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Niche Defence Exports

Vessels such as patrol boats and offshore patrol vessels (OPV), though not as ‘glamorous’ as the range of warships, have the greatest export potential in terms of quantity. There is need to give more momentum to the construction of different types of patrol boats in India, both for domestic and export purposes, through a dedicated programme.

Issue: 5/2022 By Vice Admiral A.K. Chawla (Retd)Photo(s): By indiannavy / Twitter, IndiaCoastGuard / Twitter, ihcdhaka / Twitter
The Author was the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command when he retired on November 30, 2021. He is a Navigation and Direction specialist. He was also the Director General Naval Operations and the Chief of Personnel, Indian Navy.


Patrol boats occupy the bottom of the ‘food chain’, as far as navies and coast guards of the world are concerned. Yet, like the bottom of the food chain in other aspects of life, they are indispensable and carry out roles that bigger warships either cannot or are uneconomical for them to do so due to their designed capability for high intensity warfare, higher operating costs and ineffective utilisation of valuable human capital for low end tasks. The major advantages of patrol boats include the facts that: they have a low capital cost; are economical to operate and maintain; can enter shallow waters and small harbours due to their lower draught; do not require extensive berthing arrangements; and have high speeds and excellent manoeuvring capabilities. Of course, patrol boats have their drawbacks – principally lesser endurance and armament (than bigger ships) and limitations of operation in higher sea states.

The variety of roles carried out by patrol boats include: shore assault; anti-submarine and anti-surface operations; mine laying, mine-hunting and towing of minesweeping dyads; low intensity maritime operations (which includes a range of tasks from anti-piracy operations to anti-terrorist operations); close coast patrolling; search and rescue; EEZ patrols; fishery protection; surveillance and tracking of other vessels; boarding and/or seizure of merchant vessels; diving operations; harbour patrolling; international maritime boundary line (IMBL)/border patrol; immigration law enforcement; and a host of other miscellaneous tasks such as range clearance for firing operations by bigger ships, escort of smaller boats in the open sea, etc. In today’s maritime environment, where low intensity maritime operations and operations in the grey zone of warfare occupy most of the time of navies, the role and relevance of patrol boats is only going to grow. This growth will also be fed by the emergence of unmanned autonomous patrol boats, based on the new technologies of artificial intelligence, information and communication technology and propulsion.

From the Second World War and till the end of the 20th century, patrols boats were generally built for specialist operating roles, with separate classes being built for roles such as; anti-surface, anti-submarine, patrolling, shore assault, etc. However, today patrol boats tend to have a more allround capability, though anti-submarine and anti-surface roles still tend to be on separate classes of patrol boats, due to their smaller size. With improvements in hull designs, such as catamarans and trimarans; advanced materials for hulls, such as new types of steel, aluminium alloys and composites; new propulsion systems and better engines; the speeds of patrol boats have also increased exponentially, with many now capable of doing up to 50 knots. Radar absorbent materials and structural modifications of the upper decks have resulted in greatly reduced radar, magnetic and infra-red signatures, making them much harder to detect by bigger ships. The type of armament carried by patrol boats has also become more refined, with a variety of new stabilised weapons and sensors, controlled both by radar and visual and/or IR sights, which enable the boats to achieve their mission, even in rough sea states. New communication and navigation systems along with integrated bridge systems have made their navigation, communication and operation much easier. The latest entrants include unmanned autonomous patrol boats, capable of both anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare; new types of propulsion, such as electric and solar; and a high degree of automation in the operation of machinery and other equipment, which have vastly increased their operational capability, endurance and range of operation, while substantially reducing (or eliminated) the numbers of ship’s crew required to operate them at sea and their operating costs.

There are several advantages for India for undertaking such a programme as it would infuse new designs and technologies currently available in the world for use by the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and other agencies within the country

Not surprisingly, the presence of various types of patrol boats is ubiquitous across all navies, coast guards, police forces and customs organisations of the world. In fact, a majority of global navies, including most navies of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), comprise brown water craft mainly patrol boats, due to their versatility and affordability. Indeed, it has been estimated that the current global inventory of patrol boats in the world’s navies alone comprises over 1,190 vessels. This is also the reason for the steady growth in the global market size for patrol boats, which was $226.7 million in 2020 and is expected to reach $371.3 million by the end of 2027, with a CAGR of 7.3 per cent between 2021 and 2027. The patrol boats market is generally classified into Small Patrol Boats, Medium Patrol Boats and Large Patrol Boats, with the small and medium sized patrol boats being used for ‘brown water’ operations and large patrol boats designed for ‘blue water’ roles. The global patrol boat industry has been historically concentrated in Europe, North America and Australia, with China, Israel, UAE, Turkey, etc being relatively new entrants in this segment. Not surprisingly, they have the lion’s share of the global export market for patrol boats.

Closer home to India, there is a substantial market for patrol boats in the navies, coast guards and other maritime forces of IOR, Middle East, Red Sea and SE Asian littorals, most of which have maritime forces that comprise a variety of small, medium and large patrol boats. An internet search reveals that there are currently 1,908 global tenders (286 of which are issued from India) for the procurement, repair or lease/hiring of patrol boats from countries and organisations around the globe. In fact, the demand of small and medium patrol boats by maritime forces in the IOR alone is estimated to be at least in the region of 100-150 boats over the next five years, using a conservative estimate of replacement or induction of only two-three boats for every country’s maritime forces.

Indigenous Patrol Boats and OPVs: (Left-Right) Patrol Boat; ICG Ship Vigraha indigenously built by L&T; INS Sumedha, a 105m long Offshore Patrol Vessel by Goa Shipyard

India has a long history of construction of patrol boats. In fact, the first indigenous ship constructed in India was a patrol boat, INS Ajay, at the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) in 1961. Since then, Indian public and private sector shipyards, especially GRSE, Goa Shipyard Ltd. (GSL), Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL) and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), have constructed a large number of patrol boats for both Indian and foreign navies, coast guards and other maritime forces. In addition, the Indian Navy has gifted a number of patrol boats to Bangladesh, Seychelles, Maldives and Mauritius over the past five decades. Currently, six patrol boats are being constructed for the Bangladesh Navy at GRSE, while GSL is constructing eight large fast patrol boats for the Coast Guard, besides supplying small patrol boats to the Indian Army for patrolling the Pangong Tso Lake in Leh-Ladakh. In addition, L&T has been contracted by the Vietnam Government to build 12 high speed patrol boats for their Border Guard. The Indian Coast Guard had issued a Request for Information (RFI) for 18 new patrol boats in 2021. The Indian Navy too is likely to go in for the acquisition of new patrol boats over the next few years to replace its existing craft. The Marine Police wings of various coastal states, and other maritime organisations within India, also urgently need large numbers small patrol boats for close coast and harbour patrolling. In the recent past, Indian shipyards have been in the fray for patrol boat requirements of countries in the Middle East and Africa, which could fructify in the years ahead. However, there is need to give more momentum to the construction of different types of patrol boats in India, both for domestic and export purposes, through a dedicated programme.

In the 1980s, Australia had launched a far-reaching initiative to supply patrol boats to the South Pacific Island countries termed as the ‘Pacific Patrol Boat Programme’. Under this programme, 22 Pacific class patrol boats were constructed by Australia and donated to twelve South Pacific Island countries between 1985 and 1997, to be operated by their navies, coast guards or police forces. The patrol boats used commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ (COTS) components and training and maintenance support was ensured by Australia. These are now being replaced by the newer Guardian class patrol boats, 21 of which have been contracted with the Australian shipyard Austal, under the SEA 3036 Phase 1 Pacific Boat Replacement Project. The newer boats are slightly larger and have better sea-keeping qualities than the Pacific class. On the same lines, India too needs to launch an Indian Ocean Patrol Boat Programme for smaller IOR littorals, based on a common hull design, on which equipment can be installed depending on the individual requirements of each country. In fact, the QUAD offers an ideal umbrella under which this programme can be launched with the design and technology being shared by all four countries, and the relatively cheaper manufacturing costs in India being leveraged for manufacturing them for use by both QUAD countries and for sale/lease/gifting to smaller IOR littorals. This would open up the much awaited collaboration in defence equipment between the QUAD, something that has been talked about for a long time, but not yet realised. It would also offer excellent competition to China, whose patrol boats (among other weapon platforms) have flooded into these countries in recent years.

There are several advantages for India for undertaking such a programme. Firstly, it would infuse new designs and technologies currently available in the world for use by the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and other agencies within the country; for despite our long history of ship-building and known design and manufacturing ship-building capability, we seem to have lagged in designing new generation patrol boats, of the type being manufactured today by western countries and China, and have been content to continue with older designs or refine existing ones. Secondly, it would optimally use the existing ship-building capability in the country, both in the public and private sector, a large part of which is under-utilised. The unit cost of manufacturing of the patrol boats would also decrease, as the numbers being manufactured rises. Thirdly, it would offer a great opportunity to design or refine existing indigenous weapons and sensors, such as navigation radars, remote controlled small calibre guns, optical sights, etc, which are today being largely imported. Fourthly, it would also offer a good market for the export of spares and services to maintain these patrol boats, as most recipient countries do not have the facilities or the expertise to do so, with the added benefit of standardisation for MRO and spares. Lastly, it would enhance inter-operability with the recipient navies, for mutual operational benefit.

The major difficulties in progressing down this path include a lack of investment in R&D by shipyards in both private and public sectors, and the fact that many of the countries seeking patrol boats in the IOR require to be given lines of credit at low interest rates for purchase of such boats, or given gratis, with the additional burden of funding their routine maintenance and refit. The former needs to be encouraged by funding or subsidising development costs incurred by shipyards (as China is doing);preparation of newdesigns for patrol boats by the Indian Navy’s Design organisation; and supporting material and equipment trials through existing naval and DRDO testing and trial facilities. Collaboration with QUAD private sector manufacturers is another way to achieve the required R&D. As far as funding is concerned, while this indeed is a problem, the cost-benefit ratio of subsidising or bearing such expenditure is favourable due to the various spin-off benefits that will accrue, and an emerging global power such as India needs to be ready to foot the bill, which is not considerable.

Under the ‘Make in India’ and Atmanirbhar Bharat programmes, the aim should be for India to capture at least 5-10 per cent of the global patrol boat manufacturing market in the years ahead. While India today possesses the capability to design and build the entire range of warships, from aircraft carriers to submarines, these platforms have a limited market, as the numbers required by the Indian Navy and other maritime forces of the world are limited and episodic. On the other hand, vessels such as patrol boats and offshore patrol vessels (OPV) – though not as ‘glamorous’ as aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and submarines – have the greatest export potential in terms of quantity. Export of patrol boats is also less troublesome in terms of transfer of technology (ToT) and the optics to the international community, as they are not designed for high intensity warfare and mainly contribute to ensuring the safety of the global commons. It is therefore, imperative, that this segment of warships, which is often taken for granted, receives due attention.