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A base for a blue-water navy

Saturday 21 May 2005, by SHARMA*Ravi

recently at Project Seabird, Karwar

INS Kadamba in Karwar, India’s first naval base with a port controlled exclusively by the Navy, and the biggest of its kind this side of the Suez, is all set to be commissioned.

THE unfurling of the Indian Navy’s ensign and the traditional `breaking of the commissioning pennant’ at `Project Seabird’ in Karwar, Karnataka, in the second half of May, will take the world’s seventh largest navy a step closer to realising its ambition of becoming not just a blue-water navy but one that has a littoral focus with regional interests and responsibilities.

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A section of the Northern breakwater.

Project Seabird, christened INS (Indian Naval Ship) Kadamba, will be the first operational base with a port controlled exclusively by the Navy, allowing it to position and manoeuvre its operational fleet without worrying about the movement of merchant vessels. The Navy’s existing bases, including its two operational ones in Mumbai and Vishakhapatnam, are located in enclaves within commercial ports, making for an unsuitable situation especially in times of war. The Rs.35,000-crore fully integrated INS Kadamba is expected to be the biggest naval base this side of the Suez. The base will provide the Navy with the much-needed depth of defence at sea. Although initially it will only have a plethora of land assets, it will only be a matter of time before it gets its share of operational assets (ships) and their command. By the end of the year, the Navy plans to base around 10 ships of the surface fleet - mainly of diesel and gas turbine design, which include missile destroyers, missile frigates, missile corvettes, auxiliary ships (such as survey ships and tankers), and offshore patrol vessels. This figure will be increased to 30 in a phased manner by reallocating vessels that are now based at the overcrowded Mumbai base. The final configuration would of course depend on how serious the Naval High Command is about decongesting Mumbai and on the availability of repair facilities at Kadamba’s fledgling Naval Ship Repair Yard (NSRY). Indications are that the more recent acquisitions of the Navy, especially of Russian make (such as the Abhay (Pauk II) Class corvettes), or of Russian design, will be based at Karwar. INS Kadamba will allow naval ships to come in, be berthed, shiplifted, dry-docked, repaired and turned around - all crucial requirements if the Navy is to maintain the hull and structure of its 150-odd surface ships, support vessels and submarines in a high state of sea worthiness.

Given its potential and size, INS Kadamba could also become an independent command, or even be part of a tri-services command. According to Commodore K.P. Ramachandran, Naval Officer-in-Charge and Station Commander (Karwar) (he will also be INS Kadamba’s first Commanding Officer), the base will be headed by the Flag Officer Commanding (Karwar), who will be tasked by the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Naval Command. Commodore Sridhar Karnik, Commander, Project Seabird, said: "Right now our tooth-to-tail ratio is low. We have created the basic infrastructure - the harbour, anchorage, accommodation, roads - now we need the add-ons. Once that is done we can get our ships and launch them."

Spread over 11,200 acres (4,480 hectares), the base will encompass a 26-kilometre stretch along the high water line of the seafront from Karwar Head in the north, through the Baitkol, Kamath, Binaga, Kwada and Belekeri Bays. It will, for most part, be sandwiched between National Highway 17 in the east and the Arabian Sea in the west. Karwar, with its bays and islands, has always been thought of as an ideal site for locating a naval base. The sea is deep less than half a mile from the coast, making berthing and navigation easy and the need for dredging minimal. The tidal conditions are such that there is little scope for siltation. Offering natural protection from wave action is the Binaga Bay, stretching out into the open sea from Karwar Head, a rocky promontory in the north, and the Tadri river in the south. Also providing cover to the bay are the Anjadip, Arge Button and Round islands. Karwar’s hilly terrain provides excellent camouflage to ground installations. And crucially, the extent of land available will not only enable the Navy to disperse its forces, a necessity in times of an attack, but enable any future expansion of the base.

INS KADAMBA is the fructification of an idea that was conceived in the early 1970s. The objective was to move the Navy’s premier establishment from the Mumbai base where surveillance and a host of other issues, including continuous silting, heavy movement of merchant vessels which results in naval ships having to wait out at sea sometimes for a whole day, and the lack of space for expansion, proved unsolvable.

Once Karwar was selected after technical and hydrographical studies indicated that a base there would provide the Navy with a high state of combat readiness, an efficient state of maintenance, modern amenities for the crew, besides a depth of water and gradient, a framework paper was prepared in September 1984. The foundation stone for Project Seabird was laid in October 1986. It was shelved subsequently because of inadequate allocations in the Defence budget.

In 1990, the project was resurrected and a masterplan/detailed project report (DPR) was drawn up. Phase I was to be implemented initially. But the Union government’s poor financial position meant another delay. It was not until 1995 that the plan was revived. But with the government expressing its inability to fund the entire Phase I, which was estimated to cost Rs.2,500 crores (1995 prices), Phase I was split into Phase 1A and 1B. In effect what is now being achieved at Karwar consists of a little more than one half of the original Phase I. Phase II (2005-2010) will complete the remainder of the original Phase I.

The revised Phase 1 package (at a cost of Rs.2,500 crores) includes the building of a state-of-the-art Rs.157-crore shiplift facility (the only one of its kind in India), the construction of harbour and anchorage, a 420x185 metre jetty, berthing facilities for around 10 ships, logistics to administer and accommodate over a 1,000 officers and sailors and their families, and a modern NSRY. Given the scale of work, the Navy chose Redecon (Australia) and Nedeco (the Netherlands) as the global consultants for the marine works and the Indian company MECON for the onshore works. While the contracts for the Rs.576-crore marine works were won by a joint venture company comprising Hochtief (Germany), Ballast Nedam Dredging (the Netherlands) and Larsen & Toubro (India), the Rs.500-crore onshore works were divided and tendered out to L&T, Skanska, Bridge & Roof, Nagarjuna and Syncrolift. The marine works were further divided between the two consultants with the shiplift and ship transfer contract remaining with Redecon, while a consortium of Redecon and Nedeco undertook the construction of breakwaters, dredging and land reclamation.

Creating a tranquil harbour for the base are three breakwaters - the 1.89 km northern breakwater connecting the Binaga Point with the Anjadip Island, the 3.2 km southern breakwater connecting the Round Island to the Arge Island and the 0.33 km spur breakwater, which extends from the Anjadip Island in an east-west direction. Around four million cubic metres of rock, varying from pebbles to 20-tonne boulders was quarried from the Aligadde Hill and transported by barges and lorries for the three breakwaters.

The marine works also included the reclamation of 122.5 acres (49 hectares) of land (the base’s only pier has been constructed on it) which necessitated the use of 2.4 million cubic metres of sand, and dredging for the approach channel to the anchorage (which can accommodate between 15 and 20 ships) and the expansive harbour. The approach channel, located between the spur breakwater and the Round Island, has been dredged to a depth of -14 and -13 m chart datum (CD) in the approach area (a distance of around 1.5 nautical miles) and -12 m CD in the outer, central and inner harbour basins (around 2 nautical miles). This depth will make INS Kadamba the only base in the country that will allow large ships, such as the 44,500-tonne Kiev Class Soviet Union-built `Admiral Gorshkov’ India plans to acquire, to come into the harbour. Dredging for the anchorage, harbour basin and approach channel necessitated the removal of 140,000 cubic metres of sand and rock.

Currently even the largest naval port in terms of berthing facilities - Vishakhapatnam, where around 50 ships can be berthed - does not have the required depth (it has only around -8 to -9 m CD) for ships such as the aircraft carrier INS Viraat. The port’s approach channel is also not straight, making the length of the vessel another aspect to contend with. In Kochi, restrictions in the depth of the rather narrow approach channel mean that dredging operations have to be undertaken every time INS Viraat comes in. Also, the carrier has to come in on light load conditions, dry-docked and then taken back. Even in Mumbai, shallow waters on either side of the approach channel means that an aircraft carrier cannot be berthed. It will have to lie in anchorage, resulting in serious logistical problems during the transfer of crew and while connecting service ducts for supplying fresh water, fuel and power and for the removal of sewage and oily bilge. Repairs and maintenance will also have to be done only after making the vessel ultra light.

Another approach channel (towards the south anchorage), known as the emergency getaway and located between the Arge Island and the Arge Cape via the Kwada Bay, is likely to be dredged in later years. According to site engineers, the virgin waters already have a depth of -8 m CD and so it will not be difficult to dredge to -12 m CD. Land reclamation to the south of the existing pier will, as per the CDP, house eight dedicated piers for the fleet’s base, corvettes, tankers, submarines and ocean tugs.

The 175m x 28m Shiplift and Ship Transfer System of 10,000-tonne displacement capacity manufactured by Syncrolift, will be able to lift all naval ships except INS Viraat and three tankers. In Phase I, a cleaning berth and a dry berth are being constructed and are designed to facilitate the wet berthing of all classes of ships and submarines. Said Krishna Navalli, Shiplift and Civil Works Manager, Redecon: "A shiplift in simple terms is a large elevator platform which can be lowered into water, have a ship hauled in and positioned over the cradle/blocks preset on the platform, and lifted vertically to the yard level, so that the ship can be moved from the platform on to a dry repair berth on land." The shiplift at Seabird consists of a 2,000-tonne steel-lifting platform suspended by 42 wire ropes attached to hoist drums. Distributed in equal numbers on either side of the platform and located on piers, the synchronised and electrical motor-driven hoists lift or lower the platform uniformly and in a horizontal plane. The ship is then moved by a system of trolleys and railings onto the wash-down berth (where it is cleaned), then to the transfer bay and finally onto the dry berth/dock.

A shiplift, according to Navalli, has numerous advantages over the more conventional dry docks, floating docks or slipways. "When two or more ships require simultaneous dry-docking, only a shiplift and dry berth complex will help. Even in terms of cost, a shiplift (which comes with a transfer bay and a dry berth) is more economical. It is cheaper than a floating dock and even though it is more expensive than a dry dock the operating costs more than make up for the expenditure. For the cost of one dry dock you can get three additional dry berths. Dry-docking a ship takes longer (six hours) and dry docks consume a lot more of the port’s waterfront. A shiplift can also be used to hoist ships on to land during a cyclone rather than sending them out to sea."

Said Ramachandran: "The shiplift facility can be used for underwater hull repair. This is usually done at the dry docks in Mumbai or Vishakhapatnam. A shiplift provides better maintenance, which means that ships will spend less time in repair yards and be more out at sea. It is a force multiplier. In under an hour we can bring a ship up." The shiplift will give the Navy 625 metres of berthing space and with the usual double and triple banking, up to 10 ships can be berthed at any given time. The shiplift has also been suitably modified to lift merchant ships of Suez Canal tonnage. The Navy hopes to tap this market, since at present Indian merchant ships which need overhauls and repairs go to Colombo and Singapore.

While Phase I has laid the skeletal platform for a base of the future, the Navy hopes to flesh it out during Phase II. By the beginning of 2006 the base will have a Naval Armament Depot stocking both conventional arms and missiles. A transmitting station, a research facility and a naval air station that will primarily be used for the operational requirements of the base are also expected to come up. Navy sources point out that frontline naval aircraft and long-range maritime patrol craft will continue to be stationed at Dabolim (Goa) and Arakkonam (Tamil Nadu). However, the Navy’s large ship-based helicopter units and Dorniers, used for fleet requirements, will be outside the naval base. There is a possibility that while the operating fleet (of the Western Naval Command) will be stationed at Karwar, ships undergoing repairs, refit and maintenance will go to Mumbai.

Experts are of the view that INS Kadamba needs a budgetary allocation of around Rs.400 crores every year over the next decade if it is to be propelled towards its full potential.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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