Pakistan’s Naval Future

The Pakistan Navy (PN) faces a future with narrowing options and prospects, just as the country finds itself being moved closer into the Chinese orbit by the developing strategic shape of central, north and south Asia.

6th Jun 2013


 Pakistan’s Naval Future

Byline: Mark Farrer / Canberra

The Pakistan Navy (PN) faces a future with narrowing options and prospects, just as the country finds itself being moved closer into the Chinese orbit by the developing strategic shape of central, north and south Asia.

Any nation’s military capability depends on its economy. The economy of Pakistan is in a poor and deteriorating condition. Historically (1951/52 until 2011/12), the average economic growth was 5%, varying from -1.8% to +10.2%. The country has not emulated the remarkable and steady development of the rest of Asia - a development which has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty and led to industrialisation, integration into the global economy and a brighter future for hundreds of millions. Pakistan remains one of the poorest countries in the region, with a semi-industrialised economy that is not doing well. Literacy is low, the education system is poor, and aid, agriculture and remittances remain central to the economy. Worse, GDP growth is outstripped by population growth, meaning that per capita income is actually falling. Much of the foreign aid vanishes into corrupt governance practises and rare is the foreign investor willing to risk capital in a country with locally mutable laws and deeply ingrained corruption. On top of this is the rising influence of Islamists in the country, which more closely resembles a collection of city-states and warlord-dominated hinterlands than a Westphalian nation-state.

For a continental state in such an environment, the army must have first call on resources for national security, followed by the air force, with the navy a definite last. This ‘last for funding priority’ position is exacerbated by the demands naval forces place on highly educated, skilled manpower - something Pakistan is very short of. The traditional source of naval support has been the UK and USA: both have supplied second-hand warships for low prices in the past. Now there is a marked reluctance to do so. Consequentially, the upgrade of the Pakistan Navy is in grave doubt, and the already-wide gap between the PN and the Indian Navy - against whom it measures itself - is set to widen dramatically. The economy of Pakistan cannot provide the resources to maintain, let alone much expand, the PN.

The PN is a significant force for a nation with only a few hundred miles of shoreline, its major units being 11 frigates (four Chinese-designed F-22P Zulfiquar class, six obsolescent ex-RN Type 21 class and a Oliver Hazard Perry class lacking its helicopter and SAM system) and five submarines (two elderly Agosta class and three Agosta 90-B). The problem with these major units is that the six Type 21 class and two Agosta class are obsolescent at best. Worse, the combat systems of the Type 21 are particularly dated and suffer serious reliability issues. The PN has been arguing in Islamabad for the purchase of four to seven ex-USN Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates or for the purchase of the four Batch 3 Type 42 class destroyers the RN is disposing of.

It is not likely to get either.

There is very little chance in current circumstances of the USA agreeing to the PN acquisition of any of the Perry class it is retiring during 2013-14. The six scheduled to be retired in fiscal year 2013 have been offered for foreign disposal. Taiwan is the most serious contender, as it wishes to replace all eight of its ex-USN Knox class ASW frigates. The Oliver Hazard Perry class is particularly suited to Taiwan, having a good ASW capability and an AAW capability the Knox class lacks can easily be added to them. This class is in some demand, with both Mexico and Thailand also discussing acquisition of ex-USN vessels with Washington. In view of this and the issues the USA (and indeed the UK) are experiencing with Pakistan it is not likely that a PN request for ex-USN frigates will be favourable received. The UK is somewhat more likely to sell the PN the four Batch 3 Type 42 class but the relevant word is sell, and Islamabad has little money to devote to such a project.

In addition, India is a significant market for British military equipment and the British are well aware of hostile Indian views on the sale of warships with even semi-modern capabilities to the PN - a navy entirely lacking an area defence SAM capability. The Chinese FM-90 system fitted to the Zulfiqar class is at best a point defence system and is relatively incapable against modern SSM. PNS Alamgir, the PN’s sole Perry class, is not fitted with the Mk 13/Standard SAM system she was built with. It was removed from USN service in 2004, four years before she was transferred. It is unlikely that London would be willing to risk future sales to India, which has a rapidly expanding economy and which is getting wealthier even in per capita terms in order to sell four Type 42 class destroyers to the PN.

Essentially, the only realistic, affordable source of new frigates is China. Analysis of past announcements by the PN indicates that their preferred order of battle is six to eight Perry class complete with a SAM system for at least point defence, the four existing Zulfiqar class (F-22P) and four Type 54A (Jiangkai II) complete with its 32-cell HQ-16 VLS system. This missile is a joint People's Republic of China – Russian upgrade of the Russian Navy’s 9K37M1-2 'Shtil' (NATO SA-N-12). This is an area-defence SAM system of good capability - yet even the Chinese want some money on the table.

There is little doubt that the Chinese will sell the additional four F-22P (Zulfiqar) class ships Pakistan is widely reported to have ordered in late 2012, yet purchasing these might well make financing any possible deal for AAW-capable Type 54A class ships unaffordable even at ‘political influence’ prices. It is certain that China would use such a deal to continue the process of enmeshing Pakistan in their area of influence and in their effort to keep India encircled – and they cannot be ‘blamed’ for this. China faces a problem it has never before experienced in its history in that it is now economically dependent on imported energy: China is now dependent on maritime trade. This has never occurred before. A Chinese ally using Chinese equipment, under significant Chinese influence and located in the mouth of the Gulf of Oman is obviously in their interest. Much of China’s oil now comes from the Persian Gulf. However, there is little evidence to support the persistent low-reliability reports that the Chinese plan to build, acquire or use a naval base in Pakistan.

So while the Type-54A would be a good match for the PN’s area air defence requirements such an acquisition might indicate more than a simple purchase. Indeed, any PN acquisition of Chinese-built warships would well repay close examination of its financial terms. Generous financial terms from China would be evidence of Chinese strategic policy towards protection of their now-essential trade routes. The obvious trade-off inside the ‘significant changes and upgrades’ the PN has requested for the four-ship order is to upgrade from FM-90 to HQ-16 VLS as fitted to the Type 54A. It has to be stressed that at time of writing there was no confirmation of this part of the requested upgrade package, although it is confirmed that Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW) will be building two of the new ships. KSEW is also building three Azmat class fast attack craft, the first of class having been built in China at Xingang Shipyard. The ships are a 560 ton fast attack with C-802A surface-to-surface missiles. The vessels are 60 metres long, have a range of 1 000 nautical miles and a top speed of 30 knots. They are a cheap and reasonably modern missile craft although their SSM fit cannot be regarded as particularly effective.

When China Shipbuilding Trading Corporation (CSTC) secured the four-ship, improved F-22P Zulfiquar class order, no details were released regarding the nature of the changes the PN required for the type. What was announced was that the changes requested had been accepted, and that “A spokesman for CSTC was unable to say if the eight FM-90 SAMs (based on French ‘Crotale’ copies) would be replaced by a larger number of more capable missiles housed in a VLS….” It would be premature to come to any conclusion that HQ-16 might be fitted to these four ships, but the possibility of it should be carefully noted.

The PN is also in dire need of new submarines. The two Agosta 70 cannot be considered operational even though they are still reported to operate in local waters. These are believed to be training activities. The three Agosta-90B are a modern and capable platform, yet once again a replacement program should be well under way by now. There are few signs that one is since the end of the 2011 talks concerning Pakistan’s negotiations for a deal for six Chinese-built submarines. The PN has been actively canvassing other builders since 2011, but the problem once again is money. Once again the only realistic option is China, which currently has two modern submarine designs in production or available. These are the 4,000-ton (submerged) Type-041 Yuan class, and a smaller design, the 2,300-ton (submerged) S-20. Both can be fitted with an AIP module. The constant speculation regarding the PN acquiring Chinese SSN remains merely that, there is no evidence even of a Chinese willingness to discuss such a matter, and the PN’s ability to operate an SSN is assessed to be low. They will be doing well to maintain extant numbers of capable submarines (three) over the longer term.

Of deeper concern is the steady Sinification of the PN. It is altering from a western-oriented force with older but capable ex-RN and ex-USN types, to a Chinese ‘satellite’ Navy, with a gradual decrease in non-Chinese influences being noteworthy. This is certainly in China’s strategic interest, yet it is not necessarily against western interests either. China now has a valid strategic requirement for a local partner of some sort – at the very least they will continue to shoulder an increasing burden of traditional ‘maritime constabulary’ functions: anti-piracy being just the most obvious. And this is driven not by Chinese expansionism into the Indian Ocean, but by their new strategic reality – that’s where a lot of their energy imports come from. The ‘interesting twist’ in this strategic alteration is the tension between China and Pakistan on one hand and India on the other. In that equation several factors are still to come fully to flower. First among these are the implications of the new US Air-Sea Battle doctrine and the so-called (and almost certainly hollow, given his rundown of the US military) Obama policy of the ‘Asia Pivot’. What is certain is that a slow strategic change which began twenty years ago is starting to now influence day-to-day operational and strategic realities in the northern Indian Ocean.


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