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The Indian Navy's Amphibious Leap: 'With A Little Help From America'

Cdr Gurpreet S. Khurana was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 03, 2006

    It remains to be seen how the USA would "help India become a major world power" as the US Secretary of State stated a year ago, but Washington is certainly contributing to augment India's trans-national military reach in terms of its amphibious sealift and airlift capabilities. Last year, the US agreed in principle to sell India its Austin-class LPD (Landing Platform Dock) USS Trenton at a cost of US$ 42 million. The 17,000-ton Trenton is still in commission with the US Navy and is presently being refitted at Norfolk, Virginia. Indian officials are scheduled to visit the US in mid-April to finalise the government-to-government deal under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme. They may also discuss the details of the ongoing refit, including removal of existing weapons such as the Phalanx air-defence system and 3-inch guns. Once the vessel is delivered to India in early 2007, it would need to be fitted with weapon-systems presently in use on Indian naval ships.

    Amphibious vessels are essentially 'Trojan (sea) Horses', carrying a large number of troops with equipment, vehicles and cargo (depending on the mission) to be discharged onto the shores of the 'objective area'. Presently, the most capable ship that the Indian Navy possesses for this role is the 3,600-ton Magar-class Large Landing Ship Tank (LST-L). It can carry up to 500 troops, 15 tanks and 8 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC). It can also operate two medium-lift helicopters, which are primarily meant for 'inserting' a small team of Special Forces (marine commandos). To discharge its cargo and most of the troops, it needs to be 'beached' through its 'bow-door' (in the front). In contrast, a LPD like the Trenton is a 'better Trojan Horse' - its carrying capacity is roughly double that of the LST-L and it has a greater endurance of 7,700 nautical miles at a speed of 20 knots, as opposed to the LST-L's 3,300 nm at 14 knots. More importantly, it has a large platform to operate up to six medium-lift helicopters and a floodable 'well-deck' at its stern for housing smaller landing craft or hovercraft. This implies that a LPD does not need to 'beach' to discharge its personnel and cargo. The vessel also serves as an effective Command and Control platform during amphibious operations. Hence, the LPD buy represents a quantum jump in the Navy's integral sealift and airlift capabilities.

    In the aftermath of the December 2004 Tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy conducted large-scale relief operations to provide succour to the affected littoral states. The Indian Navy's relief operations were commendable by all standards, particularly its rapid response and innovative use of survey vessels as hospital ships. However, it also exposed a serious void in terms of the capacity for integral sealift and airlift, which probably triggered the LPD transfer. The US wanted to keep India 'onboard' for the 'coalition-operations' in the Indian Ocean, even beyond disaster relief. India's interests may have converged with those of the US on this, but there were other reasons as well. Although India does not harbour hegemonic military ambitions overseas, its amphibious capabilities are in dire need of upgradation.

    Besides capacity-augmentation and extended reach, the current trends in amphibious warfare have brought forth new operational imperatives. The first is 'Vertical Envelopment', viz., the speedy airlift of troops to achieve surprise and facilitate ship-to-shore movement. Though not a new concept, it is gaining greater currency. Another is 'Standoff Beaching', which implies that major amphibious vessels must remain away from the adversary's shores, which would be well defended, and rather use smaller fast craft for the actual landing. LPDs are best suited for these requirements. There are other imperatives as well. India's own security is enmeshed with the well being of the Indian Ocean littoral states that do not yet have adequate capabilities to fend for themselves. Furthermore, India is beginning to acquire vital economic and other stakes overseas, which would need to be protected in case these are threatened. The LPD-type of ships would provide a rapid-response heavy sealift and airlift to meet these requirements.

    Although Trenton is 35 years old and would have only about 15 years of residual life, the vessel would provide the Indian Navy with invaluable expertise to operate a vastly different platform and enable refinement of its operational concepts for amphibious missions. (Of course, it would also entail acquisition of hovercraft/landing-craft and more transport helicopters to be used in conjunction). Besides, the LPD design could also be studied by Indian shipyards for indigenous construction in the future. Reports indicate that plans are on the anvil to build similar vessels at Kolkata. Although relatively expensive, such versatile vessels are particularly suited for the presently unthinkable out-of-area (OOA) contingencies.

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