ISLAMABAD — Pakistan has acknowledged the existence of a sea-based nuclear deterrent with the recent inauguration of the Headquarters of the Naval Strategic Force Command (NSFC) by the head of the Navy, Adm. Asif Sandhila.
A May 19 press release by the military’s Inter Services Public Relations stated the NSFC “will perform a pivotal role in development and employment of the Naval Strategic Force,” and was “the custodian of the nation’s 2nd strike capability.”
Mansoor Ahmed, lecturer at Quaid-e-Azam University’s Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, and who specializes in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, said this is all but specific confirmation of the widely speculated submarine-launched variant of the Babur/HATF-VII (Vengeance-VII) cruise missile.
Analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said Pakistan has been working on its sea-based deterrent for some time.
“When the Babur was first revealed in 2005, it was claimed that it is mainly designed to be deployed from submarines. There was at least that speculation,” he said.
The Navy “has pretty good experience in using similar systems, for example, both submarine-launched Harpoon and Exocet use a similar system, and [the Navy] has operated both for a long time.”
Shabbir speculates that the launch method may be similar to the UGM-84 Harpoon’s method of being fired from torpedo tubes.
However, other analysts are not so certain the Navy can afford to undertake the responsibility of the nation’s second-strike capability.
Former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad Brian Cloughley said the size of Pakistan’s submarine force is too small to carry out this task.
“Pakistan’s current submarine fleet is not adequate in numbers [although well-trained] to be able to undertake detection and effective interdiction of the Indian fleet, given its size — which is increasing, even if slowly,” he said.
Currently, Pakistan’s submarine flotilla comprises two refurbished 1970s-era Agosta-70s and three 1990s-era Agosta-90B submarines. The latter are equipped with air independent propulsion (AIP) or are in the process of being retrofitted with the AIP module, and incrementally entered service from 1999.
Cloughley said interdiction of India’s fleet “must remain [the Navy’s] first priority,” and considers “conversion of the present assets to take Babur not only costly but a most regrettable diversion of budget allocation.”
“I would go so far as to say that, in present circumstances, it would be a grave error if such a program were to go ahead,” he added.
The Navy, however, has a requirement for new submarines and wants to increase their number. The Agosta-90B design has been superseded twice, once by the DCNI Scorpene, and briefly by a paper design called the Marlin before it was absorbed into the Scorpene family.
There is a confirmed requirement for 12 to 14 submarines to meet Navy expansion plans. This would allow for a constant war patrol of at least one deterrent-tasked submarine, leaving other submarines to carry out more traditional tasks.
However, Cloughley is still certain that Pakistan does not require such a capability.
“[Pakistan] has plenty of nuclear-capable SSMs and strike aircraft, and does not need a Navy-oriented second-strike capability,” he said.