ISLAMABAD — Pakistan has finalized its long-negotiated submarine deal with China, with four to be built in China and four in Pakistan. Analysts believe the submarines will go a long way toward maintaining a credible conventional deterrent against India, and also largely secure the sea-based arm of Pakistan's nuclear triad.
Minister for Defence Production Tanveer Hussain announced the news last week while opening a new exhibition center at the Defence Export Promotion Organization.
Construction is to be undertaken simultaneously in both countries, but Hussain did not say when construction would commence or what type had been selected.
Most analysts believe the subs will be the air independent propulsion (AIP) equipped variant of the S-20, which is an export development of China's Type-039A/Type-041 class diesel-electric submarines.
Though Chinese submarine technology is reported to have improved considerably, Tom Waldwyn, research analyst in the Defence and Military Analysis Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said, "the capabilities of Chinese submarines are not something which can be easily determined as it benefits countries on both sides to keep this a secret.
"The export version of the Type 039A, the S20, is believed to be AIP optional and should the Pakistanis opt for this capability it would give them greater operational flexibility through increased endurance. Other than being AIP optional, it is currently unclear what other differences there would be between a Chinese Navy Type 039A and an export version," he said.
Hussain also highlighted a transfer of technology agreement, with a training facility established in Karachi for this purpose.
State-owned shipyard Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW) already has experience with submarine overhaul and construction and will build the subs.
Analyst, author and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley says joint construction suits both parties, but even with a transfer of technology, Pakistan will still be reliant on China.
"It is in the interests of both parties to have as much as possible manufactured in Pakistan, but of course the really high-tech systems will have to come from China, as it's simply not cost-effective for Pakistan to gear up to make them," such as the AIP capability, Cloughley said.
Cloughley believes construction will likely commence next year: "Given the way KSEW has been managed and expanded over the past few years I expect construction could begin as early as mid-2016. There has already been liaison and training in shipbuilding and the training center is formalization of this on a rather larger scale, with the focus entirely on submarines, of course."
These submarines have been linked by analysts to securing the sea-based arm of Pakistan's nuclear triad. However, according to recent Chinese media reports, Pakistan's access to the military grade Chinese Beidou-II (BDS-2) satellite navigation network is perhaps of equal importance.
Mansoor Ahmed, Stanton Nuclear Security junior faculty fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center and expert on Pakistan's nuclear deterrent and delivery systems, said the ability of Pakistan's submarines to accurately position themselves is critical to their nuclear-deterrent role and the country's strategic assets as a whole.
"The BDS-2 satellite system will greatly enhance Pakistan's access to much needed ISR capabilities required for deployment of strategic forces at sea on submarine platforms. Unlike India, which is seeking to build a dedicated fleet of SSBN's [ballistic missile submarines] armed with SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles], Pakistan's force posture is purely defensive and India-centric for which AIP-equipped conventional submarines provide a reliable solution in terms of maintaining a cost-effective deterrent at sea," he said.
He says these submarines will generally be quieter than India's Arihant SSBNs and deployed within striking distance of India's coastlines armed with the submarine-launched variant of Pakistan's Babur cruise missile.
Ahmed does not believe all eight submarines will be assigned the deterrent role as they also will be required to undertake conventional patrol duties "equally important given the pressing need to continue to improve Pakistan's existing sea-denial capability in the face of the exponentially expanding and modernizing surface and sub-surface fleet of India's Navy."
Therefore, three or four conventional AIP-equipped submarines (though with limited range compared to nuclear-powered submarines) and armed with nuclear or conventional land attack cruise missiles "might offer the best bang for the buck for Pakistan in existing circumstances."
However, Pakistan has been particularly concerned with India's growing anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.
Accurate assessment of this is, according to Waldwyn, unavailable. "Whilst India has undoubtedly made significant improvements in recent years in its ASW capability in terms of equipment, the necessary data with which to evaluate Indian ASW operations does not currently exist in the public arena."
Nevertheless, Ahmed says Pakistan is taking no chances as the submarines "on their own would not constitute an 'assured' second strike platform in the traditional sense, especially in the face of the growing asymmetry in favor of Indian ASW capabilities.
"India will have the luxury to deploy a significant portion of its ASW assets [including several P8-I aircraft] and its own fleet of AIP-equipped submarines against Pakistan's small submarine fleet during a crisis; especially once it will be assumed that some of the Pakistani subs are equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles," making them a prized target for the enemy," he said.
"A triad for Pakistan, based on its 'full-spectrum' deterrence posture, will consist of at least 10 different types of ballistic and cruise missiles, of which the naval Babur will comprise the sea leg, and taken together these offer much greater redundancy, survivability, and targeting and operational flexibility to the decision-makers to employ these assets in counter-force or counter-value roles," he said.
Therefore, he said, China has been instrumental in helping complete the naval leg of Pakistan's "nuclear triad" that had been a critical gap it its "full-spectrum posture."
"The second-strike capability for Pakistan, flows from the survivability of its strategic triad [which is largely solid fueled and road-mobile] than reliance on any one system or 'leg' of the triad," according to Ahmed. "Taken together, it makes it impossible for India to eliminate Pakistan's entire capacity of inflicting unacceptable damage regardless of any 'massive retaliatory strike' by India, and maintaining sufficient survivable strategic capability by Pakistan is essential for securing deterrence stability in the region."