Sunday 26 June 2022, 01:08 AM
By IANS | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 8/26/2013 12:00:00 AM

Vijai S. Chaudhari
INS Nilgiri was launched by the then Prime Minister  Indira Gandhi

New Delhi: Soon after India became Independent in 1947, the government of India, under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru set about the task of making the country strong and self-reliant.  

As far back as 1948, Nehru envisioned the development of nuclear weapons and established the Atomic Energy Commission of India (AEC). The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962, under Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, to formulate the Indian Space Programme.  Numerous other ambitious programmes were launched and many vital institutions were established during the first heady decades of independence. Two of these projects are of particular interest for anyone interested in the subsequent trajectory of India’s defence industry: the plans to design and build a modern jet fighter and the project to construct modern frigates for the Indian Navy.  A direct comparison is neither possible nor necessary.  The projects were in different fields- aviation and shipbuilding.  Their approach and scope were bound to be different.  The projects were even launched in different decades.  However, the outcomes of both projects have points of interest and lessons for the future.

In the mid-1950s, the Indian Air Force, seeking self-reliance, issued a requirement for an Indian multi-role fighter aircraft. The aircraft was named the HF-24 Marut (Spirit of the Tempest).  From any point of view, it was an ambitious project being the first attempt outside the major powers to build such an advanced aircraft. It was to be a huge step forward as the Indian aviation industry''s only prior design experience was the HT-2, a trainer powered by piston engine driving a single propeller. The existing aircraft manufacturing capability was equally modest being limited to license production of the de Havilland Vampire FB Mk.52 and T Mk.55s. The Vampire was hardly in the same league as the planned Marut, being only the second jet fighter to enter service in the Royal Air Force.  The aircraft had a moulded plywood and aluminum fuselage and a top speed of 500 miles per hour.  

The Air Staff Requirement (ASR) for the Marut called for a multi-role aircraft suitable for both high-altitude interception and low-level ground attack. The ASR specified a speed of Mach 2.0 at altitude, a ceiling of 60,000 feet (18,290 m) and a combat radius of 500 miles (805 km). Furthermore, the ASR demanded that the basic design be suitable for adaptation as an advanced trainer, an all-weather fighter and for ''navalization'' as a shipboard aircraft. The aircraft was to be developed in India. To put some of these requirements into perspective, it is worth comparing them with the ASR for the LCA Tejas finalized in 1985, three decades later:

The HAL built Marut aircraft

LCA Performance

Maximum speed: Mach 1.8 (1,920 km/h) at high altitude

Range: 850 km (528 mi)

Combat radius: 300 km (186 mi)

Service ceiling: 15,250 m (50,000 ft)

Hindustan Aircraft Limited (now HAL Bangalore) got the challenging task of meeting the ASR. The government had clearly failed to appreciate the magnitude of the enterprise.  With the task clearly beyond HAL’s limited technical and manufacturing resources, the government opted for the prudent option and decided to bring in an experienced designer from abroad.  In Dr. Kurt Tank they found the perfect person for the task.


Kurt Waldemar Tank (February 24, 1898 – June 5, 1983) was a German aeronautical engineer and test pilot who led the design department at Focke-Wulf from 1931 to 1945. He was responsible for several outstanding German aircraft of World War II, including the Fw 190 fighter aircraft, the Ta 152 fighter-interceptor and the Fw 200 Condor airliner.  The Fw 190 fighter was one of Tank’s most successful designs with more than 20,000 manufactured between 1941 and 1945. After the war, the British government decided not to offer Tank a contract because they considered him too important and could not imagine him as part of any existing design group.  He then worked in Argentina until the project ran out of funds.  Dr. Tank first came to India as Director of IIT Madras where Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was one of his students. Dr. Tank finally returned to Germany, in the late 1960s, to work as a consultant for Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB).

Dr. Tank arrived at Bangalore, in August 1956, to head the HF-24 design team.   He was accompanied by his assistant, Engineer Mittelhuber.  Theirs was not an easy task.  

Hindustan Aircraft had only three senior Indian design engineers, supported by just 127 employees. Infrastructure, in most cases, was non-existent. So much so that the Hindustan Aircraft complex lacked even a runway for flight-testing. By the time the first prototype of the Marut began flying in 1961, the design team had 18 German design engineers, another 150 design personnel, a prototype shop and a production engineering department of more than 100 personnel.

Design work began in June 1957 and a full-scale wooden glider model was ready by early 1959.   As there was no wind tunnel available at Hindustan Aircraft, Dr. Tank began flight trials with the glider on April 1, 1959. This phase was completed on March 24, 1960 after 78 flights. Assembly of the first HF-24 prototype began in April 1960 followed by powered taxiing trials starting March 11, 1961, just eleven months later.  HF-001, with Wing Commander Suranjan Das at the controls, flew for the first time on June 17, 1961. The first official flight took place a week later, on June 24, 1961, in the presence of the Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon.  The Marut achieved operational status on April 1, 1967, less than eleven years after Dr. Kurt Tank arrived in Bangalore.  In service, despite being underpowered, the aircraft was a moderate success, giving a good account of itself in the 1971 war with Pakistan.  A total of 147 aircraft were built and the last of these retired from service around 1990.  A HF-24 Marut is still preserved at the Oberschleissheim museum, near Munich, in Germany.

The HF-24 was designed around the 8170 lbs. (3705 kg) afterburning Orpheus BOr 12 engine. Unfortunately, the British cancelled their requirement for this engine and the Indian government refused to fund the remaining development. This was clearly a case of false economy as a sum £13 million for the purpose was not a large amount by any standard.  This single misguided decision crippled the Marut programme.  The design had to make do with the non-afterburning 4850 lbs. (2200 kg) Orpheus 703 for the initial and interim version of the fighter. A lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful search for a suitable engine followed.  First the Soviet Union’s Tumansky RD-9F from the MiG-19SF fighter was tried and found unsuitable.  The E-300 turbojet, designed for the Egyptian government, by Ferdinand Brandner was tried until the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 ended the project.  This was another missed opportunity because Brandner was an outstanding designer with extensive wartime experience in Germany.  He had worked on the Jumo 004, the first operational turbojet engine.  After the Second World War, he was interned in the Soviet Union.  In 1953, Ferdinand Brandner headed a team that created the world''s most powerful turboprop aircraft engine, the Soviet Kuznetsov NK-12.  Derivatives of the engine are still operational in Russia.  From 1972 to 1973, Brandner worked as a professor in China, giving lectures on engine construction, before returning to Germany and becoming a consultant.  Brandner obviously had the capability to complete the task that Dr. Tank began.

In 1964, Bristol Siddeley offered to modify the Indian-manufactured Orpheus 703 for performance similar to the original Orpheus BOr 12. However, the Indian government again balked at the cost.  Hopes of US assistance may have influenced the decision. Subsequent negotiations with the Soviet Union for licence manufacture of the MiG-21were the beginning of the end for the Marut.  The MiG-21 was followed by further overseas purchases like the Jaguar, the MiG-23, Mig-25, MiG-27, MiG-29, Mirage 2000, Sukhoi 30MKI, MMRCA and the FGFA.  In the end, a most promising start failed to live up to its true potential.

While the Marut was still in the design stage, the Indian Navy had started exploring the possibility of meeting its requirements of warships from Indian shipyards.  After exploring all available options, in 1965, the Government approved plans to build Leander Class frigates in India.  The design was a much-improved version of the very successful Type 12 frigate that was already in service with the Indian Navy.   Mazagon Dock Limited, located at Mumbai, was to build the ships in collaboration with two reputed British shipyards: Vickers Limited and Yarrow Shipbuilders Limited.  It was a contemporary design as the first ship of the class was to be commissioned in the British Navy only in 1969.  It was a moment of great pride when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched the first ship on October 23, 1968.  The lead ship was named Indian Naval Ship Nilgiri in honour of the princely state of Nilagiri within the present state of Orissa.  This was the first princely state merged with the Indian Union when the country became independent in 1947.   Subsequent ships of the class were named after hill ranges of India.

Though INS Nilgiri’s initial construction moved at impressive speed, the ship was commissioned only in June 1972 because of numerous delays.  Some delay was expected as a large part of the workforce was trained on the job.  Other delays resulted from the desire for import substitution.  A large number of Indian ancillary manufacturers were involved and they were dealing with new and unfamiliar technology.  The temptation to bring in the latest technology also played a part.  The next generation equipment had started becoming available while the first ship was under construction.  

After the frigate contract was signed, the Government appointed to Mazagon Dock two key persons who had been associated with the negotiations. Mr. HC Sarin ICS was appointed Chairman in addition to his duties at Secretary Defence Production in the Ministry of Defence. Rear Admiral (later Admiral) SM Nanda was appointed Managing Director MDL. This close association of the Ministry of Defence, NHQ and MDL along with the continuity of top management proved invaluable for the success of the Frigate Project.

From the beginning, there was scepticism about Indian ability to build warships as advanced as those in the British Navy.  Some of the skepticism was justified as Mazagon Docks faced several formidable challenges. The shipyard’s traditional activity was ship repair and building auxiliary vessels. This required a relatively lower level of skills than those needed for warship building.  The last warship built at the shipyard was the HMS Calcutta, in 1831! 

 A lot of the material and the equipment required for warship construction was not available in India.  Moreover, the small quantities needed made it uneconomic for Indian companies to take up indigenization. Import substitution was therefore a long drawn out process and some backtracking was unavoidable.  Though shipbuilding is basically assembly work, the quality required, the special materials, the restricted working space and the many closely inter-related and inter-dependent activities all combined to ensure that there plenty of crises to resolve.

Foreign training for the construction team was of limited value.  The opportunity to watch a warship under construction in an experienced British yard was clearly a valuable experience. However, none of these persons was allowed to work on ships under construction. This greatly reduced the value of the training.  There was much more value to be gained from hands-on practical experience.  Besides, only three hundred odd personnel went to Britain for training whereas the actual work force was about 1800 people of all trades. The collaboration agreement provided for up to 60 managers from Vickers and Yarrow to work in India for varying periods. These represented all disciplines including shipbuilding, design, P&A Shop, welding and machine shop. However, it was the combined view of the top Managers that to really learn warship building, it was important to have both responsibility and authority.  Despite misgivings in all quarters, the management decided to limit the British experts to only a handful of experienced supervisors. 

Thus, there were never more than four such experts in the shipyard at any stage.  The construction team therefore faced a steep learning curve but they rose to the challenge and the long-term benefits were incalculable.

Meanwhile, Naval Headquarters took advantage of the delay in Nilgiri to improve the sensors and equipment for the subsequent ships. There were conflicting views about the desirability of changing equipment from ship to ship. Mazagon Dock felt that by avoiding changes, ships could be built quickly and at the lowest cost. The Indian Navy felt that it was futile to build ships with obsolescent sensors, weapons and equipment.  It also made little sense to indigenize obsolescent technology. The changes also served a useful purpose as they helped the design team to understand all that was involved in making changes in the design. Every change resulted in involved numerous changes on associated equipment and on the hull.  Rear Admiral Baxi, later Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Electronics Limited attributed the success of the Frigate Project to various factors:

Determination of the Indian Navy to be self sufficient and self-reliant. This determination extended across several generations instead of being limited to just a few individuals.

Naval Headquarters took the initiative in assuming additional technical responsibilities.

The Directorate of Leander Project (DLP), created within Naval Headquarters, ensured complete product management. Design aspects, coordination with the Lead Yard, approval of technical drawings and all technical decisions related to shipbuilding were handled within the Navy itself.

A Directorate General of Naval Design (DGND) was formed under direct control of Naval Headquarters.  It slowly started acquiring comprehensive design and project management skills within the Navy.

With many civilian Naval Constructor officers leaving, the Navy started inducting naval constructors in uniform. They became a highly specialized cadre, capable of handling all aspects of naval architecture, ship design and ship construction.

The Navy sent some of its best officers and best brains to work on shipbuilding. 

Five more frigates of the Leander class were commissioned after the INS Nilgiri, with progressively more advanced equipment.  Six ships of the considerably more advanced Godavari and Brahmaputra classes came next.  Three Delhi class destroyers followed and were commissioned between 1997 and 2001.  Three Shivalik class frigates, with a stealth design, entered Naval service between 2010 and 2012.  Four Project 15B class destroyers, an improvement over the Delhi class, will soon start entering service.  Meanwhile, the first Indian aircraft carrier is under construction at Cochin Ship Yard.  The Indian Navy also operates numerous other ships and submarines of various types that were built in India.  

The question that arises at this is stage: why did two similar projects produce such different outcomes?  The Marut had the first mover advantage.  It was also the more ambitious project and far greater in scope.  The potential payoff was also much greater as the plan was to build a contemporary fighter from the ground up.  Dr. Kurt Tank and his team were experienced and competent designers who seem to have lived up to the trust reposed in him.  Ferdinand Brandner was one of the leading jet engine designers of his generation.  HAL was a fully functional enterprise with some experience of manufacturing a jet fighter.  On the other hand, the Nilgiri project only envisaged licence production of an existing design.  The design and project teams consisted of novices who learnt on the job.  The selected shipyard had no experience of building a modern warship.  The foreign experts on site were limited to a handful of British supervisors.

Both projects were ambitious in scope and it was no surprise that both suffered some setbacks and delays.  It was inevitable that both projects should have to make compromises.  In arriving at solutions, the Nilgiri project seems to have been more fortunate.  Each setback was followed by more improvements but with the Marut, each setback extracted a price.  In the end, it was perhaps attitudes that made the most difference.  Beyond a point, the Indian Air Force only sought closure. The Indian Navy stayed the course and sought a lasting legacy.



Chatterjee, K., “Hindustan Fighter HF-24 Marut- Part I: Building India''s Jet Fighter”, Bharat Rakshak Website. Marut1.html (July 05, 2013).

Hiranandani, G.M., Transition to Eminence- The Indian Navy1976-1990, New Delhi: Lancer Publications, 2005.

Sridharan, K., A Maritime History of India, New Delhi: Publications Division, 1982.


The author is a former Rear Admiral of the Indian Navy and currently Additional Director at the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, New Delhi.  Email: [email protected]





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