Maritime dynamics in 21st Century are changing round the clock. For Pakistan it’s time to re-align, rebalance and reorient while competition and conflicts in Indo-Pacific region are at high nodes, regional crisis fetching international attention, roughly 4,000 major ports becoming hot-spots, high seas facilitating 95 percent of transnational trade, more than US$6 trillion transit business going on every year and threats of piracy, terrorism, smuggling and human, drug and weapon trafficking anchored at sea.
Today, maritime scenarios at sea are shifting rapidly due to growing regional/extra-regional covert and overt interests in Indo-Pacific Theater while encirclement of China in the South China Sea and Indian massive naval build-up again a threat multiplier for Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Latest Indian inductions of indigenously built and foreign procured naval variants have clearly challenged neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan.
India has allocated estimated US$13 billion (10 per cent increased) budget in 2017 for the Naval modernization with an aim at achieving a force level of almost 200 warships by 2027, alone from the current fleet of 137. About, more than 40 platforms ranging from submarines to aircraft carrier are being built at Indian shipyards. The major warship construction programmes in progress include the aircraft carrier, destroyers, submarines (06 Conventional and 06 nuclear) with ballistic missile capability, corvettes, stealth frigates and fast-attack boats. While a separate budget allocated for procurement of helicopters, aircraft and rest of the types of equipment including Indian coast guard ships and fast attack boats.
These future plans, with the United States support, clearly indicates that India is now trying hard to become a “Blue Water Navy – a regional hegemon” but according to some famous defence experts, Indian Navy is no-where among top five in Asia. Certainly, this is not somewhat a luxury but a necessity for Pakistan to focus on a Navy, which is ultimately vigorous in dealing multi-dimensional threats emerging out of Indian Ocean dominant naval posturing.
Is Pakistan, shouldn’t but must have to grow consistently with its naval strength? A question that is common within maritime ranks in South Asia, particularly within the country. Most strategists believe that a potent, advance and robust “Green Water Navy” is vital for Pakistan. A navy that has a rock solid authority to defend its shores, littoral waters, continental shelves, islands, and sea lanes of communications, environment and economic interests.
Emerging global and regional scenarios, focused mainly on strengthening naval forces but what exactly prevented Pakistan to not to follow it? Many maritime experts view that how a country can rest in complete peace with sea blindness? The first answer is obvious, financial limitations and second bleak focus at this vital aspect of national security, at least, prior to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, but now the situation is entirely different.
Unfortunately countrywide, “Navy” mostly considered being a myth, then a reality. It was never adequately being taken into contemplation at highest ranks of decision-making forums in parliament, academia, economic and mass media. It’s a bitter fact that without a robust, dynamic and contemporary four-dimensional naval force; dreams of being an economic giant will never become true.
For years, Pakistan Navy (PN) proved to be a well-versed force in all sorts of maritime challenges with its mixed strength of arsenal and sea variants. After territorial sea-bed (continental shelf) extension in 2015, the presence of huge amount of shale oil and gas deposits beneath, CPEC project, maritime silk route including trade arteries and strengthening ports security including Gwadar, responsibilities get further widened. This could attract potential aggressors likely India to disrupt Pakistan’s naval calculations at maritime spheres.
It’s beyond doubt that constantly PN emerges from a fledgeling force to a fighting machine but ageing sea variants at hand could hamper the realities of future, which needs urgent and pragmatic decisions making. It is, therefore, PN modernization, at the technical and tactical level, is inevitable with intent to aggressively defend the country.
The foundation and formulation of 2017 carved “Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan” by naval strategists seem to have a first major serious approach to present relative intelligibility to growing maritime developments, analyzing the conventional, sub-conventional and even non-conventional threats, saving country’s interests and underpinning the prevailing environment. Under the doctrine, it’s widely believed that this would develop a clear direction for policy and decision makers to development sea strength, embed coherence and uniformity between thoughts and actions and helps in cooperation with sister services like an army, air force, naval forces of friendly and allied countries.
Naval leadership has pathfinder and pivotal role in taking some crucial but consistent and intelligent decisions to bring existing resources, requirements and options together at the table, analyze and act instantly. Today’s navy is eager to enlarge its fleet power and competence with inductions of surface and sub-surface variants, modernize its air-arm and land forces.
Currently regarding surface vessels, PN mixed warship fleet consists of US, British and Chinese variants with accumulative displacement range from 2500-4100 tons and having capability in anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft warfare. India is jumping to a 200 warships benchmark till 2020 and beyond, this situation needs to be taken seriously as PN’s most ships will retire around next five years’ time and sea guardians will leave with only 4 to 5 ships, quite a disturbing scenario and unable to coup the complex challenges ahead.
Sea strategists have their eye on five (out of eight) decommissioned, German F-122 Bremen-class frigates, in service since 1982-84 and had 35 years of active service with Deutsche Marine, German Navy. These ships were strongly built hull and propulsion systems, more than 3600 tons of displacement and 428 ft length, designed to have anti-surface/air/subsurface roles. Although, Berman-class frigates were vertebrae of the German navy, served in crucial times even in international waters and now mostly replaced with latest F-125 frigates. German authorities are constantly in touch to sell these frigates, to Pakistan. Independent analysts believe that although the quick arrival of at least 4-5 such frigates would multiply naval surface power, their regular replacements of spare parts, sensors upgrade, armament carrying capacity and other inventories still a question? What navy experienced very badly during late 80’s in case of US – Brook and Garcia-class frigates.
United Kingdom’s Type-23, Duke-class frigates are also available till 2023, as most of the ships would be decommissioned from Royal Navy between 2023-2036 while 03 out of 16, already transferred to Chilean Navy. Turkey’s D’Estienne d’Orves-class Aviso, French Georges-Leygues-class (also known as Cassard-class), Swedish Goteborg-class corvette and Spanish Santa-María-class frigates would also be available for Pakistan between 2018-2022. These options have all the requirements available, what Pakistan Navy intends to grasp?
Western choices are not bad either but considering new, modern and cheap platforms could add to naval strength for years to come. So to weight a realistic option, multi-role, full spectrum utilization, with peacetime patrol to ‘hot’ conflict operations and financially more viable than any expensive western technology. If navy narrow down such a preference, then that only exists with China and Turkey.
Chinese have generously offered Pakistan to not only sell newly designed frigates/destroyers/corvettes (whatever the choice may be) but also jointly build with prospects of transfer of technology. It seems naval high-ups have fruitful negotiations with Beijing for another four frigates soon, with the financial question could replicate with any kind of soft-loan for such sales. China is turning out to be a progressively more proficient warship designer and its Type-056 class corvette with cost USD$230 million and Type-053H3 (Jiangwei II-class light frigate) are available as the export version. Their improved version already exists in Pakistan Navy, as Zulfiqar Class, having cost USD$175 million and 054A (Jiangkai-II class) frigate having cost USD$348 million, could be a smart picking. These Chinese warships having displacements range from 1500 tons to 4000 tons and this is exactly what Pakistan requires at this point in time.
Turkey is also curious to design, construct and deliver corvettes to Pakistan. Turkish Ada-class MILGEM corvettes program, run built by the Istanbul Naval Shipyard Command, is a robust warship, with displacement varying from 2400 to 3000 tones, having cost around USD$260 million.
These corvettes capable of sustaining in a littoral combat environment, having latest features including reconnaissance, surveillance, target identification, early warning, anti-submarine warfare, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air warfare, with abilities to have amphibious operations. Several classified precautions were taken in order to reduce hydrodynamic, acoustic, magnetic, Infra-red, radar signatures, and therefore, to achieve the specified level of stealth feature. According to some reports, Pakistan and Turkey are very nearer in finalizing four to six Ada-class corvettes over a 10-year program, of which, tentatively three to be manufactured in local shipyards in Turkey while rest planned to be in Pakistan. Turkey has already announced a USD$400 million loan/line-of-credit to help finance the acquisitions but now, not clear whether this offer still intact or not.
Moreover, after 1971 war’s harsh experience, Pakistan is now actively relying on smart, fast attack and quick manoeuvrable missile crafts as an asymmetric offset regarding littoral defence. Induction of some Chinese, Turkish, US and indigenously built fast attack crafts (FACs) and patrol boats is an ongoing robust program. Along with that development of the net-centric Command, Control, Communications, Computers & Intelligence (C4I) system within the PN that allows aircraft to have direct attacks on targets or to coordinate from weapon launch platforms, such as surface and sub-surface platforms along with land-based missile launching pads. This C4I system is to make the complex operational environment, quick, comprehensive and accurate, to get full appreciation spectrum of the battlespace.
The aspect of air and sub-surface fleet, in naval armament, is lethal in many cases in maritime scenarios but to enhance a surface fleet at fast pace should be the first and foremost priority along with at least a sub-surface armada.
Over the years, the Naval Research & Development Authority (NRDA), Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KS&EW) integrated with Maritime Technologies Complex (MTC) has boasted the data analysis, research and development work by translating knowledge, creativity, innovation through available facilities, trained and skilled manpower, raw material and technology into most modern sea vessels, weapons and missile systems. Although, Pakistan still needs to improve such facilities into state of the art modern scientific shipbuilding services and shipyards, modernizing KS&EW and building a new one at Gawadar are promising prospects but Pakistan still lagging behind many South Asian nations.
Pakistan’s current sea strength especially surface fleet requires out of the box solutions. Designation of continental shelf into country’s “5th province”, a portion of National Finance Commission (NFC) award could be allocated for that and special yearly budget allocations be made mandatory for naval modernization but with trifling, 11-12 percent portion of defence budget will never provide the long-term protection from seaward emerging but countless threats.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.