This story was updated Nov. 15, 2021, at 9:40 a.m. EST with a delivery schedule for the frigates provided by the Pakistan Navy.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan on Monday commissioned the first of four Type 054A/P frigates during a ceremony at the Hudong Zhonghua Shipbuilding yard in Shanghai, China.
Named Tughril, the frigate and its sister ships are the most powerful surface vessels planned under Pakistan’s naval modernization program, meant to redress a conventional imbalance with India.
Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Moin Ul-Haq, said in a Navy news release that the frigates will strengthen the service’s ability to respond to maritime challenges, ensure seaward defense, and maintain peace, stability and the regional balance of power.
Ul-Haq also praised China State Shipbuilding Corporation, China Shipbuilding Trading Company, China Ship Development and Design Center, and Hudong Zhonghua Shipbuilding, as well as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy for ensuring the frigate’s timely delivery amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pakistan Navy told Defense News after press time that the remaining frigates will be delivered at six-month intervals, with the next — named Taimur — expected in April 2022.
Pakistan became the ship design’s first foreign customer under a 2017 deal for two Type 054A/P frigates, with two more ordered in 2018, with deliveries to begin in 2021. They are the most powerful Chinese warships exported to date.
The Type 054A/P is a Pakistan-specific variant equipped with the SR2410C long-range and Type 517/SUR17B air-surveillance radars. Previous reports speculated they would be armed with a supersonic anti-ship missile and/or Pakistan’s Harbah anti-ship, land-attack cruise missile.
However, Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told Defense News the speculation can be put aside with the unveiling of a Pakistani ship-launched ballistic missile, dubbed P282.
“Imagery revealed during the commissioning of Tughril confirms that the ‘P282′ is the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) CM-401 hypersonic-speed capable anti-ship ballistic missile,” Fisher said. The CM-401 is a short-range ballistic missile that can maneuver to avoid interception and can allegedly travel at Mach 6.
Highlighting the flexibility of the Type 054A/P, Fisher said the Tughril is the “first Chinese export warship to feature a 32-cell vertical launch system that can be armed with an array of anti-aircraft missiles, ship and land-attack cruise missiles and anti-submarine missiles, as they are on PLA Navy Type 054A frigates.”
The Type 054A/P also carries HHQ-16 medium-range air defense missiles that provide an area defense capability. Pakistan has experienced a capability gap since its lease ran out with the United States for four American Brooke-class frigates in 1994.
Pakistan’s four F-22P Zulfiquar (Type 053H3-derivative) frigates are incapable of dealing with modern missile threats, but might receive upgrades with the fielding of the Type-054A/Ps.
Tom Waldwyn, a naval expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Type 054A/P ships “will be a considerable improvement … particularly in terms of [anti-submarine warfare] capability” over the 1970s-era ex-British Type 21 frigates that Pakistan acquired in the 1990s. The Type 21s will now undergo decommissioning.
However, he added, India’s Navy “maintains a significant numbers and capability advantage over Pakistan” despite its own programs having suffered “significant delays” and the service’s spread-out deployment among several coastal areas.
Furthermore, the “potentially more lucrative Indian market” had lured European, Russian and American firms away from supplying Pakistan, essentially forcing Islamabad to rely on Beijing for defense equipment, he said.
Though this may have hampered Pakistan’s ability to acquire cutting-edge defense equipment, Waldwyn said the delivery of eight Type 039B Yuan/Hangor II-class submarines will “enlarge the fleet and be a significant capability improvement, particularly if they are fitted with long-range cruise missiles.”
Citing Pakistan’s tests of the submarine-launched Harbah nuclear-capable cruise missile, he said their service entry “would be far more significant to the strategic balance than a handful of new frigates.”
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.