A anti-submarine warfare Sea Kind Helicopter preparing to land on a carrier deck

A visit to Mumbai's port by the Spanish multi-purpose warship Juan Carlos 1 has highlighted India’s requirement for four similar vessels, also known as landing helicopter docks (LHDs). The Spanish warship builder Navantia is a bidder for the Indian requirement, in partnership with domestic company Larsen & Toubro (L&T). But the procurement process has been disrupted by the financial problems of rival bidder Reliance Naval and Engineering, which is partnered with French warship builder DCNS.

The Indian Navy issued an RFP for the LHDs in late 2013, but no action was taken on the proposals. The requirement was reaffirmed in May 2017 and fresh bids invited. The financial and technical tests have been completed and the two commercial bids were submitted. However, the opening of the bids has been delayed as Navantia is currently the sole contender for a contract where competition is required. Reliance has been disqualified because of the strict clause about financial stability in India’s Defense Procurement Policy. 

The situation is causing concern. “Why should a company be penalized through no fault of its own, particularly since this is an issue of precedence for the Navy?” said a senior retired naval officer.

Ensuring security of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean region and an upgrade of the Navy's disaster management, amphibious warfare, and neighbouring island protection capability is supposedly a priority for the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD). In particular, the security of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal is of concern.

The Indian Army already has a brigade of around 3,000 amphibious troops, but the Navy’s current fleet is not equipped for such operations. The LHD requirement calls for a diesel-electric propulsion ship that is 200 meters long with a draft of 8 meters when fully loaded. It will be required to carry six main battle tanks; 20 infantry combat vehicles; 40 heavy trucks; and more than 900 troops. The ship would be defended by a point defense missile system; a close-in weapon system; an anti-torpedo decoy system; chaff; and machine guns. It would also be able to operate helicopters weighing up to 32,000 pounds.

Speaking to AIN during the visit of Juan Carlos 1 to Mumbai, Esteban GarcĂ­a Vilasánchez, president of Navantia, said: “India has been able to see the ship for the first time since it was commissioned in 2010. The first impression counts and it has been good for the Indian Navy.”

But unlike the Juan Carlos 1, from which eight helicopters can take off simultaneously, India’s ship will have “much fewer” said Jayant Damodar Patil, senior executive vice president defense business for L&T. He added that the Indian Navy wants to use its current inventory of helicopters. Since the Indian LHD does not require a ski jump, it is expected to cost less than its Spanish counterpart. Patil said that L&T would do further work on the design, taking advantage of Navantia’s experience, and then manufacture the hull at its shipyard near Chennai.

The Indian Navy has been looking for a replacement for its ageing Kamov Ka-28 and Westland Sea King helicopters for many years. It released a request for information for a large purchase of utility and multi-role helicopters last August. The MoD has also signaled that it might make an interim purchase of up to 24 Sikorsky S-70B Seahawks.