ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Navy is acquiring new warships as part of a fleet expansion and modernization program to replace six Type 21 frigates acquired from the British in the 1990s.

The service also seeks to meet increasing domestic requirements while maintaining regional security commitments.

A naval spokesman told Defense News that a “contract has been placed in June 2017” for one Type 054A Jiangkai II frigate featuring the same sensors and weaponry as Chinese ships. An order for two more is under consideration.

The Type 054A forms the backbone of China’s naval force. The 29th was launched in December.

A protracted program for Turkish corvettes is also moving forward. A contract for four Ada-class corvettes under the Turkish Milgem program was awarded in the final week of November. Negotiations continue on whether all four will be constructed in Turkey, or two in Pakistan, but a decision is pending.

An initial request has also been made for up to two corvettes from U.S.-based Swiftships. “Initial negotiations are underway,” according to the naval spokesman, but further progress depends on U.S. congressional approval.

The confirmation of both frigate and corvette programs comes as a surprise. During Pakistan’s biennial defense exhibition IDEAS 2016, Defense News was informed that available funding clashed with the need to replace a large number of ships.

The first mention of a frigate deal with China was made by outgoing naval chief Adm. Muhammad Zakaullah during his farewell speech in October. No additional details were forthcoming at the time; but in early December, the commanding officer of Pakistan’s F-22P frigate Saif reportedly told Chinese media a Type 054A frigate had been ordered.

Author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley says the new ships are desperately needed.

“Almost anything would be better than the Type 21s. They were 1970s vintage and should have been retired in 2000 at the latest. The new frigates will be a welcome addition to the [Pakistani Navy] fleet and will ensure continuation of the commitment to [Combined Task Forces] 150/151 as well as patrolling home waters.”

Five Type 21 frigates remain operational, but they are worn and obsolete despite upgrades.

It’s questionable how much longer Pakistan’s sole Perry-class frigate, Alamgir (formerly McInerney) can remain operational, as it received a very limited upgrade, and the F-22P frigates are in need of improved sensors and weaponry.

At IDEAS 2016, Chinese shipbuilders proposed a new frigate design for Pakistan with improved defenses against increasingly sophisticated anti-ship missiles. Though similar to the F-22P, it featured vastly improved sensors and weaponry comprising an integrated mast with a four-faced phased array radar, a 32-cell vertical launching system containing HQ-16 medium-range surface-to-air missiles, and an HQ-10 point defense missile system.

But Pakistan rejected the proposal, instead selecting the Type 054A.

“It is sensible for Pakistan to select a tried and proven vessel, and it appears that China will be prepared to provide upgraded ancillaries as they are developed,” Cloughley said.

He added that a deepening Sino-Pakistani relationship is understandable, pointing to joint production of the JF-17 Thunder as a best example of successful cooperation.

“There is increased movement towards China in many ways, and military equipment is but one of them,” he said. “It makes sense for Pakistan to obtain frigates as well as other items, and as the U.S. appears to be leaning ever further towards India, none of Pakistan’s armed forces can afford to be too reliant on Washington.”

However, Pakistan still views good relations with the U.S. as important. The Turkish corvette features a variety of American equipment, such as the power plant and the RIM-116 RAM missile defense system.

A representative for Turkish defense firm STM, which designed the Ada corvette, previously told Defense News that Pakistan’s corvettes would feature the same systems as those in Turkish service.

However, American equipment may have to be arranged in a government-to-government contract between Islamabad and Washington. And the Type 054A and the Ada programs may only cover replacement of the Type 21s.

The Swiftships program is needed to ensure Pakistan has sufficient ships to maintain regional security commitments. The only such design Swiftships offers is its 75-meter Swift corvette.

The company said it is unable to comment on the matter because it is a government-to-government program.

Making it difficult to predict Pakistan’s next step here is the requirement for U.S. congressional approval, said Claude Rakisits, a Pakistan expert and senior fellow at Georgetown University. What is certain is that Congress is generally “not well-disposed toward Pakistan,” making congressional rejection likely.

Still, lobbying efforts by the Pentagon and State Department emphasizing Pakistan’s commitment to CTF 150 and CTF 151 could swing Capitol Hill toward approval.

“It would be a powerful argument, which could persuade the waverers to give the approval,” Rakisits said. “It’s not as if these ships would change the balance of forces on the subcontinent.”

Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.

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