft missiles.
The 17-A has longer-range Barak 8 missiles, however, instead of the Shivalik‘s point-defense Barak 1s. Another upgrade is the 17-A’s EL/M-2248 MF-STAR air-search and fire-control radar — also made in Israel — designed to blend in with a low-observable warship design. Rounding out the armament is a five-inch Otobreda 127/64 gun designed in Italy, anti-submarine rocket launchers and six torpedo tubes in two arrays.
And like the Shivalik, the 17-A will pack BrahMos missiles, an incredibly fast ramjet cruise missile jointly developed with Russia. India is further trying to lower crew sizes by adding more automated systems, with a potential 40 percent reduction in crew size from the Shivalik.
India is building the 17-A ships in modular fashion by constructing prefabricated components in an adjacent module hall at the dry dock. This hall was “destroyed in the mishap and has become unusable,” the Hindu Business Line reported, which added that the accident was “kept under wraps” by the shipbuilder GRSE.
The loss of the crane and the module hall is worse than damage — if there is any — to the frigate. There are two more 17-A frigates planned for GSRE’s Kolkata shipyard, and are intended to commission in 2024 and 2025. The first one at the shipyard was laid down in February 2017 and is to enter service in 2023, although it’s not clear if that will now take longer, although it seems likely.
The crane — an enormous “Goliath” crane — will take two-and-a-half years to replace, forcing GSRE to either delay construction or switch over to using smaller cranes, which will likely slow production according to Hindu Business Line.
India’s naval ambitions are real and serious, with new warships including aircraft carriers planned to help the country project power into the Indian Ocean — one reason being China’s own ventures into the region.
“Over the last decade, China has developed the capacity to operate its warships at a great distance from its shores and for long periods of time,” Indian Navy chief Adm. Sunil Lanba said in May 2018.
But as these accidents demonstrate, one of the biggest challenges to building and maintaining a fleet is first building the capital-intensive industry and infrastructure. The accident is indicative of poor safety standards in Indian shipyards — and it’s not the only one.
Two years ago, the 3,850-ton frigate INS Betwa — commissioned in 2004 — tipped over in port, partially sank and then flooded. The Indian Navy sought the services of a U.S. salvage contractor to lift her upright. Horrifically in 2013, the Russian-made Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhurakshak blew up and sank in port in Mumbai, killing 18 sailors.
The next year, a naval officer died aboard the destroyer INS Kolkata in port after accidentally inhaling carbon monoxide emitted by a broken valve. In February 2018 at Cochin, an acetylene leak ignited and blew up the civilian drilling ship Sagar Bhushan, killing five.
Until India improves safety at its shipyards, its naval ambitions will proceed slower than New Delhi would like.