The Indian Navy may be the seventh largest in the world, but all its bases are located within commercial ports. The major bases are in Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, and Kochi. At Dabolim (Goa) and Kolkata the Navy has only small enclaves. Commercial interests take up the bulk of the harbour at all these ports. While such a situation is acceptable in peace time, an exclusive base is a necessity for a Navy during war, or it could find itself hors de combat if the enemy scuttles a merchant ship at the entrance to the harbour. The heavy movement of merchant vessels also necessitates naval ships having to wait out at sea, sometimes for a whole day to enter these ports. In Kochi, for instance, the narrow approach channel accentuates the problem.
There is hardly any space for expansion at any of India's naval ports. Currently the largest naval port in terms of berthing facilities is in Visakhapatnam, where around 50 ships can be berthed, but the entry channel does not have the 8-9 metre depth required for ships like aircraft carrier INS Viraat. The channel is also not straight, making the length of the vessel a factor to contend with. In Mumbai, the last expansion in the naval enclave was the construction of a quay during the 1980s. Any further expansion will result in the Gateway of India being occupied by the Navy. In Kochi, which is basically a backwater harbour, there is no question of any expansion, and restrictions in the depth of the rather narrow channel means that it has to be dredged to let INS Viraat in; it has to be brought in on light-load conditions, dry-docked and taken back.
A view of Project Seabird from National Highway 17
In Mumbai, the Navy's premier naval dock, shallow waters on either side of the channel will prevent the berthing of an aircraft carrier like the 44,500-tonne Kiev Class Admiral Gorshkov, which India looks set to acquire. It will have to lie in anchorage, resulting in logistic problems during the transfer of the crew and so on. Repairs and maintenance will have to be done only after making it ultra-light. There are other problems, too, in Mumbai, which was never meant to be a modern naval base. It was a trading post English traders set up after landing in Surat, and has been chock-a-block with commercial activity ever since. From the security angle, in Mumbai there are several factors that add to the risks. Tall buildings such as the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Bombay Stock Exchange overlook the naval base, as does the Ballad Pier, where foreign merchant vessels are berthed. Besides, fishing vessels and coastal craft abound in Mumbai's coastal waters. The oil terminal on Butcher Island is an added risk. Moreover, Mumbai being a tidal port, there is a high level of silting and dredging is a continuous and costly process. Another serious security hazard at Mumbai is that submarines have to be berthed alongside the warships. (India's submarines are currently berthed at Visakhapatnam.)
Strategic considerations determined that a new base had to be built preferably on the west coast. (Visakhapatnam, a relatively new base, is seen to be adequate to serve India's security requirements on the east coast). Sites such as Tuticorn in Tamil Nadu, Kannur and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala were considered, but Karwar was finally chosen. Explained former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Oscar Stanley Dawson, one of the architects of Project Seabird: "No other place on the western or eastern seaboards is half as valuable as Karwar is. Half a mile into the sea, and the water depth is there. Besides, Karwar's hilly terrain provides excellent camouflage to ground installations, and pens (enclosures) cut on the rock face can conceal submarines. The extent of the land available in and around Karwar will enable the Navy to disperse its forces, a crucial necessity in times of an attack." Karwar, with its bays and offshore islands, is an ideal site for a naval base mainly because of the strategic protection the topography affords: the hilly, forested terrain provides cover from surveillance satellites (infra-red decoys could further enhance security) and offers positions for defence posts. Besides, the water is deep and the depth is almost even, making berthing and navigation of ships easy. The need for dredging is minimal and tidal conditions are such that there is little scope for siltation.
A unique feature is the Binaga Bay or Bingy Bay. The bay's arms stretch out into the open sea - in the north from Karwar Head, a rocky promontory, and in the south from the Tadri river. Offshore islands such as the Anjadip, Arge and Round Island provide cover to the bay. Karwar would be farther than Mumbai from potential threats such as missiles. Karwar is around 900 nautical miles from Karachi, while Mumbai is 580 nautical miles away. Said Commodore S. Sridhar Karnik, Commander, Project Seabird, "Karwar was selected after technical and hydrographical studies by institutes like the National Institute of Hydrology, the Central Water and Power Research Station and the National Institute of Oceanography. Karwar was envisaged as a base where there would be a high state of combat readiness, a high and efficient state of maintenance, and modern amenities for the crew." According to Dawson, the project was to cost Rs.1,760 crores, and the construction was to begin in January 1986 and finish in seven years. In October 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi even laid the foundation stone for the project. But it was shelved, mainly because of inadequate allocations in the defence budget.
Sailors' accommodation at Project Seabird
In 1990, a master plan/detailed project report (DPR) was drawn up, but the Government of India's (GoI) poor financial position stalled the implementation, which was to be done in phases. In 1995, the project was revived but the GoI said it would not be able to fund the entire Phase I, which was estimated to cost Rs.2,500 crores. Said Rear Admiral S.R. Sampathgopal, who retired recently as the Director General of Project Seabird: "The GoI asked us to limit our expenditure to Rs.1,200 crores. This we did by halving Phase I of the DPR. In effect, what is now being built at Karwar is half of the original Phase I. Phase II (2005-2010) will complete the remainder of the original Phase I." Project Seabird is being executed on a 26-km stretch from Karwar Head, through Baitkol, Kamath, Binaga, Kwada and Belekeri bays. For most part it will extend from the Arabian Sea up to National Highway 17 in the east. At Yenkebe, 17 km from Karwar, a naval air station, a naval armament depot and a missile technical position are planned. Anjadip Island will serve as a forward post. The final extent of land that has been asked to be transferred to the Navy stands at 11,200 acres (4,480 hectares). The Navy chose Radisson of Australia and Nedeco of the Netherlands as global consultants for the marine works and Mecon of India for the onshore works. Contracts for the Rs.576-crore marine works were won by a joint venture company comprising Hochtief of Germany, Ballast Nedam Dredging of the Netherlands and Larsen & Toubro of India. Onshore works worth Rs.500 crores were divided and tendered out to companies like Larsen & Toubro, Skanska, Bridge & Roof, Nagarjuna Construction Company and Syncrolift.
One of the unique aspects of Project Seabird is its Rs.150-crore Shiplift and Ship Transfer System. The 175 metre by 28 metre shiplift of 15,000-tonne capacity, manufactured by Syncrolift, will be able to lift all Indian Navy ships other than INS Viraat and supply vessels. In Phase I, a cleaning berth and a dry berth are being constructed. The design will also facilitate the wet berthing of all classes of naval ships and submarines. "A shiplift is a large elevator platform that can be lowered into water and have a ship hauled in 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," said Krishna Navalli, Shiplift and Civil Works Manager, Redecon. A shiplift, according to Navalli, has numerous advantages over the more conventional dry docks, floating docks or slipways.
Work at Project Seabird started in October 1999. The marine works chiefly relate to the creation of a tranquil harbour, the dredging of the approach channel and the anchorage area, and the reclamation of 49 hectares of land. Three breakwaters - one 1.7 km long, in the north, connecting Binaga Point and Anjadip Island; another 3.1 km long, in the south, connecting Round Island and Arge Island; and a 0.34-km spur extending from Anjadip Island in a westerly direction - are being constructed to ensure the tranquillity of the harbour. The approach channel of the port will be between the spur and Round Island. The construction of the breakwaters required 80 lakh tonnes of rocks, some weighing up to 20 tonnes and these were quarried from the Aligadde hill. The northern and spur breakwaters have been completed, and the southern breakwater should be ready by next March. While the reclamation of 122.5 acres of land required 2.4 million cubic metres of sand, dredging for the anchorage, harbour basin and approach channel necessitated the removal of 115,000 cubic metres of sand and rock. The anchorage at the port, scheduled to be completed by next April, will have a depth of 12 metres in the core area (around 1.5 nautical miles) and 10 metres for around two nautical miles. According to Karnik, a depth of around 10 metres was already available in the area where the harbour is planned.
In Phase II, the Navy hopes to double most of the facilities that are being created in Phase I. A naval air station, meant primarily for the operational requirements of the base, with an airstrip and a naval research centre is also slated to come up. Navy sources said frontline naval aircraft and long-range maritime patrol craft would continue to be stationed at Dabolim and Arakkonam. However, the Navy's large, ship-based helicopter units and Dorniers used for fleet requirements will be stationed at the base. A second opening (depths of 11 metres have been made available) for the base, between Arge Island and the mainland, could also be opened up for traffic. Four more jetties are likely to be added, with the Navy ultimately wanting to berth around 50 ships at Karwar. While submarines can come to Karwar (post commissioning), immediately there will be no special operating facilities for them.
The current thinking is 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. Karwar will be part of the Western Naval command, but there is also the possibility that post-2010, Karwar could become a separate naval command or could even be part of a tri-service command. Though the master plan talks of a ship-building yard, studies on whether the Navy needs to have one have not yet been carried out. Shipyards like Mazagaon Dockyard, Goa Shipyard and Garden Reach Ship Builders and Engineers, which are nearly exclusive defence shipyards, are as it is under utilised. Questions on the needs of the Navy and where the Navy would like to position itself have to be answered before the shape of the master plan is finalised. India does hope to build a 'blue water' Navy, which navigates the waters of the world. Its naval powers are likely to be centred around three factors: aircraft carrier groups, nuclear-powered submarines, and strategic bomber/maritime strike aircraft. In 2003, the Navy took delivery of two Russian-built, 4,000-tonne stealth frigates (INS Talwar and INS Trishul), which are armed with sophisticated missile systems. The two ships and the Tabar, which is scheduled to be commissioned in the coming months, a year behind plan, will constitute the task force to be centred around the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. The Gorshkov deal, negotiations for which has been going on for nearly a decade, also includes the lease purchase of two Russian Akula Class Type 971 nuclear-powered submarines and four Tu-22M strategic bomber/maritime strike aircraft.
The delay in acquiring Gorshkov - it will take a minimum of 54 months after the deal is signed before the Gorshkov, crippled by fire and abandoned for more than 10 years, is resurrected - could mean serious gaps in the Navy's operational requirements, since Viraat is due to be decommissioned in 2007-08, and the indigenous air defence ship being built at Cochin Shipyard will not be ready until 2012. The much-delayed Seabird is also a step in filling the gaps in the operational requirements of the Navy. But after years of uncertainty it is just 14 months from commissioning. Says Rear Admiral Mohan Rao, Director-General of Project Seabird, "Everything has its own momentum. Project Seabird is a building programme. As the saying goes, 'A country raises an army, but it builds a navy.' That is what we are doing." For the Indian Navy, which has 140-odd ships, Karwar will provide a base where vessels can come in, be berthed, ship lifted, dry-docked and turned around.
Images © Ravi Sharma
© Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 26, 20 Dec 2003 - 02 Jan 2004