ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is to raise a new force to help safeguard its sea boundaries, but analysts are perplexed as to how the force is to be raised even though there is a need to improve security.
The move was announced Tuesday by Pakistan's Minister for Ports and Shipping Senator Kamran Michael who said a force of 12,000 Marines was to be raised and headed by a three star general. He added the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had sanctioned the program and the defense ministry had commenced work on establishing the force.
However, neither the defense ministry nor the Pakistan Navy would provide details of the proposed force when contacted by Defense News.
It is not understood how this Marine force will be established, whether it will be an entirely new force, drawn from other Marine units, or an expansion of existing units that will be re-tasked.
There is no time frame given for when it will become operational.
Pakistan's maritime area of interest has been very topical of late.
The move to establish the new force comes as work on the US $36 billion Sino-Pakistani economic corridor to connect Pakistan's deepwater port of Gwadar with western China gets underway, and against the backdrop of an expansion in the size of Pakistan's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
In March the United Nations' Commission on Limits of Continental Shelf also accepted Pakistan's claim to extend its EEZ to the continental shelf limits and extended it from 200 nautical miles to 350. This amounts to an additional 50,000 square kilometers, taking the total EEZ from 240,000 square kilometers to 290,000 square kilometers.
Regarding the establishment of this new force, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley says an initiative of this size will take a monumental level of organization and training, the scale of which may not yet be apparent.
"Recruiting, alone, will take years. Of course it's an excellent idea, but it would be better to build on the Coast Guard and the [Maritime Security Agency] — combine and expand the two, under the legal cover of the latter."
Asked as to whether this may be part of the recently announced Sino-Pakistani economic corridor program and if the Chinese would help equip the new force he said, "I have no doubt that the Chinese will be most supportive and will probably provide equipment."
There could yet be another theory as to how the force will be established however. Though the move was announced by the Minister for Ports and Shipping, Cloughley does not believe the force will be tasked solely with port security.
"I think the new force is intended to assume the duties currently performed by the Coast Guard and the Maritime Security Agency (MSA), not just to concentrate on ports."
Similarly, analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank agrees there needs to be some form of change, but that this should focus on capacity building for the MSA.
"What is required is that the MSA needs expansion and it needs to incorporate the Coast Guard," he said. "There is already a viable structure of command and control of the MSA which operates under the supervision of Pakistan Navy."
Highlighting the MSA's assets in having "close to 2,500 personal, four Barkat class OPVs, three Shanghai II class FAC, ten 13 meter interdiction patrol craft, and three BN Defender aircraft", Khan says this provides a good core capability.
The Coast Guard is a land-based paramilitary force currently under control of the Army. The MSA is a maritime paramilitary unit under the control of the Navy.
Analysts dispute the effectiveness of the Coast Guard, but it made headlines this month when it seized just over 3,000kg of hashish during a raid in the town of Pasni, Balochistan. It was destined for the gulf where it would have been worth an estimated US $50 million and is one of the largest ever seizures of the drug.
There is, however, an apparent shortage of assets to effectively patrol the EEZ, and Khan believes "the MSA should be provided more sea vessels for interdiction, more fixed wing aircraft should be added, and particularly helicopters."
There is already some indication of more assets on the way for the MSA.
Last October, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency sent notification to Congress of the State Department's intention to provide eight GRC43M cutters to Pakistan under a foreign military sales transfer.
These are intended to help Pakistan ensure security in its coastal waters and the EEZ.
Though nothing has been heard of this proposal since then, Khan understands it may have progressed to the stage where Pakistani personnel have traveled to the US to undergo training on the type.
Ultimately, however, Khan is unconvinced of the wisdom of establishing a new force, and highlights that there are already a number of organizations of overlapping responsibility including various provincial level Anti Narcotics Force units that complicate matters and drain resources.
"Establishing a brand new organization will take a lot of time and energy and the financial burden would be something the already weak finances of the country cannot bear. This hodgepodge of several different paramilitary forces only creates financial burden."