ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's naval modernization program appears stalled, with no discernible progress being made on efforts to modernize and expand the surface and sub-surface fleet. This comes amid moves ensure the security of the deepwater port of Gwadar, and fears of mass obsolescence vis-a-vis arch rival India.
Gwadar is the start of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to link western China to the Middle East and Africa through Pakistan. It will carry commercial goods and energy resources, slashing the time to ship goods to China via the Malacca Straits and South China Sea.
For Pakistan, ensuring maritime security has been of increased concern. Earlier this month, a newly raised battalion of Marines began protecting Gwadar. Author, analyst, and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley says this was probably through extra enlistments due to the Marines "already being stretched in commitments."
Ensuring Gwadar's defense has been the theme of recent exercises. A domestic series of drills, Seapark, was held in November and December.
A series of recent bilateral exercises with China's Navy have also been held, the third of which concluded on Tuesday off the Pakistani coast.
It aimed to protect sea lines of communication and the CPEC by improving coordination and interoperability at operational and tactical levels. Chinese ships consisted of two Type-054A frigates (Liuzhou and Sanya) and a replenishment ship (Qinghaihu).
Pakistan participated with warships, helicopters, patrol and fighter aircraft, plus special forces. Air defense, boarding, communication, and joint maneuver drills were carried out.
However, the need to ensure seaward defense of Gwadar has exposed the apparent lack of progress in the Navy's modernization program. The frontline fleet currently consists of three Agosta-90B/Khalid and two Agosta-70 submarines, plus four F-22P/Zulfiquar, one Oliver Hazard Perry, and five ex-British Type-21/Amazon class frigates.
Pakistan has negotiated the purchase of eight AIP-equipped submarines from China, finalizing the deal in October. This was reportedly followed by a domestic frigate and fast attack boat-building program with Chinese assistance.
This latter program was also to include upgrades to the current F-22P class frigates, Pakistan's most modern and capable surface ships even though they are only marginally better than the remaining frigates in being able to protect themselves from missile attack.
Cloughley believes time is running out.
"It seems that the emphasis for the moment is on developing the submarine arm of the Navy, but it is essential for Pakistan's security that it acquire more surface ships, and that a decision on number and type be made this year."
Nothing has as of yet been signed however and despite request for clarification by Defense News there has been no official word on any progress or the programs' status.
This pales in comparison to India, which is fast modernizing and expanding its naval power.
Sam Bateman, an adviser for the Maritime Security Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said, "Pakistan has already fallen far behind India in terms of maintaining a level of conventional deterrent/operational effectiveness, and is at risk of falling even further behind."
Bateman, who previously served in Australia's Navy outlines a course of action similar to the stalled modernization program.
"In broad terms, the [Pakistan Navy] has three requirements: frigates, submarines and fast attack craft," he said.
"Looking at its current force structure, my priority for force development would be submarines," he said. "The existing submarine fleet is far short of being an adequate or credible deterrent force. The deterrent value of submarines, as well as their utility for covert surveillance and intelligence collection operations, points to the importance of the [Pakistan Navy] building a credible force."
Therefore Pakistan's "top priority" must be to finalize the submarine deal with China.
Though much emphasis by analysts has been on the state of Pakistan's frigate force Bateman believes the next priority should lie with fast attack craft.
"In a conflict situation, these would be the major surface assets of the [Pakistan Navy]."
Pakistan is currently building further examples of the Azmat class stealthy fast attack craft, but has is believed to be considering something more potent.
News of Pakistan's interest in the Chinese Type-022 'Houbei' was first reported in June. Speaking at the time, Tom Waldwyn of the International Institute for Strategic Studies expressed surprise.
"It would be surprising if Pakistan, or indeed any country, signed a deal to purchase new Type-022s as China stopped production of these vessels several years ago. So any purchase of Type-022s would almost certainly be secondhand vessels," he said.
Adding, "These types of vessels are more suited to littoral environments where they can attack opposing ships at high speed and fire off a barrage of anti-ship missiles. If Pakistan were to acquire these ships that is likely to be how they would be employed."
The state of the frigates has attracted most attention however.
"The current frigate force is just adequate for the [Pakistan Navy's] peacetime requirements, notably sovereignty protection and participation in international coalition and peacekeeping missions, such as the counter-piracy task forces in the Gulf region", said Bateman.
Ideally, he believes two to three further Perry class frigates would help matters "to build up its frigate force to about eight vessels, if the updated F-22P vessels can't be acquired quickly."
However, entrenched hostility toward Pakistan in the US Congress essentially rules this out, and Cloughley believes Pakistan has no real alternatives.
"China is the obvious supplier, as it is unlikely that the US Congress would approve transfer of any surplus vessels, and in any event the US and European countries are concentrating on India as regards provision of military material."
As for the Type-21 class frigates they are essentially obsolete and Bateman says they "should be scrapped."
Modernization of Pakistan's airpower however could help mitigate some of the Navy's shortcomings, especially with the JF-17 Thunder now entering service.
"The JF-17 can carry anti-ship missiles, and it is probable that when the present aircraft of 8 Squadron at Masroor are retired, then they will be replaced by a maritime strike version of the JF-17", said Cloughley.
The JF-17 already equips No. 2 Squadron also based at Masroor, and can carry a brace of C-802A/CSS-N-8 Saccade anti-ship missiles.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.