At this very moment, five of the navy’s biggest warships are deployed in bringing back Indian citizens stranded abroad; and carrying food grains, medical teams and medicines to friendly countries in the littoral neighbourhood, thus boosting our image as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean
Region (IOR). There is one thing these five ships — INS Jalashwa, Kesari, Magar, Shardul and Airavat — have in common: They are all amphibious assault vessels. Given that this category of warships is designed and built specifically to land large numbers of troops, combat weaponry and stores on enemy shores, they are also ideal for evacuating personnel and carrying relief material — or the tricky business of humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) that is increasingly occupying the Indian Navy.
For a regional power like India, which projects itself as the Indian Ocean’s gatekeeper, it would be strategically and diplomatically rewarding to create a strong amphibious warfare fleet that not just safeguards our 7,500 kilometre coastline and island chains but is also usable in peacetime for HADR operations that are frequent in our disaster-prone region. This, however, is being unnecessarily stalled.
The prime minister’s initiative of SAGAR, the acronym for “security and growth for all in the region” is credibly underpinned by the navy’s admirable HADR pedigree, dating back to the 2004 tsunami, when its prompt assistance to IOR countries led the US Navy to realise that here was a maritime partner worth having. That realisation jump-started the Indo-US defence relationship, but that is another story. In just the last year, India’s small amphibious warship fleet has earned kudos across the IOR. In March 2019, when Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, INS Shardul, was quickly diverted to the ravaged Beira Port. Meanwhile, INS Magar sailed from Kochi to Mumbai, loaded hundreds of tonnes of food, medicines and supplies and took those to Beira, hugely boosting relations with Mozambique. In January, even as Covid-19 loomed, Cyclone Ada hit Madagascar. Fortunately, INS Airavat was en route for Seychelles, and its quick diversion to Madagascar earned thanks from its president. The impact such assistance creates was especially evident in May 2017, when INS Sumitra, then deployed in the Bay of Bengal, followed Cyclone Mora
into Bangladesh. After it rescued 33 Bangladeshi fishermen who had been swept away by the storm 100 nautical miles off Chittagong and given up for lost, a grateful Bangladeshi media played up that saga of survival with India in the role of the good samaritan.
Yet the navy, which has accumulated an enviable heritage of aircraft carrier operations and a rich submarine tradition, is still moving hesitantly in building up capabilities in the essential realm of amphibious warfare (and, therefore, HADR). As one naval officer jokes: “We have never added oomph to our amph”. After 1934 when the Royal Indian Navy
was raised, there was some appetite for amphibious capability, including some never-implemented plans for amphibious landings in the Arakans during the Burma Campaign in World War II. After independence in 1947, India’s Nehruvian policy of fraternal harmony linked amphibious warfare unfavourably with expeditionary aggression. Besides, the new Indian Navy
had little money for anything more than building a basic fleet and amphibious warfare was low in priority. Not until the late 1960s did we buy our first amphibious ships — built in Gdansk, Poland. In the 1971 war, an attempted amphibious landing near Chittagong turned out to be a fiasco that was obscured only by the overall victory. Not until the mid-1980s did bigger amphibious craft enter service — the so-called Landing Ship Tank (Medium), or LST (M), from Poland; and bigger LST (Large) that were built in India. These were flat-bottomed vessels that carried tanks and infantry close to enemy beaches, where they would dismount and wade ashore. These ships were successfully used in Operation Pawan (1987-90), when the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka employed LST (M)s and LST (L)s extensively for transporting troops in hostile conditions. But amphibious warfare and HADR remained a sideshow.
Illustration by Binay Sinha
All this changed after 2004-05, when the Indian Ocean
tsunami gave the Indian Navy a sense of its capabilities and shortcomings in HADR. Moreover, the new relationship with the US refocused strategic thinking on to the Indo-Pacific and — crucially — Washington sold India one of its used amphibious warfare ships, the “landing platform dock” (LPD) that was named INS Jalashwa in 2007. It was a bargain basement deal for India, which paid just $50 million for the ship and another $50 million for six helicopters that came with it. This was less than one-tenth the price of a new, fully functional LPD.
Even more important than the cost saving was the huge difference INS Jalashwa triggered in amphibious warfare doctrine. Instead of “beaching” in the face of enemy fire and debouching troops directly on to the beach like an LST(L), the Jalashwa brought in the US Marine Corps concept of “Operational Maneuver from the Sea”. In this, the LPD stays 30-40 kilometres out at sea, from where the attack begins with “aerial envelopment”, in which the six helicopters on board carry 10-12 marine commandos each onto the objective. Since the LPD does not have to enter the shallow waters close to the shore, nor expose itself to coastal fire, it can have a deeper draught and much more carrying capacity. From its safe perch out at sea, the Jalashwa launches four “landing craft mechanized” (LCM), each carrying to the shore 150 fully kitted infantrymen, or 50 soldiers and an armoured vehicle. That allows the Jalashwa to carry and launch a full infantry battalion in a single wave in what is doctrinally termed a “ship to objective maneuver”.
When used for HADR operations, a 16,600-tonne LPD like INS Jalashwa can evacuate 1,000 people in a single trip. It is equipped with extensive medical facilities including four operation theatres, a 12-bed ward, a laboratory and a dental centre. It can also be modified into a hospital ship for hundreds of casualties, when being deployed in an extreme HADR situation.
Given the dual-use capabilities of LPDs, the navy decided in 2008 to build four more LPDs that would be even larger than Jalashwa. These are needed to embark the army’s 3,500 man amphibious brigade, which is earmarked and trained for such operations. The navy floated a tender that year but, true to the defence ministry’s procurement tradition, it remains stalled a dozen years later for fear that certain private shipbuilders with worrying records of non-delivery might win the contract as the lowest bidder — and then once again fail to deliver. The navy, therefore, is going back to the start line and issuing a fresh tender in which new procurement rules — in accordance with the Capacity Assessment Guidelines of 2019 — would rule out those shipyards.
If this new tender were not treated with special urgency, the three LPDs would only enter service by the end of the decade. Typically, such a contract, starting from issuance of the request for proposal, technical evaluation of bids, commercial bid evaluation and cost negotiation typically takes three-to-four years. Thereafter, it would take at least three years to build the first LPD and then another three years for the follow-on vessels. It is, therefore, essential to progress this as a fast-track tender. Simultaneously, with INS Magar and Gharial approaching the ends of their service lives, there must be another fast-track tender for two new LST(L)s.