China Threat Makes India A Maritime Maintenance Centre; US, UK Warships Dock In Chennai For Faster Repairs

The West is increasingly relying on India to maintain its warships traversing the Indo-Pacific. The first two UK warships docked in India to undergo maintenance before departing for the region.

The US warships are getting fewer steaming hours because of growing maintenance delays and costs. It has been a troubling trend as the US is struggling to keep pace with China’s growing fleet and is also facing other adversaries at sea – including Russia.

As reported by the EurAsian Times earlier, the US has been making a concerted effort to match up to China’s burgeoning shipbuilding capabilities. The US has been weighing in on its Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to help restart its redundant shipyards. The US Navy has also been studying the use of Japan’s private shipyards “to maintain, repair and overhaul its warships in a bid to reduce servicing backlogs back home.”

The project can expand to South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines.

The move marks the coming together of ‘like-minded’ countries to counter the exponential growth of the Chinese naval fleet. India, sitting on the Malacca Strait, the entry point of the South China Sea, will play a crucial role in sustaining the operations of the Western countries in the region.

The US and India have shed the baggage of the Cold War. Defense cooperation between the two countries has reached its apogee, as the US Navy has signed a five-year master shipyard repair agreement (MSRA) with Larsen and Toubro (L&T) shipyard in Chennai that will pave the way for repairing US naval warships here.

L&T shipyard in Kattupalli near Chennai on the East Coast has been undertaking voyage repairs of the Military Sealift Command vessels and is now becoming a hub for repairs of US Navy ships.

Chennai is a good place for the repair of ships wherein both port infrastructure in L&T shipyard (due to the large requirement of depths for US Ships) and capable entity (L&T) are available. The first warship to be repaired was USNS Salvor, which had already arrived at the Shipyard to undergo steel repairs.

It is the same shipyard where two British vessels, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Argus and RFA Lyme Bay, docked for essential maintenance. This is the first time a Royal Navy vessel will undergo maintenance at an Indian shipyard, a direct result of the logistics-sharing agreement signed between the UK and India in 2022.

Reiterating its commitment to the rule-based Indo-Pacific, Defense Advisor of the British High Commission Brigadier Nick Sawyer said: “The visit of the Littoral Response Group attests to the UK’s capability and commitment to the Indo-Pacific. The sight of Royal Navy ships undergoing essential maintenance at an Indian shipyard is yet another example of the India-UK Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in practice.”

After maintenance, the visiting ships will conduct a maritime exercise with the Indian Navy for the first time in the Arabian Sea off the Chennai coast.

It has been expected that the US will extend support to develop infrastructure in India to provide logistics support to its naval assets operating in the Indo-Pacific.

With a paltry budget of US $13.9 billion for the financial year 2024, the US Navy is facing the difficult task of meeting its repair needs. A Government Accountability Office report released in 2023 found that the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, the Navy’s mainstay surface ship, averaged 26 days of depot maintenance delay in fiscal 2021.

Operating and support costs grew by about $2.5 billion across 10 ship classes while the number of propulsion hours in which ships were operating or training dipped during a 10-year period that ended in 2021.

The American surface warship maintenance is done by two private shipyards – General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company and BAE Systems Ship Repair. “If one of these suppliers decided to exit the market, the Navy would need time to find alternate providers,” a RAND Corporation report noted.

India In The West’s Indo-Pacific Equation

The US Navy envisions that its warships transiting through the region will undergo short-term maintenance while reducing the burden on American shipyards reeling under labor shortages.

So far, the Auxiliary ships have undergone maintenance; in the future, they will be extended to destroyers, amphibious warships, and other big ships. Nuclear-powered ships, like aircraft carriers and submarines, are not part of this vision.

In a speech to the National Press Club in Washington in February, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said, “The ability of the United States Navy to be able to do forward-based repair and maintenance is critical.”

Noting the successful experience of repairing a US Navy ship in India in 2023, Del Toro said, “We’re also looking at other opportunities throughout Asia as well to where we might be able to do that as well, perhaps in the Philippines and Singapore and other places like that.”

Indian experts in the past have suggested developing the archipelago of Andamans and Nicobar as one of the hubs. The islands sit on the mouth of Malacca Strait, an important entry point to the South China Sea. The US has been using the islands for ‘Gas and Go.’

P-8 Poseidon
File Image: P-8 Poseidon

In 2020, at the peak of India and China tensions, the US Navy’s long-range anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, P-8 Poseidon, carried out its maiden refueling from India’s strategic base in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Thereafter, it continued on its onward journey.

The 571 islands serve as India’s launching pad to the Asia Pacific region and are also referred to as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” They are the country’s only operating joint service command, and plans are afoot to upgrade the infrastructure there. Also, its geostrategic location will help the US increase its reach in the Indo-Pacific.

The logistics support would include food, water, billeting, transportation, petroleum, oil, lubricants, clothing, medical services, spare parts and components, repair and maintenance services, training services, and other logistical items and services.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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