ISLAMABAD — Even as Pakistan’s currency plunges and the country pursues a bailout package to avoid default, the country’s naval officials say its maritime modernization programs remain on track.
Delivery of a complete fleet renewal is expected by the end of the decade. Pakistan is set to receive this year two remaining Type 054 A/P frigates, which will be the service’s most capable surface ships. The vessels’ HHQ-16 surface-to-air missile systems and P-282/CM-401 supersonic anti-ship weapons are intended to counter the threat from India’s BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missiles and growing carrier capabilities.
“A viable way forward for us has been to follow a cost-effective developmental strategy through a mix of indigenization as well as diverse sources of supply to mitigate specific external dependencies and fulfill our high-tech needs,” the naval chief’s office recently told Defense News. “This is affording us enough flexibility to navigate through these challenging economic times.”
Additionally, three of four Turkish-designed Babur-class corvettes on order were launched and are at various stages that will see the ships fitted with several systems. The fourth corvette is undergoing construction and is expected to launch this year.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Navy’s ship design team, in partnership with its Turkish counterparts, is finalizing development of the related Jinnah-class frigate. Construction of the six planned frigates will begin after the Babur-class corvettes are completed at the state-owned Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works in Pakistan. Initial deliveries of the Jinnah frigates are expected within the next five years.
Despite being Pakistan’s largest-ever indigenous warship program, local industry participation is limited to some onboard systems, and steel production will not take place locally.
Meanwhile, an ongoing midlife upgrade for the F-22P frigate type is expected to improve the Navy’s surveillance, air defense, anti-submarine and offensive anti-ship capabilities. New sensor and weaponry details are unconfirmed, but the ships will feature an indigenous naval combat management system.
However, questions remain over the effectiveness of the air defense technology and sub-hunting capabilities. The current air defense kit features an eight-round FM-90N surface-to-air missile launcher with a limited firing arc.
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said it’s possible Pakistan could retrofit its frigate, which currently features the FM-90N anti-aircraft missile system, with Chinese weaponry.
“China’s recent replacement of the FM-90 on one of its early Type 054 frigates with the HHQ-10 [surface-to-air missile launcher] indicates this may be one option under consideration,” he said.
Naval systems expert Tom Waldwyn of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said an HHQ-10 variant would be a “substantial upgrade over the FM-90N.”
However, “the FL-3000N is an export version of the HHQ-10 and may not be quite the same level of capability,” he added.
As for sub-hunting capabilities, the likely loud acoustic signature of the diesel-powered F-22P frigate may hinder that mission. But Fisher said a potential upgrade could include a towed array sonar as well as the replacement of “some anti-ship missiles with a version of the ET-80 rocket-propelled, small anti-submarine torpedo.”
The Navy has also stepped up efforts to buy and develop unmanned technologies. Pakistan recently acquired the Chinese CH-4, a medium-altitude, long-endurance combat drone, and domestic efforts are underway to develop remotely operated and autonomous surface and underwater vehicles.
With Pakistan’s notable drone sector, the head of UAV specialist Integrated Dynamics in Karachi, Raja Khan, said the domestic industry can rise to the challenge of developing unmanned surface and autonomous underwater drones.
“The capability for [unmanned marine vehicle] and [remotely operated vehicle] development exists, but requires focused support from the government,” he told Defense News. “Integrated Dynamics developed an [unmanned marine vehicle] for channel surface echo sounding and data logging some years ago with internal funding and resources.”
On air power, the Navy would not confirm whether the South African company Paramount Group is working on its future maritime patrol aircraft. However, two Embraer Lineage 1000 business jets are undergoing conversion work as part of the first phase of a long-range MPA upgrade project.
In 2021, Pakistan chose Paramount Group to integrate systems into the Embraer Lineage 1000 aircraft for the program. In June 2022, one of the planes was pictured in South Africa and spotted flying over the Wonderboom area in the capital Pretoria. An aerospace division of Paramount Group is based at Wonderboom National Airport, where the firm also hosts a technical training academy.
Delivery of the first plane is expected within two years, which will determine whether further conversions can take place domestically, the Navy told Defense News.
Asked about the platform’s utility, IISS aerospace expert Douglas Barrie noted the Lineage 1000 “is based on a regional jet design, which obviously isn’t optimized for the demands of the MPA role, but this hasn’t hampered the success of the P-8, which Boeing based on the 737-800.”
There’s no reason the aircraft couldn’t take on the role, he said, adding that the main challenges would be “integration of the mission systems and ensuring any airframe changes don’t adversely affect handling characteristics.”
First locally build assault boat
Moreover, Pakistan’s Bahria Boat Building Yard launched its first 12T marine assault boat on Dec. 5 at its Karachi facility as part of a technology transfer deal with Polish shipbuilder Techno Marine.
The deal represents Techno Marine’s expanding presence in Pakistan; the company previously supplied 30 Chaser TM-1226 rigid inflatable boats for Pakistan’s naval special forces.
The contract for the marine assault boats was signed in 2018, but verifiable public information is limited. Available information notes the delivery in 2019 of two 12T vessels.
However, a spokesman with Bahria Boat Building Yard told Defense News the Pakistan Navy ordered 18 12T boats made up of two types. The Karachi Naval Dockyard is building those powered by outboard engines, and the Navy hired Bahria to make those powered by water jets. Bahria is currently building the remaining three of four vessels it is currently contracted to produce.
The spokesman also said efforts are underway to secure more domestic customers for the Bahria-built boats.
Around the 2003-2004 time frame, Thailand’s Marsun shipyard supplied M-16 fast assault boats — similar to the 12T — and the design for Pakistan’s locally built Jurrat-class missile boats. However, the M-16 vessels no longer meet the Pakistan Navy’s requirements.
The Bahria spokesman said the 12T “is for surveillance, policing purposes and [is] extremely swift in handling, as required, to operate in restricted/Creek areas,” but also around other sensitive areas such as the main naval base in Ormara and the commercial port of Gwadar.
The “Creek areas” refers to the disputed border with India around the Sir Creek, where the land border reaches the Arabian Sea. The tidal estuary is formed of marshland and shifting creeks. Conflicting claims over the border have resulted in a disputed maritime boundary in the Arabian Sea shaped like a large triangle, within which may be subsea energy resources.
Though the Pakistan Marines service patrols the Creeks area with British-built Griffon hovercraft, the 12T would enable a more effective patrolling presence into the disputed area of sea.
The 12T is equipped with twin inboard Cummins-powered Hamilton water jets. It can reach 42 knots (48 mph). It is also equipped with a navigational suite from British company Raymarine, and features ballistic protection by Danish company Scanfiber Composites.
Meanwhile, neighboring China is set to deliver to Pakistan the first Chinese-built Type 039B-based Hangor II submarine in 2024, followed by the remainder — three more from China and four produced domestically — at six-month intervals.
It has been unclear whether Germany would approve export licenses for the submarine type’s diesel engines. In 2020, 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 comment on the matter.
Fisher said China’s submarine customers likely prefer the proven reputation of the German-designed, Chinese-co-produced diesel engines, but Germany’s refusal to grant the necessary clearance means “customers will have to settle for Chinese submarine diesels, or forgo the option of cheap and effective Chinese submarines.”
Nevertheless, submarine expert Aaron Amick, who runs the website Sub Brief, believes the Type 039B “is a good conventional submarine.”
“Most important, and unlike Chinese nuclear submarines, it is very quiet. Pakistan acquiring the Type 039B is a smart decision because it is a powerful, low-cost, short supply chain addition to their Navy,” Amick said. “Incorporating indigenous ship and weapons systems makes these variants uniquely powerful. India should take note that these subs can shoot the Babur-3 nuclear-capable missile up to 280 miles. The combination of stealth and long-range nuclear attack has changed the naval advantage clearly in favor of Pakistan.”
Similarly, independent defense analyst Mansoor Ahmed said the Hangor II will “transform Pakistan’s submarine capabilities.” By more than doubling Pakistan’s “modern subsurface fleet, they will narrow the force asymmetry with archrival India” and ensure greater survivability of Pakistani subs “in the face of growing Indian [anti-submarine warfare] capabilities.”
He noted the Hangor II boats are “insulated from sanctions and other restrictions believed to be associated with Western-origin, big-ticket weapon systems. Coupled with an expanding and modernizing surface fleet, these will also be useful in any Pakistani sea-denial strategy.”
The country’s previous efforts to establish a sea-based deterrent include the 2012 inauguration of the Naval Strategic Forces Command headquarters and the 2016 unveiling of a very-low frequency communications facility for submarines.
With India expanding its own fleet of conventional and nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines, the Hangor II subs are “the most important step toward augmenting the naval leg” of Pakistan’s second-strike capability, Ahmed said.
“Only a more survivable, flexible and numerically balanced Pakistani submarine fleet can act as a deterrent in a future crisis, for which these Hangor submarines are a much-needed addition that will undoubtedly help improve strategic stability in South Asia,” he added.
But Fida Muhammad Khan, a defense economics analyst with the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics think tank, said the government’s fiscal troubles threaten naval programs still in their planning stages.
Given the Navy generally takes a back seat in preference to the other services, those modernization efforts not yet physically underway could be cut, or their delivery timetables stretched out, he told Defense News.
He acknowledged budget allocation may be influenced by the need to maintain parity with India. However, he said, Pakistan should put more emphasis on its defense exports to generate extra funds and safeguard development programs. This would require the government to reduce its stranglehold on the defense industry and allow the private sector more freedom to participate, he said.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.