ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is renewing efforts to modernize its submarine arm with eight submarines from China as well as a search for surplus European submarines.
Navy and Defence Ministry officials revealed the plans to the National Assembly Standing Committee on Defence on Tuesday, with Economic Affairs Secretary Muhammad Saleem Sethi leaving for China to pursue the deal on Wednesday.
Analysts believe that since the National Security Committee has agreed to the deal in principle, it is likely to go ahead.
The officials also requested US $294 million to upgrade ATR-72 maritime patrol aircraft. Two un-upgraded aircraft are in service, and officials hope to acquire more.
Pakistan operates five French submarines.
Its two Agosta-70s were acquired in 1979 and 1980, respectively, and despite upgrades they are widely acknowledged by analysts to be well past their prime and in need of replacement. Three air-independent propulsion (AIP)-equipped Agosta-90Bs, which are a development of the Agosta-70s, were commissioned from 1999 onward.
The Navy requires 12 submarines laid out in the Armed Forces Development Plan (AFDP) 2015 and a later revised plan.
Tuesday's proceedings created some confusion, however, with officials telling the committee that surplus submarines had been pursued from France, Germany, and the UK, but later acknowledging France had refused Pakistan's approaches with concerns over transfer of technology as one example.
Brian Cloughley, previous Australian defense attache to Islamabad, has said France has simply abandoned the Pakistani defense market to focus on the far more lucrative Indian one.
The mention of the UK was also surprising, considering the UK has not built or operated conventional submarines since the early 1990s, and sold its four Upholder-class subs to Canada where they now serve as the Victoria class.
Cloughley believes the Germans may not be willing or able to supply any surplus submarines either as they do not seem to have any, or at least any that Pakistan would want.
German firms offer new Type-214, Type-209/1400 mod, and Type-210 mod submarines for export.
However, Cloughley said there may be other possibilities.
Germany partnered with Turkey in 2011 to offer Indonesia a lease/new-build deal for Type-209 submarines. Indonesia, however, selected the South Korean improved Chang Bogo, a development of the Type-209/1400.
Turkish industry officials have told Defense News they are ready to offer Pakistan Type-209s if asked.
Turkey, one of Pakistan's closest allies and strongest defense industry partners, shelved its plans to upgrade its six Type-209/1200 Atilay class subs with AIP systems in favor of acquiring the Type-214.
However, Pakistani defense industry officials have said Islamabad would prefer a newer design.
It is uncertain if present circumstances have forced a rethink. "It's all supposition, and I'm afraid there doesn't seem to be an answer," Cloughley said.
Pakistan almost signed a deal for three Type-214 subs in 2008, raises hopes of Pakistan-Turkish submarine cooperation.
However, analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said the deal floundered on the issue of financing after the then-Pakistan People's Party-led government signed an IMF loan agreement that derailed the sub acquisition plans.
He said the Type-214 deal was the centerpiece of the naval aspect of the AFDP, and that the first submarine would have been delivered in 2015. The naval aspect of the AFDP especially is in total disarray, he said.
It is unknown if the Type-214 was shelved until finances become available (some industry officials believe this was at least the intention at the time the deal collapsed), but attention subsequently switched to acquiring six AIP-equipped submarines from China.
Due to the need to decommission the Agosta-70s, Khan believes any refurbished submarines will be required to be "sailing under a Pakistani flag within 12 months."
Acquiring Turkish Type-209s remains possible, and despite Pakistan's predicament, Khan says "Under the present circumstances I don't see any collaboration between Pakistan and Turkey since Pakistan will only be locally producing Chinese submarines."
Whether the Chinese submarines are the S-20 export derivative of the Type-039A/Type-041 Yuan-class submarine, or a bespoke design, is unclear. But the Yuan has also been mentioned, and according to government officials the deal was supposed to be secured by the end of 2014.
If the deal transpires, Khan said it will be the largest ever Sino-Pakistani deal. He believes the submarines will each cost $ 250 million to $325 million.
Neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Navy would shed further light when asked. No answers were forthcoming to requests regarding the timeframe of the deal, whether the two Agosta-70s will finally be retired now the number of planned Chinese submarines has increased to eight, clarification on acquiring surplus Western submarines, or the status of the Type-214 acquisition efforts.
Should the Chinese deal go through, it will be a considerable relief, and be especially significant for the nuclear deterrent.
Pakistan inaugurated its Naval Strategic Force Command in 2012 in response to India's rapid nuclearization.
A potential force of 8 AIP-equipped Chinese subs and the three Agosta-90Bs "is a quantum leap in existing capabilities," said Mansoor Ahmed of Quaid-e-Azam University's Department of Defence and Strategic Studies.
Though acknowledging nuclear-powered attack boats are far more capable, he believes "An AIP [diesel-electric submarine] offers Pak the best bang for the buck. But it has to be supplemented with a commensurate investment in [anti-submarine warfare] capabilities to neutralize developments on the Indian side."
He said this will lay the groundwork for having a permanent sea-based deterrent equipped with plutonium-based warheads fitted to cruise missiles, "which is expected to be the next major milestone in Pakistan's development of a triad."
Ahmed acknowledges this "would pose fresh challenges for ensuring effective and secure communications at all times with the submarines for both India and Pak in addition to having a mated-arsenal at sea that would require pre-delegation of launch authority at some level for both countries.
"This would be an altogether new challenge that would have to be addressed for an effective sea-based deterrent."
Nevertheless, AIP-equipped conventional submarines "provide reliable second strike platforms, [and] an assured capability resides with [nuclear-powered attack and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines], which are technically very complex and challenging to construct and operate compared to SSKs, and also very capital intensive."