Sitharaman acknowledges private sector for building crucial naval systems

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the Naval Commanders' Conference in New Delhi on May 8
While public sector shipyards continue getting warship building orders without competitive tendering, and defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) like Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) are "nominated" to build key systems for them, the defence ministry today publicly, and unusually, acknowledged the growing competence of the private sector.

Addressing top naval commanders in New Delhi on Tuesday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, paid public tribute to Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) for developing the combat nerve centre of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, being built in Cochin Shipyard.

"The Combat Management System for the indigenous aircraft carrier being developed with a private vendor (M/s Tata Power SED) is a big step towards strategic partnership between the MoD (ministry of defence) and industry", said Sitharaman.

A warship's Combat Management System is a complex software engineering challenge. It brings together inputs from all the ships sensors – radars, sonar and others – and fuses them into a coherent battlefield picture of threats the warship must deal with. Simultaneously, the CMS controls the various on-board weapons, and presents the operations officers with the options available to destroy those threats.

Tata Power SED has travelled a long developmental road before being entrusted with developing the CMS for such a critical platform as INS Vikrant. Most recently, it developed the combat system for INS Arihant, India's lone nuclear missile submarine. Earlier, in the late-1990s, it was chosen by then Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) chief, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, to develop critical components for the Samyukta electronic warfare system – a system that must ideally not contain any foreign sub-systems.

When Dr Kalam – as president of India – commissioned the Samyukta, he paid fulsome tribute to Tata Power SED’s role in fully indigenizing key part of the system.

However, Sitharaman made no commitment to allow private sector shipyards – including highly capable yards like L&T’s Kathupalli shipyard in Tamil Nadu – to build larger and more complex warships like destroyers, frigates and corvettes, which remain the preserve of DPSU yards. However, in passing, she underlined how little business was being funneled to private sector shipyards.

"I am happy to note that shipbuilding projects worth over Rs 320 billion have been tendered and are progressing towards contract conclusion. Projects worth Rs 7.60 billion for construction of yard crafts are also being targeted for early conclusion through private and small shipyards, to bolster the 'Make in India' initiative and provide the necessary impetus to the Indian Shipbuilding Industry”, she said.

Sitharaman, who was addressing the bi-annual Naval Commanders’ Conference, complimented the navy for its commitment towards indigenization. Of the three armed services, the Navy has been at the forefront in building its own equipment and creating design and manufacturing capabilities over the preceding half-century.

“I firmly believe that as a nation we cannot be truly self-reliant until we are able to develop our own weapons and sensors. Indian Navy's active role in engaging with a wide range of R&D and production agencies – government, semi-government and private – is indicative of its commitment, she said.

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