ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Navy is racing to plug operational and technological gaps as part of an unprecedented modernization effort, according to the outgoing naval chief, but analysts are divided on whether the move will deter adversaries.

Adm. Zafar Mahmood Abbasi was speaking during the an Oct. 6 change-of-command ceremony when he detailed measures he enacted, prioritizing “combat readiness and offensive capability” for the historically undersized force amid tension with India.

In addition to reorganizing the Navy’s force structure, he outlined acquisition and development programs, some of which were mentioned for the first time or had new details confirmed. These included:

  • Expanding the Navy to more than 50 warships (more than doubling major surface combatants to 20, with plans for six additional large offshore patrol vessels).
  • The apparent free transfer of a Chinese Yuan-class submarine to train Pakistani crews for its eight Hangor subs.
  • Developing the hypersonic P282 ship-launched anti-ship/land-attack ballistic missile.
  • Establishing the Naval Research and Development Institute to nurture indigenous design talent (it is presently engaged in programs such as the Jinnah-class frigate, Hangor-class subs, UAV jammers, directed-energy weapons, underwater sonar surveillance coastal defense systems, unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles).
  • Replacing of the P-3C Orion patrol aircraft with 10 converted commercial jets, the first of which has been ordered.
  • Acquiring medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicles as well as 20 indigenous gunboats, which are to be commissioned by 2025.

The Navy would not provide more details when asked, though the gunboats were previously confirmed as undergoing design.

Rivals

However, analysts are divided on whether these programs will prove a sufficient deterrent against Pakistan’s archrival India.

Author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, claimed it is “quite impossible for Pakistan to achieve a naval structure that even approaches that of the Indian Navy.”

It cannot afford it. At best, its deterrence value would be entirely local," he said.

Though he described India’s aircraft carriers as “decidedly inferior in effectiveness in international terms, and present no threat to China,” they are a “major threat” to Pakistan’s Navy when they are out of range of shore-based air power.

Pakistani Chief of Naval Staff Adm. Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, center, arrives will fellow officers to receive Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2018. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)
Pakistani Chief of Naval Staff Adm. Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, center, arrives will fellow officers to receive Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2018. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

In the event of a conflict involving India’s Navy, Pakistan “would deploy all its assets to destroy it, and although the [Indian Navy] would suffer major losses, the attrition factor would be the decider,” he added.

In contrast, expansion of the Pakistan Navy would “effectively neutralize India’s growing naval capability,” according to Mansoor Ahmed, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies in Islamabad. He noted that India has “long enjoyed the most decisive numerical advantage; that is potentially destabilizing, as it could encourage belligerency and aggression, and fuel crisis instability.”

However, Pakistan’s modernization efforts would “help keep the nuclear threshold high,” “enhance Pakistan’s second-strike capability by increasing survivability of its surface and submarine fleet,” and provide considerably increased capacity for attrition, Ahmed added.

Similarly, Tom Waldwyn, a naval expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said there is merit in the expansion program.

“Certainly the ship- and submarine-building plans, once realized, will be a significant boost to Pakistan’s conventional maritime capability. By the end of this decade, the frigate fleet will grow by half and the submarine fleet will probably double in size. The planned gunboats could free up the new frigates to perform tasks the Pakistan Navy is currently not able to do as often,” he said.

The Hangor program is probably the most noteworthy because of China’s involvement, Waldwyn added. “Although local build of Hangor submarines is planned to be complete before the end of the decade, regenerating that industrial capability will be a big effort, and I expect that Chinese assistance in doing so will be crucial.”

But one factor depends on whether Germany provides export clearance of diesel engines for the submarine. Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production, the Navy’s public relations department, the German embassy in Islamabad, and Germany’s Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control all declined to respond to Defense News' inquiries about the engines.

It is unknown whether the program is now proceeding with Chinese substitutes.

Weapons and platforms

Announcement of a contract for unmanned combat aerial vehicles, however, appears to be official confirmation the Chinese Wing Loong II deal first reported in October 2018. Though photographed undergoing testing in Pakistan, there was never official confirmation of a contract.

Air power expert at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, Justin Bronk, said it “is probably one of the most effective options for armed UAV acquisition available to Pakistan.”

“It has proven fairly satisfactory in service with the [United Arab Emirates] and others, and can carry a wide variety of cheap and effective Chinese munitions. Its sensor capabilities are not up to U.S. standards, especially in terms of stabilization. But given that sales of MQ-9 and other comparable U.S. systems are restricted, and Israeli UAVs are seldom exported with acknowledged weapons capabilities, Wing Loong II is probably the best option available,” Bronk explained.

In regard to what aircraft Pakistan will choose to replace its P-3C Orion fleet, Defense News asked the Navy and the Ministry of Defence Production, but neither provided details by press time.

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)

A small number of business or regional jets from Brazil, Russia or Ukraine with non-Western systems (to avoid sanctions) could readily be converted to suit Pakistan’s requirements. However, there is no official, publicly available notice or hint of sale to Pakistan from these countries’ manufacturers, and there was no response to related queries.

Such a conversion could be locally done, as wider naval modernization is underpinned by Pakistan’s in-house research and development program. Still, the IISS analyst added, it’s not essential the work be performed domestically.

On the modernization effort as a whole, Waldwyn noted that “developing the local capability to design and build this equipment is not a prerequisite to providing conventional deterrence in the short term, and importing equipment from abroad can sometimes be less expensive.”

“However, there is value to developing the defense industrial base and sovereign technological capabilities, as it can protect you against geopolitical changes going forward,” the IISS analyst added.

For Ahmed, domestic work would demonstrate Pakistan “is determined to maintain the required level of modernization” — particularly with directed-energy weapons.

Meanwhile, he said he’s uncertain what new purpose the P282 missile will serve. He is unconvinced the P282 is a hypersonic cruise missile intended to replace the current ship- and submarine-launched Harbah cruise missile. However, if the P282 is a ballistic missile as claimed, “it would make sense only if deployed on a submarine” where it could serve as part of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.

Nevertheless, he added, the modernization program will still “greatly enhance the overall credibility of Pakistan’s deterrent posture vis-a-vis India.”