On 5th of May 2020, Indian Navy had launched its Operation “Samudra Setu” – meaning “Sea Bridge”, as a part of national effort to repatriate stranded Indian citizens from overseas. Indian Naval Ships INS Jalashwa and Magar were tasked, and further sailed off for the port of Malè, Republic of Maldives and commenced the evacuation operations from 08 May 2020 in phases.

On a war footing stride, The Indian Navy made suitable preparations to undertake this evacuation by sea. This operation is being progressed in close coordination with the Ministry of Defence, External Affairs, Home Affairs, Health and various other agencies of the Government of India and State governments. The Indian Navy has carried out similar Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) from overseas on earlier occasions, as part of Op-Sukoon (2006) and Op-Rahat (2015).

The Indian Mission in the Republic of Maldives prepared a list of Indian nationals to be evacuated by Naval ships and further facilitated their embarkation after the requisite medical screening. A total of 1000 persons are on plan to be evacuated during the first trip, catering for COVID-related social distancing norms vis-a-vis the carrying capacity and medical facilities available onboard.

The ships have been suitably provisioned for the evacuation operation. The evacuated personnel would be provided with the basic amenities and medical facilities during the sea-passage. In view of the unique challenges associated with COVID-19 stringent protocols have also been stipulated. The evacuated personnel will be disembarked at Kochi, Kerala and entrusted to the care of State authorities.

On 7th of May, INS Jalashwa arrived off the port of Male in the morning hours to undertake the evacuation of Indian citizens stranded at the Maldives during the ongoing pandemic, to bring back the Indian nationals home from foreign shores. INS Jalashwa, the Indian Navy’s Landing Platform Dock (LPD) with its capacity to generate 3MW of electrical power, 60,000 gallons (212 tons) of fresh water a day and extensive medical facilities, seems to be the best-suited vessel to undertake the HADR missions.

The ship has been provided relief and COVID protection material as well as medical and administrative support staff. As a precautionary measure, for the transit back to India the ship will be zoned to prevent intermingling of the crew with the evacuees. It is planned to evacuate about 750 persons.

On 8th of May, evacuation of Indian citizens from Maldives began in the morning as INS Jalashwa docked at Male with the premises of Male airport being utilized as a staging area for our citizens, the process of screening people and issuing them with IDs is on presently. As per the latest manifest then, a total of 732 personnel has registered, and that included 19 pregnant women and 14 children. The Defence Attaché Male visited the ship on arrival to discuss and further coordinate the procedures for embarkation.

Baggage disinfection stations, Medical screening and Reception desks at the jetty were set up to ensure safe embarkation whilst following social distancing norms. Priority is being accorded for pregnant ladies and children to embark first and bunk allocation has also been undertaken by the ship’s crew catering to age / medical requirements.

Later, INS Jalashwa set sail from Male, the Maldives bringing back 698 evacuees of Indian national which included 595 males, 103 females and 19 pregnant ladies on-board. Commencement of Operation Samudra Setu on 08 May 2020 was marked with INS Jalashwa embarking 698 stranded Indian citizens in Port of Male, Maldives.

Western Fleet ships mission deployed in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) joined INS Jalashwa, on her passage back from Maldives; highlighting India’s unwavering commitment to safeguarding her diaspora anywhere in the world. On her passage back to Kochi, Kerala, Western Fleet ships joined her in a demonstration of Indian Navy’s commitment to the national effort.

Amidst the global pandemic of COVID-19, Indian Naval ships are deployed to support the ongoing national effort to repatriate Indian nationals across the seas. Whilst INS Jalashwa sails towards the mainland for disembarkation at Cochin Port Trust terminal on Sunday, May 10th, INS Magar made her way to enter Male port.

On 10th of May, INS Magar, arrived at Male Port to continue the repatriation effort of the Indian Government. INS Magar, an LST(L) designed for landing operations, had made all necessary logistic, medical, and administrative preparations at her base port Kochi to comfortably accommodate civilians before setting sail towards the Maldives.

The ship intended to evacuate about 200 citizens while ensuring all precautions related to COVID-19 including social distancing norms are followed. Even as heavy rains at Male made conditions difficult, the ship planned to ensure safety of people. As an SOP zoned section of the ship with essential facilities like food and washrooms were prepared to accommodate the evacuees and a separate mess has been allotted for ladies, infants, and senior citizens.

Additional precautions have been taken by dividing the evacuees into groups to avoid crowding at common areas like dining hall, bathrooms etc. A total of 202 personnel later embarked the ship, which includes 24 women, 2 expectant mothers and 2 children. One of the men, who hails from Tamil Nadu, had a fractured leg. In line with the procedure followed on 08th of May, the evacuees were screened medically, their baggage disinfected and were allotted IDs as per various zones earmarked on board the ship.INS Magar departed Male on 10th evening for Kochi on completion of embarkation.

INS Jalashwa will be evacuating approx 700 Indian nationals from Malè to Kochi on 15 May 2020, during her second repatriation sortie. Jalashwa has already repatriated 698 citizens to India on 10 May during her first sortie. INS Magar, carrying 202 Indian nationals is likely to reach Kochi by evening today 12 May 2020 (approx 1800hrs).

An unclassified brief on the participating IN ships and the previous Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) has been emphasized over here for our valued readers.

The launching of ground forces to sustain operations ashore in a hostile environment always been a crucial task for the Indian Navy. While traditionally such capability has existed in the Navy through conventional amphibious vessels, in contemporary times, such operations are best conducted by vessels that are capable of stand-off beaching. Such ships are called expeditionary operations platforms. The unprecedented tsunami in December 2004 brought out a critical capability gap in the Indian Navy’s inventory. It was the capability to provide Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR) from undeveloped/ semi-developed coastlines.

Most ships carrying relief material had a small helicopter (Chetak) as well as small boats with limited load-carrying capability. Ships such as destroyers and frigates, though loaded with relief supplies and disaster relief bricks, required berths and jetty cranes which were located at a considerable distance from the devastation site.

It was also observed that LPDs from Singapore and US navies were very effective. The Indian Navy, therefore, scouted and shortlisted USS Trenton (Landing Platform Dock or LPD) as the most suitable platform to fulfil intermediate capability till the Indian Navy builds its own LPD class of ships. Six second-hand UH-3H helicopters were offered to the Indian Navy and these are proving to be true force multipliers for a ship engaged in any kind of an operation-from HADR to out-of-area contingencies to evacuation operations.

INS Jalashwa

USS Trenton was commissioned as INS Jalashwa on 22 June 2007 at Norfolk, USA. Since her commissioning in 2007, INS Jalashwa has proved to be an extremely valuable acquisition to the Navy’s arsenal. Her integration with the fleet has expanded the force architecture of the Navy and has been imparting valuable experience in running, deploying, and maintaining an LPD.

Her participation in exercises requiring amphibious capability, strategic sealift and HADR missions has expanded the window of exposure to the fleet and planners ashore. INS Jalashwa has a full load displacement of 17,521 tonnes. She is 179m in length and has a width of 30.5m. She can achieve a max speed of 21 knots and has a complement of 330 personnel. She also has 4 LCMs for transporting troops ashore.

The main weapon systems of the ship comprise of CIWS-two AK630 Gun Mounts and 25 mm Gun mount.

INS Magar

INS Magar was commissioned by Admiral RH Tahiliani, Chief of the Naval Staff on 15 July 1987 with Pennant No. L-20 at GRSE Yard, (then) Calcutta. Commander DB Roy was the first Commanding Officer. INS Magar is the lead ship of the Magar class amphibious warfare vessels of the Indian Navy.

She took part in Operation Pawan during which she was involved in the transfer of Army troops and vehicles from Chennai to Sri Lanka. INS Magar has a displacement of 5,750 tonnes. The ship has a length of 120 metres and a beam of 17.5 metres. As an amphibious ship, she can carry Tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers for transportation to target beaches.

The ship can also carry a strength of 500 fully laden troops nearly 10 days, in addition to her own crew. The main weapon systems of the ship comprise of CRN 91 Guns, Chaff launcher (KAVACH) and the WM-18A Rocket launcher. The ship also carries 4 LCVPs onboard which can be used for landing of troops. INS Magar has the capability to the beach and discharge tanks, APCs and troops directly onto the target territory. The bow door of the ship opens after beaching to discharge the load embarked in the tank spaces. Other ships of the class include Gharial, Shardul, Kesari and Airavat.

(The writer is a Delhi-based independent contributor to print and online publications)