This commentary has been updated June 11, 2020.

ISLAMABAD — With more than 90 percent of its trade seaborne, Pakistan’s geostrategic location at the head of the Arabian Sea adjoining the Arabian Gulf trade routes — coupled with its ambitions to become a trade conduit to China and Central Asia via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — demand it play an increasingly significant role in ensuring regional maritime security.

The Pakistan Navy is a longtime contributor to international security operations as a participant in the American-led Combined Maritime Forces, particularly the group’s Combined Task Force 150 and anti-piracy Combined Task Force 151. Pakistan has also created its own Regional Maritime Security Patrol.

The service, led by Adm. Zafar Mahmood Abbasi since October 2017, is expanding its patrol capabilities to safeguard the country’s exclusive economic zone and interests at sea. It’s also undergoing significant recapitalization to maintain deterrent credibility in the face of arch-rival India’s naval modernization. New acquisitions and a domestic construction program will see an almost total transformation of Pakistan’s Navy within the decade, for which it is generally reliant on China and increasingly on Turkey for assistance.

The naval officer answered a few of Defense News’ questions about the Navy’s role and future plans.

What have been your most pressing regional and domestic challenges as naval chief?

In my assessment, the evolving international environment can be characterized as volatile, complex and ambiguous, having deep impact on the maritime domain and security in the region. On our western seaboard, the U.S.-Iran standoff has persisted, looking ominous at the start of the year and threatening shipping plying along the international energy [sea lines of communication]. Any disruption to the smooth flow of trade and energy could trigger shock waves, impacting global economic health. Moreover, the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria are also impinging upon security on the high seas.

One of the dominant threats to regional and Pakistan’s national security, however, emanates from India’s stridently nationalist mindset and belligerent policies that are manifesting under their current government. Its aggressive and destabilizing actions in Kashmir in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements are a case in point. These unilateral actions and subsequent policies and abuses could spark conflict between two nuclear-armed states, threatening peace and security in the region and beyond. In the nontraditional domain, maritime terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking and human smuggling remain major challenges.

The Pakistan Navy is also committed to internal security obligations and aid to civil power duties. One of the impediments in the exploitation of Pakistan’s maritime potential has been a suboptimal realization of our true maritime potential and development of a “maritime culture” in the country. The Pakistan Navy is undertaking a number of initiatives to create maritime awareness at the national level by engaging various segments of civil society, including intelligentsia, chambers of commerce, maritime industry, universities and the media, to bring to fore the importance of the maritime sector and its immense potential into the national discourse.

Another challenge, although common to many navies, is that new technologies and equipment in the maritime domain is cost-intensive, and with limited budgets available, acquisition of contemporary technologies becomes a defining restraint. In short, there are multiple challenges to our maritime security that emanate from internal and external factors, but with a clear, long-term and systematic approach, these are being tackled in concert with national stakeholders and international partners.

Pakistan has actively contributed to the multilateral Combined Maritime Forces, or CMF, for many years. Why did Pakistan need to establish the Regional Maritime Security Patrol, or RMSP?

The Pakistan Navy, being a firm believer in the freedom of seas, has been contributing significantly in preserving maritime security in the Indian Ocean region. In this regard, the Pakistan Navy was the first regional navy to join Combined Task Force 150 in 2004. Similarly, to counter the increasing acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa, we joined Combined Task Force 151 in 2009. So far, the Pakistan Navy has been the largest contributor to CMF operations, second only to the United States Navy. Pakistan Navy officers have also had the privilege of commanding both these task forces on numerous occasions.

While we continue to be part of CMF, the Pakistan Navy is also a proponent of a region-centric maritime security construct. Alive to the changing geostrategic realities in the region, the Pakistan Navy in 2018 instituted the RMSP to protect our national maritime security interests and fulfill international obligations in the Indian Ocean region. Pakistan Navy ships, with embarked helicopters, are undertaking these patrols along three axes: the Horn of Africa, the North Arabian Sea and the central Indian Ocean. The objectives of the RMSP include contribution toward maintaining good order at sea in our own area of interest and engagement with the regional navies to enhance mutual collaboration and interoperability.

Frigates, corvettes, offshore patrol vessels and submarines are on the Pakistan Navy’s acquisition list. What are the latest developments here? How effectively are you meeting the budget and skilled manpower requirements for this expansion?

Progressive “capability development” is an important pillar of my vision for the Pakistan Navy. As warships are the mainstay of any navy, induction of surface platforms is essential to boost the Pakistan Navy’s operational deployability. In this regard, we have contracted for the construction of Type 054AP frigates from China and Milgem-class corvettes from Turkey along with transfer of technology. We are also inducting Dutch-designed offshore patrol vessels constructed in a Romanian shipyard.

In addition, we have contracted for the acquisition of Hangor-class submarines from China, and in the second phase their construction is planned in-country, for which necessary upgrades of Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Limited is in progress.

We are also focusing on the induction of modern aviation assets, including jet-powered, long-range maritime patrol aircraft, helicopters and UAVs. In addition, we are modernizing our existing fleet of warships and aircraft with upgrades to their weapons and electronic suites.

Pakistan's Navy surveillance planes fly in a formation during a rehearsal ahead of a military parade in Islamabad on March 10, 2020. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)
Pakistan's Navy surveillance planes fly in a formation during a rehearsal ahead of a military parade in Islamabad on March 10, 2020. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

These inductions have led to expansion in our human resource capital. However, keeping a high “teeth-to-tail” ratio remains a priority. As our Navy expands in line with the recent restructuring, the induction rates have almost doubled. With regard to the budgetary allocations, our Navy, like many other navies, operates in a resource-constrained environment. However, with a clear and long-term plan for its modernization and capacity building, emerging challenges are being addressed through indigenization and cost-effective solutions.

Unmanned surface vehicles are increasingly exploited by navies. How are you looking to leverage this technology and other unmanned systems?

The Pakistan Navy always looks forward to adopting new technologies, especially those which serve as force multipliers. Unmanned surface vehicles have a variety of utilities, such as for harbor defense, mine detection and countermeasure roles. We are presently evaluating this technology and will acquire it as per their suitability and feasibility to our requirements.

CMF ships regularly make narcotics seizures that largely originate from landlocked Afghanistan. What steps is the Pakistan Navy taking to combat drug trafficking in its area of responsibility?

As I mentioned earlier, the Pakistan Navy has been contributing to CTF-150 and CTF-151 for quite some time. So far, over 103 Pakistan Navy ships with organic helicopters in rotation (two- to three-month cycles) have participated, and the Navy’s long-range maritime patrol aircraft have undertaken over 130 sorties in CMF operations.

Nearly, 7,000 kilograms of hashish and 2 tons of cannabis resin have been confiscated by Pakistan Navy ships as part of CMF security operations. More recently, the frigate PNS Saif seized over 2,000 kilograms of hashish on the high seas on Jan. 29, 2020. And on April 3 we seized 100 kilograms of crystal meth.

In the past, Pakistan monitored its coastline, with a particular focus on Karachi, Ormara and a few other places, and as a result, nefarious elements looked to exploit the voids for drug trafficking. However, with the establishment of the Coastal Security and Harbour Defence Force, the setting up of coastal security stations spread along the coast, and the stationing of response elements at suitable locations, Pakistan has effectively plugged those exploitable gaps. In addition, taking cognizance of these nontraditional threats, the Pakistan Navy remains vigilant and ready to collaborate with international partners to curb this menace.

Pakistan’s Marines branch is primarily tasked with coastal defense. What role can it play in regional maritime security, and will this involve adding more assets to improve its capabilities?

The marines have an important role to play in the air defense of Pakistan, coastal defense as well as force protection. The Marines branch and special operations forces detachments form a special component onboard Pakistan Navy task groups during overseas deployments. In order to enhance vigilance and to respond to any emerging threat — besides raising the Coastal Security and Harbour Defence Force — the Pakistan Navy has also instituted Task Force-88 for the security of maritime projects related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as Gwadar Port and its seaward approaches. This task force comprises ships, fast-attack craft, air units, UAVs and special maritime warfare teams to provide around-the-clock security.

With the realization of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and an increase in the overall maritime security dictates, capability development of the Marines is progressing well, in line with “PN Marines Vision 2030,” which involves modified and expanded force structure, versatile assets and modern training facilities for a well-equipped and well-trained Marines force.

Apart from CMF operations and RMSP, how is the Pakistan Navy helping enhance maritime security in the region?

We understand that maintenance of a conducive maritime environment and security is key to our regional maritime growth. In this regard, the Pakistan Navy in 2012 established the Joint Maritime Information Coordination Centre, or JMICC, with the aim to maintain a maritime security picture in our area of interest by harnessing resources and efforts of relevant national agencies and international stakeholders. The JMICC is growing and developing its linkages, and has to date developed links with 48 national and six international organizations, sharing information related to maritime safety and security.

To promote a collaborative maritime security approach, the Pakistan Navy has also been organizing the AMAN series of multinational maritime exercises, biennially since 2007. The sixth exercise of this series was held in February 2019, during which 46 countries from across the globe participated. The AMAN exercise is a clear manifestation of Pakistan’s commitment toward regional peace and stability embodied in its motto, “Together for Peace.”

Pakistan Navy ship Aslat fires rounds during the multinational naval exercise AMAN-19 in the Arabian Sea near Pakistan's port city of Karachi on Feb. 11, 2019. (Asif Hassan/AFP via Getty Images)
Pakistan Navy ship Aslat fires rounds during the multinational naval exercise AMAN-19 in the Arabian Sea near Pakistan's port city of Karachi on Feb. 11, 2019. (Asif Hassan/AFP via Getty Images)

Additionally, the Pakistan Navy is participating in all the regional and international efforts and initiatives taken for maintaining good order and cooperation on the high seas. In the same spirit, we have been participating in various international fora, such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, multinational exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts, and noncombatant evacuation of stranded foreign nationals and Pakistanis from conflict zones.