ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Navy kicked off a major exercise Saturday as it tries to modernize and expand to counter growing Indian naval power, as well as protect its maritime economy and trade links.

Exercise Ribat aims to validate the Navy’s “war-fighting concepts under evolving multifaceted threats ranging from conventional to subconventional warfare,” and it involves enhancing cooperation with the Air Force “at extended ranges into the Arabian Sea,” according to a military news release.

It culminates on March 6 with a live-fire exercise.

Analyst, author and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley says “subconventional warfare” likely refers to “counterterrorism, etc. — anything, really, below the classic battlefield.”

New missile/patrol boats are therefore being sought to protect Pakistan’s growing maritime economy and trade links, upon which it has pinned hopes of economic revival, with China and Turkey vying to supply these.

However, neither the Ministry of Defence Production nor the Navy clarified the status of acquisition efforts when asked.

Regarding what more could be done to improve capabilities in this respect, whether simply acquiring more patrol assets or also leveraging technology such as unmanned aerial and surface vehicles, Cloughley believes the Navy is “certainly concentrating on inshore patrol vessels.” However, he wondered about further planned developments for the Pakistan Coast Guards.

He believes unmanned technology is important, but does not think the government would “publicize intentions.”

Commercial satellite imagery has revealed China’s Wing Loong medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV undergoing testing in Pakistan, but nothing further is yet known except capabilities in marketing literature.

Pakistan from an Indian viewpoint

Conventionally vis-a-vis India, Pakistan’s Navy is in desperate need of modernization and expansion.

Kamal Alam, visiting fellow and Pakistan analyst at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, said that during past conflicts the Navy played a “very minimal role against India,” historically being the “weakest of the three services.”

“However, over the last five years this is changing as China ramps up its support with the largest defense deal in their history in the shape of submarines” and as the Navy transitions from a “defensive force into an offensive one.”

Nevertheless, air support “is key to any naval operations against India,” he added.

Warships aside, India boasts numerous anti-ship missile-equipped aircraft including Harpoon-equipped Jaguars and supersonic Brahmos-equipped Su-30MKI Flankers that have enormous range. Pakistan’s Navy has limited defenses against Brahmos.

Improvements have been made as C-802A/CSS-N-8 Saccade-armed JF-17 Thunder jets have augmented the dated Exocet-equipped Mirages that will soon retire.

Nevertheless, author and analyst Kaiser Tufail, who commanded an anti-shipping strike Mirage squadron during his Air Force career, says more needs to be done.

The JF-17 “must have the supersonic CM-400AKG missile for the medium-term retrofit plans, possibly integrated with the Block III,” Tufail said.

“The days of subsonic anti-ship missiles are numbered. Even a mix of the C-802 and CM-400AKG can force a significant change in adversary operational employment of its naval resources,” he added.

The JF-17 is, however, comparably short-legged, necessitating “a long-range twin-engine fighter for maritime air superiority, escort of maritime patrol aircraft, air cover to surface, high-value vessels bringing in vital supplies, etc.,” he noted; hence, Exercise Ribat’s testing of “joint operability at greater ranges and a wider scope than in the past.”

This requirement saw Pakistan consider buying Russia’s Su-35 (Flanker-E). However, these are expensive, and so the plans may need to be shelved until Pakistan’s fifth-generation fighter program (likely a development of China’s J-31) matures.

Nevertheless, Tufail still believes the Su-35 “fits the bill well.”

Ultimately, Tufail said, Pakistan’s maritime security concerns will continue to grow.

“With Chinese reach extending to the northern reaches of Arabian Sea, Pakistan has become an unwitting player on the maritime scene, which involves big powers including U.S. and India, and needs to pay greater attention to maritime strategy, though continental strategy will continue to remain dominant due to the territorial dispute of Kashmir.”

Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.

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