The Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004 was a watershed for the Indian Navy. It prompted the launch of the largest humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) mission the Indian Navy had embarked on until that point. Indian Navy ships carried supplies to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Maldives, but the tsunami response exposed a chronic shortcoming: India lacked amphibious assault ships that were optimal for ferrying men and material in the event of natural disasters.
When not carrying helicopters and battle tanks to attack an enemy’s coasts, modern large amphibious ships can carry humanitarian aid and even act as floating hospitals in the event of earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters.
A landing helicopter dock (LHD) is a type of amphibious assault warship that can deploy troops and even tanks via helicopters and small landing craft stored inside its deck. At the time of the 2004 tsunami, the Indian Navy’s largest ships for amphibious assault were tank landing ships, which are significantly smaller and less versatile than LPDs. In 2007, the Indian Navy inducted INS Jalashwa, an amphibious assault vessel that had been in service with the US Navy.
Earlier this week, the Indian Navy renewed its search for a new class of amphibious assault warships. The Indian Navy issued requests for information from Indian shipyards to buy four LPDs.
This is not the first time the Indian Navy has sought to buy LPDs since 2004. The Indian Navy had first floated requirements to build LPDs nearly a decade ago. The Indian Navy issued ‘request for proposals’ for the LPD project in 2011, but the project floundered, partially on account of financial difficulties on part of Indian shipyards partnering with foreign designers. In October 2020, the Indian Navy scrapped a tender to build four LPDs; the tender was issued in 2013. The tender was scrapped as the Indian Navy’s requirements for the LPDs had changed. Each of the ships were likely to be in the range of 30,000 and 40,000 tons.
The earlier price estimates for four new LPDs was in the range of $2 billion.
The RFI document sets out ambitious specifications for the LPDs. In addition to transporting troops and equipment to shore, the Indian Navy wants that its future LPDs should be able to act as “mother ship for unmanned capability and to support operation/exploitation of all dimensions of futuristic unmanned vehicles/platforms/equipment”. The Indian Navy RFI also envisages the ships should be capable of acting as a hospital ship during humanitarian operations, including having an operation theatre and dental facility.
The Indian Navy RFI specifies the LPDs should have a maximum length of around 200 metres and be capable of embarking 900 troops. Surprisingly, the Indian Navy has specified that the LPDs should be able to carry 16 surface-to-surface missiles; amphibious assault ships in western navies typically carry little offensive armament of their own.
The RFI specifies the LPDs should have 32 short-range surface-to-air missiles to defend against enemy attack and must be capable of carrying a ‘directed energy weapon’ to replace fast-firing guns. Directed-energy weapons typically refer to lasers and microwaves that can be used to destroy the guidance seekers of missiles and UAVs.
The Indian Navy intends that the future LPDs should carry a heavy load of battle tanks. The RFI states the ship’s vehicle carriage capacity “should be adequate to embark at least six Main Battle Tanks (MBT), 20 AAVs/ BMP Class armoured vehicles and approx. 60 heavy trucks (or a suitable combination of an equivalent number of trucks and light motor vehicles) at one time”.
These vehicles would be transported to shore using smaller amphibious craft that are deployed from the LPD’s dock.
The Indian Navy wants the future LPD to carry up to 14 helicopters (two heavy-lift choppers and 12 ‘special operations’ helicopters. Special operations helicopters are typically used to carry soldiers and light cargo to battlefields, while heavy-lift helicopters carry heavier equipment, such as trucks and missile systems.
The RFI specifies the LPD be capable of embarking a range of unmanned systems for operation on the sea surface, underwater and air.
Companies in France, Spain and the US have previously offered LPD designs to India. The new RFI comes at a time when China is introducing a new class of LPDs, which displaces about 40,000 tonnes and can carry large numbers of personnel, helicopters and tanks.