The Indian Navy’s (IN) role in relief and rescue operations during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami won it plaudits from the international community while underlining its strategic potency to Indian policy planners. For the IN however, that event brought to the fore the crucial need to augment amphibious capabilities above and beyond what is provided by its existing fleet of medium sized landing ship tanks (LSTs). The first step was of course to induct the former USS Trenton, an Austin-Class Landing Platform Dock (LPD) as the INS Jalashwa. This ship has not only given the IN exposure to operating a vessel of this size and capability but has also helped it get a fair idea of what it wants for the future. And now the IN has been given ‘in-principle’ approval by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the Indian Defence Minister for bringing in four new large amphibious warfare ships which will be built in India under international collaboration.
Interestingly, this project is now wholly reserved for execution by the private sector. Earlier thinking that two of the four LPDs should be built by the public-sector Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), Vishakapatnam has been shot down. It should be noted that Cochin Shipyard Limited’s bid to participate in this tender for two of the four LPD’s in competition with private players had been rejected by the government in 2014 itself and request for proposals (RFP) at the time had been sent only to three domestic private shipyards run by Pipavav Defence and Offshore Engineering (now Reliance Defence and Engineering Ltd or RDEL) , L&T and ABG Shipyard respectively.
As such, with the decision to have all four LPDs built by the private sector, RDEL and L&T have been asked to submit fresh commercial proposals within two weeks from May 21. ABG has been dropped from the tender because of poor financial health. RDEL & L&T have secured technical and financial clearances from the IN last year. Both of these yards have respective tie-ups with a foreign partner and it would therefore be worthwhile to take a closer look at the contending designs given the features specified in the request for information (RFI) for procuring four new LPDs issued by the IN way back in February 2011.
Why does the IN want LPDs?
The first edition of the Indian Maritime Military Strategy (IMMS) released in 2007 clearly recognizes: “that the use of maritime power to influence operations ashore is a primary, and not a subsidiary, role of maritime force employment”. It further outlines that “this could be undertaken through commodity denial or by directly supporting the land campaign through the delivery of ordnance by naval platforms or amphibious and/or expeditionary capabilities.”
Indeed it is precisely to augment ‘out-of-area’ or expeditionary capabilities that these LPDs are being sought by the IN.
In fact the ability to affect the course of the land battle has always been something of a “must have” for the IN. While the capability to strike shore targets using ship-launched missiles was demonstrated four decades ago with the famous raid on Karachi harbour during the 1971 war, effective ‘Maritime Manoeuvre from the Sea’, involving joint sea-land-air operations which allow forced/benign entry using sea-based forces in the Indian Ocean littoral(IOR) is something of a holy grail for the IN.
The service still rues the missed opportunity “for conduct of an outflanking amphibious assault” on Pakistan’s coastline during 1971. Whatever little was done by way of amphibious operations during that conflict was executed without adequate preparation and assets, thus limiting the overall effect in the outcome of the war. The IN feels that platforms such as LPDs enhance options and opportunities that exist in the many IOR scenarios of interest to India.
The LPD as such seems set to become the IN’s centerpiece contribution to “jointness”, a key mantra if India has to exert decisive influence in the IOR. In a show of somewhat novel inter-service concern the IMMS notes that “even if the IN solved the Army’s transportation problem, it often deposited the troops ashore in an unfit condition to fight.” Indeed modern LPD designs set great store on the comfort of troops they transport. As the IMMS further notes, “The Army’s task begins at the ‘end’ of the voyage and troops must in future be provided enough rest and other facilities during the sea transit. Staff requirements for amphibious assets, sealift and airlift must be alive to these requirements.”
What the IN wants
In the above context, the INS Jalashwa introduced to the IN the kind of advantages that having a ship capable of hosting both a substantial helicopter wing as well as smaller landing craft brings to the table in the power projection role. It is obviously clear that simply having a beach landing capability does not make one a true amphibious power. True amphibious potency instead arises from stand-off beaching and vertical envelopment capabilities, which deliver troops on target much fresher and with an arguably higher survivability rate. Over-the- horizon assault executed via a mix of heli-borne and seaborne operations, is exactly what ships such as the Jalashwa are designed to do. No doubt influenced by the Jalashwa, the broad specifications of the ship outlined in the RFI are as follows:
(a) The length of the ship would be approx 200 m. Breadth is to be commensurate with the length and tonnage of the ship.
(b) The draught of the ship is not to exceed 08 m.
(c) The ship is expected to have an endurance of 45 days.
(d) The ship is to have Diesel-Electric propulsion in either of the following configurations:-
(i) Twin shaft configuration, with twin rudders and Fixed Pitch Propellers or,
(ii) Shock graded podded propulsion.
(e) The ship is to have a suitable well deck for amphibious operations. The ship would carry amphibious crafts like LCMs or LCACs and LCVPs on davits and should have capability to launch these crafts when underway.
(f) The ship is expected to have a carriage of combat vehicles on one or more vehicle deck. This area should be adequate to embark Main Battle Tank (MBT), AAVs/BMP Class armoured vehicles and heavy trucks.
(g) The ship would be equipped with a Point Defence Missile System, Close In Weapon System, Anti Torpedo Decoy system, Chaff System and HMGs/ LMGs. In addition, ship would have one E/ F band combined air and surface surveillance radar and one C/D band air surveillance radar. All of these would be buyer nominated equipment.
(h) The ship is expected to carry army troops in addition to ship crew.
(j) The ship should have capability of simultaneous operation by day/ night of Special Operation Helicopters and Large Helicopters (up to 35 tons).
Now from the RFI, it is clear that the IN wants a ship that has a well deck, a vehicle deck as well as substantial helicopter hosting capability. None of it is surprising and conforms broadly with the features of an LPD. However the requirement that the ship “should have capability of simultaneous operation by day/ night of Special Operation Helicopters and Large Helicopters (up to 35 tons)” raises an important point. The ability to host rather big helicopters and conduct high tempo operations with them is something that can really be managed better by a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) than an LPD, since LHDs have much larger flight decks. Readers would note that LPD and LHD are actually U.S Navy hull classifications which over the years have become standard industry usage for similar ships irrespective of origin.
Nature of the build plan
Nevertheless, it seems that the IN is effectively using the terms LPD and LHD somewhat interchangeably in this tender given the total set of requirements. In any case, the IN will procure these ships under the “buy and make Indian” category outlined in the Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) 2011. So it will purchase these from an Indian shipyard and the RFI had accordingly been issued only for the benefit of domestic ship-builders. The International collaboration has been put in place by the Indian entity itself, without any direct involvement from the IN.
The 2011 RFI clearly states:
“In accordance with the provisions of ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’ procedure, a Capability Definition Document (CDD) would be forwarded to Indian Shipyards, short listed based on RFI responses. The Indian Shipyards, in turn would forward a Detailed Project Proposal outlining the road map for development of design and construction of the ships. The Detailed Project Proposal, thereafter, would be examined by a Project Appraisal Committee (PAC) constituted by the Acquisition Wing of MoD to verify credentials of foreign partner together with confirming acceptability of joint venture of the shipyard with the foreign collaborator.” So, one can assume that rather than the exact labelling of the ship type, it is conformity to defined capabilities that will decide the matter.
With the December 2013 RFPs being no longer valid, fresh bids for this Rs 20,000 crore project to build four LPDs have been sought from RDEL & L&T, as we have noted earlier. For their bids to build the ships in India, L&T has tied up with Spain’s Navantia, while RDEL has teamed with France’s DCNS. Understandably a number of international players were interested in collaborating with Indian shipyards for this tender but it seems now that Indian private shipyards have settled for collaborative ventures with Western players only for this tender.
The French and the Spanish offerings likely to compete for this tender have been around for a while. The French entry via RDEL would of course be DCNS’s Mistral Class Amphibious Assault Ship. The Mistral measures just a shade under 200 metres and has a draught of 6.3 metres. Displacing 21,300 tonnes at full load, the Mistral is essentially a LHD and has a total of six helicopter landing spots and can carry up to 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters. It can embark 900 troops for a short duration and 450 for extended operations besides being able to host 59 troop vehicles or 40 heavy main battle tanks (MBTs). Armed with a modern CIWS the Mistral’s well deck can also host two LCACs. Three Mistrals are already in service with the French Navy and before the Ukraine imbroglio happened the Russians were getting ready to induct the first of their four such vessels on contract with two manufactured domestically. The ship will be considered closely for this tender, but price and transfer of technology arrangements will have to be sorted out.
L&T is likely to offer Navantia’s Juan Carlos Class Strategic Projection Vessel. As the name would suggest, this ship was designed to be more than a mere amphibious support vessel and accordingly the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos has a ski jump at the end of its 202 metre flight deck. It was built to enable V/STOL fighter operations from this ship. Nevertheless, the ship can be built without the flight desk as is the case with the two Canberra class ships, a derivative of the Juan Carlos Design, ordered by Australia. The ship’s substantial flight deck has eight landing spots for helicopters and its air wing can consist of up to 30 aircraft. The Juan Carlos displaces just over 27,000 tonnes and can carry 1200 troops and almost 50 MBTs. It’s draught of 6.9 metres meets Indian specifications but its overall length of 230 metres would make it the longest entrant, if at all. Indeed, the Juan Carlos has some additional capabilities which make it a pseudo-carrier. But it remains to be seen if that is what the IN is looking for.
As mentioned earlier, the tender is about specific capabilities and not terms. The IN is hopeful that this tender will be fast-tracked with a tender decision before the end of 2017. In any case it is in the nation’s interest that this tender be expedited so that India can fulfill its manifest destiny in the Ocean that bears its name.
Saurav Jha is the Editor-in-Chief of Delhi Defence Review. Follow him on twitter @SJha1618
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