Building India’s amphibious capability: Adding oomph to amph! - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 21 May 2020

Building India’s amphibious capability: Adding oomph to amph!

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd May 20

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 Airawat – 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 the 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 realize that here was a maritime partner worth having. That realization 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 Airawat 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). 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.

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 onto 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 onto the beach like an LST(L), the
Jalashwa brought in the US Marine Corps concept of “Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS)”. 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 to 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” (STOM).

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 – as per 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 RfP, 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. Only then will there be real oomph in India’s amph.


  1. Ironic that an army veteran has to display the strategic intellect and non-parochial understanding of warfare to educate the public about a sister service at a time when this is sorely lacking in an Army general with a tri-services brief who is doing untold damage to the Navy

    Unfortunately, if the Navy itself is treated as a sideshow among the 3 services, what hope of amphibious ops being given their due?

    USMC doctrine is heavily quoted (article would benefit if links to these concepts are provided for the lay reader) - and rightly so since the US is the thought leader and practitioner of such ops (and who China has no intellectual insecurity copying from) but in the Indian context the boots on the ground component of the USMC must be fulfilled by the Army - minus the Navy's MARCOS input on special ops.

    So has the Indian Army's ARTRAC done any serious thinking on a desi version of OMFTS and STOM?

    Where is the Indian army's conceptual equivalent of the USMC MAGTF? - Marine Air Ground Task Force which can configure from battalion to division strength based on op requirement.

    In the absence of any true ownership by the Army of amphib ops we will see another operational failure like in 1971, even IF the Navy had the hardware.

    Forget Nehru who was to change his mind later - a sign of true intellect - how many Indian military and strategic thinkers are actually comfortable with the Navy's use of the word expeditionary in its doctrine? Or hard manifestations of that in the form of a 3rd large CATOBAR carrier which would would need to escort LPDs in a high threat scenario?

    Instead, we have myopic critics who term such scenarios as "blindly aping the US". Maybe they should educate us how they would deal with a scenario where India has to repeat Op Cactus/Maldives only this time we arent facing a rag tag bunch of mercenaries that were so tactically inept that they didn't even secure Huhule airfield allowing for IAF induction of Indian paratroopers. What happens if PLAN Marine Corps has already seized the airfield, a detachment of 6-8 PLAAF/PLAN aircraft are staging patrols from there, and you have 2-3 frontline PLAN destroyers camped in those waters.

    As the large Indian worker population in the Maldives is interned in camps or worse subjected to bodily harm by China backed local extremists, I am sure we will have the wise counsel of Gen Rawat who thinks India doesn't need expeditionary capabilities, can dominate the IOR by Peninsular bases, and desert and sea flying is the same. to pull off a minor military miracle.

    1. When the comments are hard hitting than the main story. Thank you kind stranger for the insights. Perhaps, you should post a link to your blogs.

  2. MoD sucks. Time Secy, Jt secys are replaced by uniformed men. These guy blame uniformed men for all their problems.
    Maybe once someone becomes Maj Gen, they should be given option to be posted out of army (one way transfer) to civilian roles held by IAS. Too much monopoly has spoilt Indian administration

  3. IN won't be getting these LPD's anytime soon and as usual live with what we have mindset. we have no shame in cancelling the tenders repeatedly telling the whole world that we are incapable of drafting our requirements and policies!! how much time does it take to blacklist RDEL? if that cannot be done then nationalize it? if even that cannot be done give it to a PSU like HSL? they are anyways making fleet support ships. L&T can be given follow on orders to make small boats and OPV's forever!!

  4. Instead of buying/ building new very expensive LHPDs,amphib. vessels now in a time of budgetary shortfalls,we should pick up a few Ro-Ro ferries,widely used all over Europe. The British won the Falklands War in great part to the unglamorous policy of STUFT.Ships Taken Up From Trade. The commandeered dozens of merchant vessels which carried their logistic needs to fight a war thousands of kms away in the S.Atlantic. Ro-Ro vessels can carry heavy AVs,etc. apart from hundreds of troops as well. Between Scotland and N.Ireland such ferries ply 24X7 carrying all manner of monster lorries,etc.carrying goods to and fro.

    In peacetime the ferries can operate on both coasts as regular Ro- Ro ferries which will move goods and passengers often faster and cheaperthan by road.In wartime they will add to the navy's logistic capability. It is a mystery why the GOI,transport ministry has not introduced such vessels and services decades ago.Our land- lubber mentality ignoring the sea is why we were conquered by the Europeans by sea in the first place.Like China,the navy should be given top priority over the other two branches. A failure to expand the navy will see us in dire straits in a few years time when China will openly challenge us in our own backyard,the Indian Ocean..


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