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Amphibious warfare

Amphibious warfare is normally synonymous with a cooperative naval and army operation with the former providing the transportation and the latter using its firepower to capture beachheads, neutralizing sea-facing defences and generally achieving a shock effect that could result in a breakthrough. Not all amphibious operations are successful. Gallipoli during the Second World War was a disaster while the Normandy invasion eventually led to the successful conclusion of the war in Europe with the suicide of the German dictator Hitler in his bunker in Berlin.

The Indian Navy has been operating the Soviet amphibious vessels since 1974 with the Kumbvir class. At one time there were eight in the fleet but since then four have been decommissioned and replaced with three of the Shardul class of very nearly totally indigenous vessels designed and developed and manufactured by the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata. The vessel is capable of carrying 11 main battle tanks and 10 infantry combat vehicles that will together carry 1000 men into battle ashore.  

Amphibious ship

The acquisition of the USS Trenton from the US is a curious case because Washington has insisted that the vessel will not be used for combat. The ship is called a Landing Ship Dock because it is able to harbor several assault vessels in a dry dock within its hull. The purchase drew adverse criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General who pointed out in his report that no assessment had been made before accepting the ship and the US added to the complication by not mentioning the need for upgrades and modifications.

The Navy, it appears, had a hidden agenda of its own and it was more interested of using the vessel as a relief and rescue vessel during tsunamis and other such mishap at sea particularly within the island territories in the Andaman and Nicobar group in the eastern seaboard and the Lakshadweep in the west. The qualitative staff requirement that the Indian Navy has laid down include buoyancy at full load contributing to a draft of no more than eight meters. This specification by itself is indicative of an intention to patrol the Indian Ocean littoral while retaining a multi-function (civil/military and disaster relief) capability for the vessel. It would thus be able to traverse both the blue water at the centre of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea as well as the brown waters on the rim of the IOR where pirates lurk.   

The other specifications include electric propulsion for rapid start and acceleration. The vessel should accommodate 1430 personnel of which would be troops drawn from the Indian Army armored corps/
mechanized infantry. To be able to move tanks, infantry combat vehicles and trucks the vessel should hold landing craft that can help transport six main battle tanks, 20 ICVs and 40 heavy trucks loaded with munitions.

That the transfer of troops from the multi-function vessel to targets in the hinterland need not only depend on surface transportation, provision is made for 10 heavy helicopters for the vertical envelopment role. The Navy has insisted that the vessel have an endurance of not less than 45 days at sea and a maximum sustained speed of 20 knots. A hospital capable of connectivity with the central command hospital is a must.

By way of productionisation the Indian Navy has launched a domestic tender to three private sector shipyards that have already tied up with foreign firms for transfer of technology and compliance with the offset policy.

It has been seen how the MMRCA fighter contract has been delayed by a French hesitation to part with technology as required under the Defence Procurement Policy and it is to be seen whether it was the 26 per cent Foreign Direct Investment requirement or the reluctance of the foreigners to part with topnotch technology that has induced delays in completing negotiations and starting work.

In this major Naval project the Indian firm Larsen and Toubro has signed a collaboration agreement with Navantia of Spain, Pipavav Defence and Offshore engineering with France’s DCNS; and ABG Shipyard with Alion of the US. When the winning design is selected two will be constructed by the selected private shipyard and the other two by the government owned Hindustan Shipyards Ltd. This diversification is apparently intended to disperse the spores of high technology as widely as possible so that shipbuilding in all its shapes and sizes gets a fillip.

Smooth implementation

There is a sharp division of opinion about the efficacy of amphibious operations during war. Some great military thinkers have denigrated the operation but there have also been shining examples that have proved them wrong. The Gallipoli landing by the ANZAC troops (Australia, New Zealand and Canada military group) was intended to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) in World War I. It was a disaster. But then the Inchon landing by General MacArthur on the Korean peninsula during World War II was a resounding success.

It has been described as the most difficult operation of war because an amphibious landing needs to be planned and rehearsed most meticulously. Even though the objective of the campaign is strategic or tactical its execution requires great attention to detail and very smooth intermeshing of the activities of a large number of disparate elements like sailors, soldiers, airmen operating under  separate commands. An added complication is the addition of disaster management as part of its “multi-function” roles.

India which has fought five wars with Pakistan and one with China has not had the opportunity to use amphibious warfare against its opponents. The seaborne attack at the dead of night on Karachi port was a classic naval bombardment and not an amphibian operation that would have required Indian troops to assault the shore batteries and capture Karachi. Capturing territory on the western front was not Indian objective in the 1971 war. It was holding action whereas the real political objectives were to be sought in the former East Pakistan which was converted into free, sovereign Bangladesh.

Nonetheless, Pakistan decided to spread out its maritime infrastructure further westwards along the Makran coast with the intention of putting it out of reach of India. Thus it shifted its submarine construction facility from Karachi to Ormara and set up naval facilities at Pasni further west. It is at Gwadar that it has created a strategic facility that has been handed over to the Chinese to help defend Pakistan.

Amphibious operations undoubtedly require a great deal of planning and practice before execution. An appreciation of this requirement among the troops and naval personnel entrusted with the job is in the policy of   trust and appreciation of each other’s capabilities as accentuated by integration of army units with naval infrastructure and personnel.