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Does Pakistan need new frigates?
March 28, 2017
PNS Zulfiqar, one of four F-22P frigates delivered to the Pakistan Navy.

Does Pakistan need new frigates?

We previously took a look at the Pakistan Navy’s future frigate options, but not enough attention was paid to the question of why the Pakistan Navy needs new frigates.

Frigates are medium-sized surface warships capable of undertaking multiple tasks. At the minimum, these warships are capable of at least anti-submarine warfare (ASW) or anti-ship warfare (AShW), if not both.

Navies have traditionally used frigates as a general workhorse; they can serve as escorts for other ships (such as aircraft carriers), patrol ships to monitor one’s sea lines of communication (SLOC), and as attack vessels in certain conditions (such as fleet battles). To this day, frigates continue to serve as the mainstay surface warships of most modern navies.

However, in more recent years conventionally powered submarines have become an increasingly popular means of developing area denial capabilities. ‘Area denial’ refers to the ability to prevent an enemy from securing an area; in the naval theatre, that could refer to one’s coastlines or nearby waters.

In fact, advances in anti-ship missile (AShM) technology and the added capacity in submarines to deploy them makes these warships an attractive AShW asset. This is coupled with air-independent propulsion (AIP), which enables submarines to stay submerged without snorkeling for weeks at a time. With such quiet and capable ships, why would a defensively oriented navy – such as Pakistan’s – need frigates?

If one were viewing this question from the angle of naval warfare from the 1950s to 1980s, then yes, the value of a frigate would diminish significantly in the face of modern and very capable (in terms of AShW and ASW) conventional submarines. A good AIP submarine (SSP) can maintain a low acoustic signature, thereby being difficult to detect; for most naval powers, accessing their enemy’s coast would be difficult.

From a defensive standpoint, what more can one ask for? Sure, a navy would need surface ships to patrol its SLOC in peacetime, for that it could acquire offshore patrol vessels (OPV). In terms of AShW, a modern SSP is sufficient. In terms of ASW, a navy could stock up on capable maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) such as the P-3C Orion, which can carry powerful sensor equipment as well as AShM and ASW torpedoes.

An emphasis on SSP and MPA is basically the Pakistan Navy’s current modernization trajectory. Aided by its increasingly large number of new fast attack crafts (FAC), such as the Azmat-class, Pakistan is well-set in terms of area denial.

Or is it?

In this world, things do not remain the same. In other words, while a frigate was the mainstay AShW and ASW workhorse of the Cold War, it does not mean a frigate’s value today is derived purely from its ability to support AShW and ASW missions. Frigates have taken on another role: anti-air warfare (AAW). Recent advances in making medium to long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) compact enough for warships has enabled frigates to become credible AAW assets.

AAW is an essential component of modern maritime warfare. If one were dependent on their SSP, then they would need a means to counteract an enemy’s prowling MPAs. However, AAW is an important aspect in all respects, especially if one is serious about defending the totality of their maritime interests.

In Pakistan’s case, its naval interests are not limited to simply area denial, but defending its SLOC or sea-lanes as well. Pakistan is dependent on its coastal economy, most notably trade, which helps Karachi – the country’s biggest city – generate a large proportion of Pakistan’s economic activity.

If subjected to an enemy’s interference, perhaps in the form of the Indian Navy interdicting Pakistan’s sea-lanes, Pakistan’s economy will suffer greatly. This may not matter in a short hot-war of a few weeks, but if India and Pakistan were locked into a tense long-term stand-off, then what is to stop India from trying to tamper with Pakistan’s maritime economic interests as a means to induce pressure?

Such a scenario can happen following a hot-war as well. Although active hostilities may cease, the two countries may reach a standstill in talks. Perhaps Pakistan is unwilling to concede a new and important gain? What is to stop India from interdicting Pakistan’s SLOC as a means to pressure Pakistan into letting go that wartime gain?

In this case, modern multi-mission frigates can serve as a means to maintain force presence along one’s SLOC. With AShW, ASW and AAW capabilities, these ships would be able to protect themselves as well as other valuable assets, such as one’s submarines, merchant trade ships, and naval support vessels (e.g. tankers, resupply ships, etc).

It should go without saying that modern frigates are only a part of effective naval warfare; they cannot fulfil the entirety of one’s needs alone. Rather, a good AAW capable frigate would closely operate with friendly aviation and submarine assets. The submarines would benefit from the frigate’s AAW umbrella; the frigates would benefit from a submarine’s quiet attack edge (requiring enemies to be careful before getting too close to the frigate, lest they fall into the sights of a submarine); and they can coordinate with one’s maritime ASW assets in hunting enemy submarines.

Granted, modern frigates are not “cheap” assets, but the Pakistan Navy’s recapitalization needs are not as frequent as that of the Army or Air Force. A good frigate design with sufficient room left for upgrades in sensors and armament carrying capacity could be scaled to serve for many decades with ease.

  • Hashim Rasheed

    The navy would still need surface ships in any case, as they can also serve to launch cruise missiles. How about big destroyers? Why does Pakistan not invest in those? Any comment…

    • Lack of money, primarily. Insufficient vision at the very top as well.

      • Catalyst

        Recent reports show quite a stir in activities related to Pakistan Navy, both domestically and internationally. Can we finally see the end of the tunnel and assume that it is finally the Navy’s turn to upgrade?

    • MT

      Capabilities of pak naval industries & level of r&d is abysmal which makes it non feasible to make opv in karachi shipyard

      • Abdul Rashid

        MT, just a little correction. ..

        The article is NOT about Karachi Shipyards’ manufacturing capacity or about Pakistan’s R&D. Your comment above is also not relevant to the question posed by Hashim.

        To avoid your comments getting deleted or not approved at all, stay on topic.

  • Abdul Rashid

    I can understand your hypothetical post hot-war scenario (and that for a very short time too) or during the hot-war itself with the Indian Navy trying to induce pressure by interdicting Pakistan’s sea-lanes but I cannot imagine the long-term pre-war scenario you spelled out. Not even during a tense stand off. My guess is the moment a single incidence of Indian Navy going down that road (tampering with Pakistan’s maritime economic interests) occurs it will trigger a stern warning by Pakistan and then a pre-emptive full-scale attack on India if the situation continues. So I only see a well-behaved India or a hot-war regarding Pakistan’s sea-lanes. No in-between.

    • jigsaww

      Pakistan will risk going to full blown war with Hindustan with an attack on its navy. That’s fine to do if they are guilty of area denial offence, except that you cannot do it with current green water naval capability while Hindustan has clearly stated its intentions of creating a sea based deterrent and a blue water navy, besides creating a counter to CPEC in Chabahaar.

      Pakistan needs to understand the only way to keep this or any hypothetical scenario from coming into play is by deploying sufficient capability well in advance. In this case, it just might never come to land theatre and all theatre may play out in the waters.

      The conclusion is what we’ve said before.

      Blue water economy requires a blue water navy.

      MMFs are critical, sea based LRSAMs are critical. SSKs are critical. So is your sea based deterrent to keep things from getting out of control or be able to threat equally.

      Without changing the mindset to blue water navy, you are inviting Hindustan to come and exercise all kinds of scenarios on Pakistan.

      One thing that just might help is Chinese navy presence in Gwadar, since its a mutual interest site. A couple of destroyers and N subs will probably keep Hindustan away from provoking Pakistan. Pakistan should sign a LSA type agreements officially with China to allow its navy anchor and base in Gwadar on regular basis. That is a temporary short term solution. The actual solution is change needed in mindset with CPEC.

      • Abdul Rashid

        “Pakistan needs to understand the only way to keep this or any hypothetical scenario from coming into play is by deploying sufficient capability well in advance”.

        This “well in advance” business is precisely what I cannot get my head around. I commented on this before too. Luckily for Pakistan, with the slow pace of Indian military capabilities coming to fruition, nobody gives more advanced notice of intent as the Indians. INS Arihant was in the works for 3 decades, right? During that time there were times when Pakistan’s economy looked in good shape so where was the effort then to move towards creating this blue water navy?

        • jigsaww

          That particular question is for leadership of those times to answer. It’s not a perfectly functioning country to be not knowing answer to that, besides it’s obvious that Pakistan always plays out reactively to emerging threats.

          But frankly, its a simple case of ‘not needed, until its needed’, and it wasn’t needed before CPEC or sea based threats to Pakistan. Now it is.

          The “well in advance” does not necessarily mean 30 years in advance or 15 years, it simply means well in advance of having a scenario imposed on you. Having some INS Arihant does not mean you can expect a scenario next day. It’s just OK to start now.

          • Abdul Rashid

            You have argued passionately for a like-for-like deterrence capability regardless of CPEC so the need was emerging 3 decades ago not necessarily started today.

          • jigsaww

            You said i argued for tit for tat capability purely on threats only.

            Here is a quote of a comment i made to you 3 months ago on Pakistan’s Navy frigate options article:

            “Navy itself lacks the spark to push its requirements strongly based on emerging threat perceptions in backdrop of CPEC and more. … I believe army and airforce are doing relatively fine. Navy needs focus.”

            Here’s another:

            “Pakistan does have disadvantage of low surface vessels at the moment but by 2020/22, it will also have 11 AIP subs equipped for N roles. Two area’s need to be addressed by 2020. Adding destroyers with medium to long range area defence, and new frigates.”

            And another:

            “By every technical analysis, Pakistan is making huge mistake here by treating its navy as some adopted child and putting its needs on the back burner. You should write more about this. I know getting western systems will be outright difficult for setting aside large funds at once, but these deals can be done with china under a strategic protection of mutual assets. Navy will be the key here once CPEC starts functioning by 2018. There is a need for Pakistan to double down on its current surface fleet and ASW assets. If it wasn’t for Strategic command, navy would not even be getting 8 new subs.”

            Another:

            “Part of the problem is of course poor financial situation but a bigger problem is just a general lack of focus on pak navy overall in Pakistan military and gov. It’s been like this for years but it needs to change pretty soon now. Strategically speaking , PN has also put itself on a wrong policy of maintaining a 1:5 ratio with Indian navy. It’s absurd and a strategic sin. And that’s because PN sees itself only as a defensive force. That needs to change to be able to carry out deep penetration ops and providing sound defense and area denial. Two things need to change here fast. First the approach to accepting navy’s critical importance in changing scenario by both the joint military command and the gov. And then this absurd 1:5 ratio. The ratio should never be less than 2.5:5 for PN to be able to guarantee its tasks.”

            I can pull dozen more examples. I’ve been arguing equally in favour of expanding PN capabilities both in backdrop of CPEC as well as emerging threats. It’s just that people haven’t been listening despite cross commenting. That particular thread was more focused on SSBNs so the discussion was more in that context.

            The thing is Pakistan does not have the kind of military budgets to start pursuing every capability out there merely on mild indications. A motive not enough is no motive at all. 30 years ago it was more about the N capability itself than pursuing delivery methods. Now is a different time.

          • Abdul Rashid

            Yes, I can see here you have more of a balanced position regarding PN future needs and the reason’s behind them. It is good to have all your detailed input in a single comment. Most of the time I DO actually read all your (and others’) comments but how much of it I manage to assimilate or retain is another thing. In this particular case, I admit I had been so absorbed by the position you took on the SSBN debate I had forgotten your previous input on PN-related threads. There are times when I’m working away from home with limited internet availability and then I might miss the entire goings-on at Quwa for the entire period.

            When I “disagree”, challenge on a certain point or seek clarification it is never done with the intention to be a pain in the proverbial or even that I necessarily actually disagree (though of course I may do that too at times). I just like to play the Devil’s’ advocate to provoke a response in order to tease out answers or to widen or intensify the debate and hopefully draw in others so that I and anyone else interested can benefit from the discussion and increase our knowledge. It also makes the comments section more lively and interesting.

            I have noticed on Quwa my fellow Pakistani brothers are very quiet and seemingly shy away from discussion. I don’t know why that would be. Maybe we tend to be volatile creatures and everyone likes to tread lightly so as not to offend others or receive a salvo barrage. I don’t know. As for me, I’m pretty thick-skinned. I don’t take offense very easily at all so have no hesitation in challenging intellectual gurus like you and Mohsin in order to advance my understanding.

          • jigsaww

            Ok, thanks for response and veiled references, Lol.
            Did i offend you? I thought you asked me to clarify my position. Sorry.
            Disagreement is healthy. Only sheep do not disagree.

          • Abdul Rashid

            What veiled references?!!! Now I wonder where the veiled reference is embedded in my response? Is it too thinly veiled would you say?

          • jigsaww

            Never mind.

          • Abdul Rashid

            Just pulling your leg, kid. I know exactly what you meant.

          • jigsaww

            Feels good 🙂

  • Salman Khan

    Just a little deviation please guys, because I can’t ask this question anywhere else. I’ve read many articles where it’s said that Chinese submarines, like the Yuan class which Pakistan is likely to acquire, have comparatively high acoustic signatures. Can you please explain this in a reply or make it a topic for an article. It’s really not clear how Chinese SSKs go on par with the Western subs. Pakistan has always been very wise on acquiring good submarines, with great technologies, like how it acquired AIP subs before India. I’m not, in general, convinced completely with how Chinese weapons in general compare to their Western counterparts.

    • Mateen Zaman

      Yuan will ultimately be powered by nuc propulsion,all the 8 or subsequent subs won’t be SSK or AIP only,S20 is a step toward countering leased and indigenous Indians SSNs ambition

    • jigsaww

      First off you are correct. Chinese subs are not on par with western subs. Neither is the technology. They have higher signatures, relatively. But there’s also very little info leaked out by Chinese on performance of these machines. We cannot map exact performance.

      I think the answer to that is that first off Pakistan is not in a position to make payments of entire deal as would be the case with other suppliers. Second off, a western supplier may not offer the kind of flexibility Pakistan requires in modifying the subs to varied roles. China will not object to that. The decision has come thru SPD not navy itself of 8 new subs, so there’s a strategic angle to it primarily.

      In short, cost and asymmetric requirements are the drivers behind Chinese subs deal. There’s not a lot on the table to choose from.

      • Salman Khan

        Do you think that, while its visit to Karachi, the Yuan have gained the confidence of the Pakistan Navy? It must be really good, or at least better than our Agosta 90Bs. Our 90Bs are a miracle for a troubled country like Pakistan. They are almost as good as the Scorpene. I really hope that S-20 must have some light in their eyes which attracted our navy men, rather than just the political factor. Even if we learn how to make inferior Chinese subs, that would never change the situation that we’ve inferior material facing modern western Scorpenes (even if we lift our nose high in – actually that is an achievement in a way – the air that we’ve built the latest Chinese subs). I think we should seek better relations with the West just like Turkey. Turkey is learning how to become a powerful modern nation, while we are for not much reason cornering ourselves in every small way. Even the extreme KSA has better relations with the West than us. It’s really sad. We are really on a point where we get into unnecessary conflicts. I mean, for example, if there are the Haqqani operatives still in Pakistan, we should kick them out. Why keep the flame of confrontation burning? We’d only burn in this flame.

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