The need for an LCS programme
With an increasing naval presence in the IOR and a high rate of shipbuilding, the PLAN is becoming an increasing concerning threat for the Indian Navy. Even the Pakistan Navy has started increasing the size of its fleet. Assuming that the more capable capital ships as well as our carriers have to fend off against a Chinese naval attack, there is a need for more smaller ships (the LCS style) that can combat the rising force from the west.
Concept of Distributed Lethality
The usage of smaller vessels with significant firepower can be summed up in the distributed lethality concept, a US Navy concept which moves away from traditional carrier battle groups and towards a network of warships spread out over a vast area of the ocean, with every warship being a potential sensor/shooter in the shared effort, thus making it more complex for the enemy forces to detect, track and target Indian naval forces.
The greatest weapon the Indian Navy possesses currently against a hostile force is the Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missile. The Brahmos has multiple variants coming up with increased ranges (Brahmos ER), speed (Brahmos II) and sizes (Brahmos NG). However, contrary to popular belief, very few Indian ships (about 10) actually possess the Brahmos system currently. Although there are more naval vessels currently under construction that will be armed with the Brahmos system, there is a need to build smaller vessels in much larger numbers that could be equipped with the Brahmos missile. By keeping a large number of missiles in a small batch of expensive platforms, there is an inherent risk of sending a large number of offensive missiles offline the moment a large warship is damaged or have to go back to port for refit. With smaller variants of the Brahmos (NG), almost all Indian naval ships can now have significant offensive capabilities.
Possible options for Indian LCS
One option could be to build a clean sheet design (based on the NGMV/NGC) or to refit an existing successful design that is less riskier such as the Saryu Class. The Saryu Class is a naval variant of the Indian Coast Guard’s Samarth Class and Sankalp Class. It was a waste of a good design as it serves the exact same function as the coast guard variants with no extra special capabilities given to it. Multiple offshore patrol vessels in the Indian Navy could have been retrofitted with missiles to shore up the Navy’s capabilities but have ended up duplicating the same roles that the Coast Guard have been doing with their OPVs.
The Saryu design itself can be refitted with the VL-ASTRA for the air defence requirements as well as the Brahmos, NASM-SR (longer range variants also possible) or a medium range AShM system (such as the Naval Strike Missile that the Indian Navy’s new MH-60R will use) in a slant launcher configuration. The slant launched configuration is mainly used on ships that do not have space to accommodate a VLS system. Additional torpedo tubes can be also added to provide for protection against underwater threats. The reason an LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) programme could work now is because of the level of indigenous content that we have reached. With a desi AShM and SAM system, together with the Varunastra anti-submarine torpedo, we can produce an entirely Indian warship that can be built in bulk at an affordable cost (around 30 warships can be procured at around 3-4 billion USD). Another advantage that we have now is the adoption of modular construction from the P15A (Kolkata) and P17A (Nilgiri) Class onwards. This will ensure a high rate of ship building in a very short amount of time.
The logic behind a LCS programme not only serves the military but also makes economic sense. Private shipyards in India are struggling to stay alive as most of the lucrative warship business are awarded to state owned or larger private shipyards with huge pockets. Building these LCS in these private shipyards in batches not only enables them to provide employment to thousands of workers, they will also be able to add to the innovation in the Indian shipbuilding industry.
Check out our take on NGMV.