ISLAMABAD — Pakistan hopes to revive its naval modernization program through a warship construction deal with China that will also expand Pakistan's shipbuilding industry.
Chinese media reports have outlined a construction program involving six of eight S-20 variants of the Type-039A/Type-041 submarine under negotiation; four "Improved F-22P" frigates equipped with enhanced sensors and weaponry (possibly including the HQ-17 surface-to-air missile developed from the Russian Tor 1/SA-N-9); and six Type-022 Houbei stealth catamaran missile boats, to be built by Pakistan's state-owned shipbuilder Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW).
The reports indicate Type-022 construction may be delayed by the ongoing Azmat fast attack craft building program, but also highlight a significant expansion of KSEW's facilities.
These include a foundry, fabrication facilities to cover all aspects of ship construction, berthing facilities, and two graving docks of 26,000 and 18,000 dead weight tons, spread over 71 acres.
A 7,881-ton ship lift transfer system will be completed next year.
KSEW will expand to occupy facilities vacated by the Navy as it transfers from Karachi to Ormara. The Pakistan Navy Dockyard, which is adjacent to KSEW, already has facilities upgraded by the French during construction of Agosta-90B submarines.
Pakistani officials would not comment on these reports. Repeated attempts to secure comment from the Ministry of Defence Production, KSEW, the Navy and federal politicians connected with defense decision-making bodies were turned away.
The program will follow a Sino-Pakistani agreement for six patrol vessels for Pakistan's Maritime Security Agency agreed to on June 10, with two built by KSEW.
Author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley said the groundwork laid by the Agosta-90B program that included upgrades to PN Dockyard facilities and the training of some 1,000 civilian technicians greatly facilitated present plans.
"Experience from around the world shows that it is very easy to be optimistic about the difficulty of naval shipbuilding and the time taken to complete construction and systems integration," he said. "Plans for rapid expansion of warship production are unlikely to proceed on schedule. The coordinated and sustained application of extensive managerial and technical skills is required, and submarines especially have vital safety dimensions."
He highlights the importance of a sustainable program.
"The lesson from the UK and elsewhere is that, once a warship design and build capability is in place, it is best maintained and developed through a planned and steady drumbeat of programs, rather than a rapid expansion of activity for a limited period of years followed by a sudden drop-off in orders. Clearly this requires a consistent stance of support for the industry from political authorities."
Cloughley is optimistic, however, that the extensive Chinese help provided to Pakistan in warship construction, in addition to agreements made during Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit, "indicate that all types of cooperation will continue and expand."
Consequently, "KSEW can expect considerable input from such as [China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Co]. Money, certainly; but also, and perhaps of more importance, provision of expertise."
He said China's help will also further increase the number of skilled technicians as "there are many would-be technicians with great potential who cannot obtain training," which China is aware of "and has planned accordingly," with KSEW also running a training program.
Cloughley said the Chinese investment and involvement will ensure the program's sustainability.
"Given China's amazingly large financial commitment to cooperation with Pakistan, there is no doubt that Beijing will be calling the tune. And KSEW and many other establishments will be pleased to dance to it."
Though the naval expansion plan is impressive and will ensure future refit and modernization work, analyst Haris Kahn of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said with the decommissioning of Type-21 frigates it still only meets Pakistan's "minimum naval deterrence."
"The Navy needs close to 20 large surface vessels [frigates and heavy frigates]" of which at least three should be ships able to provide area air defense, as the "F-22P will not cut it and the need of longer-range SAM coverage is essential."
"Unfortunately, with the serious shortage of funds we have not even heard about anywhere else the Navy is looking to get these much-needed vessels," he added.
To meet its requirements for larger warships, Pakistan had hoped to acquire approximately six Perry-class frigates from the US, but Nilanthi Samaranayake, Indian Ocean analyst at the US-based CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, said this route is now blocked "due to congressional obstacles."
Cloughley cites Indian influence in Washington for their unavailability, but though Pakistan still desires more Perry-class frigates "on easy or gift terms ... the lure of Chinese ships combined with the massive [Chinese] investment program and Pakistan's increasing disenchantment with Washington would seem to militate against any movement [toward the US]," and Pakistan will certainly look to China in time.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.