ISLAMABAD — The Pakistan Navy concluded a major domestic naval exercise Thursday, which was held after a break of three years. It comes at a time when Pakistan struggles to maintain operational numbers (especially in respect to arch-rival India's rapidly modernizing and expanding fleet) and as the need to ensure the security of the deepwater port of Gwadar, close to the Iranian border.
Seaspark 2015, held November 3-12, aimed to test the Navy's ability to maintain regional peace, security and stability. It also looked to test the force's war-fighting ability plus interservice operability with the Pakistan Air Force and Pakistan Army.
Elements of the Air Force and Army Air Defence also took part, allowing for the validation of joint war-fighting concepts.
The exercise mainly took place in the North Arabian Sea, though inland coastal bases and units deployed in Sir Creek — the disputed border region between India and Pakistan — also participated.
Utilizing every asset at the Navy's disposal — from submarines and frigates to unmanned aerial vehicles — Seaspark 2015 also tested the Navy's ability to provide coastal and port security, as well as non-traditional threats, such as piracy and pollution. This included both tradition and asymmetrical threats, including those in the cyber and information domains.
When addressing the media at the beginning of the exercise, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff (Operations) Rear Admiral Kaleem Shaukat highlighted the considerable imbalance between Indian and Pakistan. He said that this was because India had recognized the importance of the sea, whereas Pakistan had not.
He stated that this imbalance reinforced the need to make the most of the assets available, while simultaneously asking the government for more resources such as missile boats, submarines and tankers.
The need for new warships, however, runs up against the fact the Navy receives only ten percent of the defense budget, and this is essentially spent on operational or maintenance costs.
The reason for the three-year gap between the previous exercise in 2012 was not given. Previously, the exercise was biennial.
However, the shortage of ships cannot be overlooked as a factor.
The frontline fleet consists mainly of four F-22P frigates that are developments of the Chinese Type-053H3 family and a single Perry Class frigate Alamgir (ex-McInerney).
Alamgir lacks any missile armament, though, and is unlikely to be joined by further examples due to stiff congressional opposition, derailing Pakistani hopes to acquire approximately five more with which to modernize its surface fleet.
Further Perry-class frigates were planned to replace the six 70s era ex-British Amazon/Type-21-class frigates in service since the mid-90s. One, Badr (ex-Alacrity), is confirmed to have been decommissioned. The status of those remaining has been unclear, as they were not reported to have deployed in some time.
However, Pakistan Navy Spokesman Commodore Nadeem Bukhary told Defense News that the frigates were still in service, though not how many.
According to the images available, a Type-21 frigate hosted Pakistan Air Force Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman and Pakistan Chief of Naval Staff Adm. Muhammad Zakaullah as they reviewed the exercise on Monday.
Both service chiefs also observed operations from one of the Chinese-built ZDK-03 Karakorum Eagle AEW&C aircraft that participated in the exercise to test it in a maritime environment under close war-like conditions.
However, it is uncertain if any new ships are on the horizon.
Further ships are required at least to provide security to the increasingly important deepwater port of Gwadar due to the recently signed China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC), which seeks to link Africa and the Middle East to western China through Pakistan.
The vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, General Fan Changlong, arrived in Pakistan on Thursday at the invitation of the Pakistani military to discuss defense, economic and strategic ties.
A warship construction deal with China has reportedly been negotiated, but has yet to be signed and is not expected to be resolved during this visit.
Analyst, author and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley says that, despite the need for new ships, it may not necessarily be the reason for the break in exercises.
"The main problem is sea-time training," he said. "Classroom instruction is fine in the PN, and of world-class standard, but nothing beats sea-time, and as there aren't many ships it is going to be increasingly difficult for the navy to conduct much-needed exercises."
He also believes it unfeasible to expect new warships to arrive soon.
"It is extremely difficult to speed up ship construction, and I am sure they are moving as fast as they can; so the depressing thing for the [Pakistan Navy] is that it will have to do the best it can while waiting on its (very good) new warships."