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Discussion: The Pakistan Navy’s Frigate Options (2016)
August 18, 2017
PNS Zulfiqar participating in Thamar al Tayyib-16. Photo credit: Inter Services Public Relations

Discussion: The Pakistan Navy’s Frigate Options (2016)

Foreword: This is not a news story, but a piece for discussion. The details offered in this article are not authoritative pieces of information, but rather, perspectives of the author.

In 2015, Quwa published an article examining the Pakistan Navy’s known procurement plans, which, in hindsight of recent statements and events, seem relatively conservative. That said, one of the core themes of that article (titled: “Is it finally the Pakistan Navy’s turn?”) was the apparent need for a multi-mission frigate to credibly defend Pakistan’s sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) – i.e. sea-lanes – in times of peace and in times of war. With the Pakistani government strongly emphasizing the value of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Gwadar, the call for strengthening the Navy has grown.

Thus far, that strengthening process has comprised of a multi-billion-dollar purchase of eight submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP) from China and strong interest in four corvettes and four to six new fast attack crafts from Turkey and/or China. In addition, the Pakistan Navy has also procured a third ATR-72-based maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and an undisclosed number of ScanEagle surveillance drones.

Although the China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Corporation (CSOC) displayed a few new multi-mission frigate designs at the 2016 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), Pakistan’s bi-annual defence industry exhibition, it is not clear if the Pakistan Navy will procure new frigates. Assuming the Pakistan Navy’s planners are intent on guarding SLOCs, which appears to be the case, then a budget-conscious approach may be under consideration.

For clarity, it is important to understand that modern terms such as “frigate” and “corvette” mean little to today’s navies and shipbuilders. For example, in June, Qatar ordered four 3,000-ton ‘corvettes’ from the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri. These ‘corvettes’ are not only close in displacement to Pakistan’s F-22P Zulfiqar-class “frigates”, but with the MBDA Aster-30 long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, they are superior air defence assets. Interestingly, the four corvettes that the Pakistan Navy is in talks for from the Turkish shipbuilder Savunma Teknolojileri Mühendislik ve Ticaret A.Ş. (STM) – i.e. the MILGEM – are identical in capability to the F-22P, though lighter in displacement.

In this article, ships with displacements of 2,000-tons or more will be described as “frigates”, and warships weighing 300-tons or more will be described as “corvettes.” This is largely arbitrary, but differentiation is being sought to demarcate between assets suitable for wartime SLOC protection and others (e.g. littoral anti-access and area-denial assets). Ultimately, it is a less of a question of a platform being classified “X” or “Y” and more of an issue of its actual capabilities.

Broadly, Pakistan will likely weigh anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) as the priority naval need, with sea-lane protection being secondary. In other words, it is unlikely that a fighter aircraft or main battle tank program will be permitted to suffer to foot the bill for an expensive surface warship. If the armed forces leadership determine that the country’s coastal assets are well-defended, which would require stealthy submarines, fast attack crafts (FAC), and coastal anti-ship missile (AShM) batteries, then SLOC protection – while a necessity – may not be the ‘greater necessity’ in comparison to other needs.

Balance would be required in the pursuit of surface warships, and in turn, expectations for 4,000-ton or 5,000-ton frigates should be tempered. Foregoing larger surface warships need not result in limited multi-mission capabilities. Realizing that many navies are unable to afford frigates at $500 million U.S. per ship (if not higher), the shipbuilding industry, particularly outside of Western Europe, has stepped to offer very compelling and much more affordable platforms.

For example, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) sold two 114.3 metre 2,600-ton frigates to the Philippines Navy for $311 million U.S. Granted, this probably does not include the cost of onboard sensors, electronics and weapons, but with hulls (and propulsion?) costing $155.5 million U.S., there is considerable vertical room for configuration. A fully-outfitted HHI design with Western European or American subsystems should fit in the $300-350 million U.S. range.

It would curious, to say the least, if Pakistan’s talks with STM (for four MILGEM ships) do not translate into a program comparable to the HHI frigate for the Philippines. While the Ada-class corvette is a sound anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platform, the Istanbul-class frigate is fundamentally the same platform as the Ada, but with 10 additional metres to accommodate eight additional AShM (for a total of 16) and a vertical launch system (VLS) for a SAM system.

The final cost of the Istanbul-class frigate, also known as the MILGEM-G, should be in the range of the HHI frigate bought by the Philippines. The Ada-class itself would cost around $250 million U.S. per ship, so the $50-100 million U.S. gap for genuine anti-air warfare (AAW) and improved anti-ship warfare (AShW) is not significant considering the improvement. If this is unaffordable, then an alternative should be sought.

Pakistan Navy could opt for an upgraded version of the C28A (acquired by Algeria), which is an improved version of the F-22P. In contrast to the F-22P and C28A, one would expect the Pakistan Navy to have VLS incorporated from the design-phase, which would set the foundation for a medium-range SAM system.

Ultimately, be it the MILGEM or ‘improved’ F-22P/C28A, the Pakistan Navy’s emphasis would be on acquiring credible AAW, AShW and ASW capabilities at an affordable cost. Most likely, a conservative path would enable the Navy to assuredly procure the minimal number (i.e. four?) of capable frigates. In the best-case scenario where there is ample funding, a conservative design could be procured in greater numbers. This would emulate the Pakistan Navy’s decision to pursue eight Chinese AIP submarines instead of three or four Western European submarines (flexible financing from China notwithstanding).

The ‘corvette’ space may shift to favour sub-1,000-ton designs. If the purpose is to have assets capable of patrolling SLOCs in peacetime and to defend littoral waters in wartime, then the 2,300-ton STM Ada-class would be unwise. Its role could be fulfilled (albeit with possibly lesser ASW capabilities) by a much smaller – but much more affordable – ship, such as the 640-tons Visby-class corvette. Interestingly, the Visby-class does possess credible ASW capabilities through three 400 mm torpedo tubes, which can deploy Saab’s Tp-45 and Tp-47 lightweight ASW torpedoes.

If Pakistan intends to build a surface fleet, it will essentially need to focus on the smaller and lighter ships of so-called ‘frigate’ and ‘corvette’ classes. In effect, the ‘frigates’ would be in sub-3,000-ton displacement range, and the ‘corvettes’ in the sub-1,000-ton displacement range. In both cases, the priority would be to imbue each design with sufficient mission capabilities in AShW, AAW, and ASW, but with an emphasis on controlling cost. That said, saving on the barebones hull and propulsion would offer Pakistan additional vertical space for onboard configuration, which could (in theory) let the Pakistan Navy invest in industry-standard subsystems (e.g. air and surface surveillance radar and sub-surface sonar).

  • Donny G

    Pakistan should build its own frigates.

  • Rizwan

    Yes, Pakistan should be doing a lot of things it doesn’t do! I mean by that things for its own benefit, not for others.

  • jamshed_kharian_pak

    Humanity demands are complex smaller in size to have more, slowly but surely we are marching towards Nano technologies, PN for the time being must invest in locally build Fast Boats equipped with state of the art Missiles but in thousands, on the coastal shores of Islamic Republic of Pakistan where ever you look Missile boats are being built! an excellent news to our brave compatriots and strong deathly message to our so called enemies!

  • Farooq Hussain Toor

    Well give some time to pn and some time to pm we I’ll have state of the art military equipment

  • Shershahsuri

    Pakistan needs urgent and fast procurement in Navy. It should not take years like the S-20 deal with China.

  • Syed Arbab Shah

    Frigates are sitting ducks and waiting to be sunk because they move slowly and no defence against Brahmos Cruise missile. They are slow moving targets. In times of war, an effective naval blockade is eminent.
    Submarines will try to break the blockade but without air defence, that too will be limited.
    Fast, agile, stealthy, with small RCS and < 1000 tonnes is the need of the hour, with RIM 116 RAM as air defence.

    • Steve

      With respect I disagree. High quality frigates with quality air defence missiles (Aster 30/15 or SM2/ESSM standard) in a layered defensive shield, combined with CIWS for last ditch defence can stop Brahmos (downgraded Onyx/Yakhont). Numbers launched are important therefore the need for large VLS arrays which you just cannot have in small corvettes. A Kolkata class frigate carries 16 Brahmos with which it can attack ships irrespective of how small they are. You don’t want your small FAC to be decimated. Better still to target the platform launching the missile rather than missiles themselves. That’s why it’s important to also have ISR assets and long range fighters like Su-35/J11 carrying CMK 400AKG and also quiet subs. A lot of factors determine naval engagements not just Brahmos. Time to gradually build a proper surface fleet. It will take time as we have also the third leg of our nuclear triad to operationalise. Exciting times!

      • MT

        Brahmos is far advanced than yakhont. Brahmos can dive 90degree but yakhont don’t.
        Brahmos has better navigation system that reply on all three signals from gps glonass nd Indian irnss(in testing).

        Yakhont is exported to third countries while brahmos was made for India during times once India was only reliable ally of Soviet

        Russian already helping brahmos extend range to 600,km. Brahmos is much more precise anti shipping role than Onyx/yakhont.

        • Steve

          Can you please tell me why Russia has not inducted Brahmos?

          • MT

            If you read my prev msg then I clearly specify that yakhont was export CM. Brahmos was GLCM Export to russian key ally india as Indian funded the project in 90’s
            Indonesians have imported yakhont from Russians but they too have publicy asked for brahmos which they find it superior over yakhont

            Russians use the same klub missiles as their warship are specially designed for them irrespective of range( 100 Km to 2500 KM). So why would they use 300 Km range brahmos who infact adopts klub missiles technology

            onik was initially better than brahmos but Brahmos have gone though 3 generation dev reforms. 3rd block is a generation ahead & it can dive steep 90 degree and hit targets behind mountains.
            not to forget the precision in anti ship role and dodging SAM is latest version as some of tech from new models of kalib have been integrated into brahmos. It has precision of less than 10 meter which is vital for anti shipping role. It also used combined signals of GPS GLONASS and INRSS.
            Brahmos 3rd gen GLCM had 66% failure rate against barak8 but it was only possible after the SAM had access to telemetry data

            Russia is already working with india to increase range to 600 KM which is dependent upon the state of art LFRJ liquid fuel ramjet engine where russia has lead over all countries in world

            Quote:”
            Block III had advanced guidance and upgraded software, incorporating high manoeuvres at multiple points and steep dive from high altitude. The steep dive capability of the Block III enables it to hit targets hidden behind a mountain range. It will be deployed in Arunachal Pradesh. It can engage ground targets from an altitude as low as 10 meters for surgical strikes with out any collateral damage ”

            Coming back to Aster if it can stop Brahmos.Israeli had telemetary data of brahmos so they have the solution in barak8… Possibly americans too have grabbed hold of such info from israel but Aster probably will not find it easy

          • Steve

            You don’t answer questions logically but immediately go into an emotive patriotic cut-and-paste mode. Why has Russia not inducted Brahmos, as you are saying it’s superior to Russian missiles like Onyx? The diameter and VLS firing mechanism should be identical. Why would they not induct a superior missile. Forget Klub which is a different missile we’re taking about Onyx.

          • parikrama

            Cost my friend Russian economy this year will shrink to size smaller than Spain they also didn’t Inducted 300 su 30 flankers in their air frame also.
            And when it’s all said and done India would be operating more PAK FA than RuAF itself not to mention the deep Super Sukhoi upgrade too.

            Also they have huge inventory of onyx and it’s derivates(which are much better than what’s exported) which delivers almost 80% of the performance of brahmos so no need to buy it now maybe when they exhaust their inventory or decide to change it they might also they will buy air launched Brahmos when it clears trial hope that answers your query. Think of brahmos like su 35 and put India in place of Russia will India buy su 35 in numbers when it already has 300 advanced su30 ??? Doesn’t make much sense fiscally.

          • Steve

            Excellent! That’s means Pakistan can go for Su-35. Thanks

          • Parikrama

            Sure you can what are you waiting for everyone knows PAF and PN needs heavy twin engine class jets to even have a fighting chance that can put some hurt on the opponent’s otherwise they will be left just patrolling inside the border while being easy pick for meteors and other BVR from across the border.
            And the best platform for this is FC 31 for PAF as TAI TFX is still on paper only while second prototype of fc31 flew and it’s much better than su 35 as it has lower RCS than a flanker owing to design however how small it’s anyone’s guess but logical reasoning does point to the fact that the RCS will be small and now if it can get better clean and efficient engines other than that coal powered rd 93 it will be force to reckon with.

            Cheerio

          • Steve

            Thanks for the advice. We will prefer Su-35 and about 40 of them 🙂

          • MT

            Russia don’t use onyx.

            If u re read my prev post then I clearly mentioned that Russians ships are using diff version of klub (300 km to 2500km)
            So there is no need for them to use brahmos/onyx of 1 range

          • MT

            Klub series has many supersonic nd subsonic versions.
            Supersonic ones use liquid fuel ramjet engine of higher isp with higher range than Brahmos.

          • kanisk singh

            What sort of a question is that ? However, since you asked, Russia does not have the financial to purchase everything it builds for India immediately. Case in point here being the Su-30 MKI, the Russians only recently brought only 24 Su-30 SM(Russianized MKI) despite the RuAF being highly impressed by the MKI. And that is when India is already moving on to the Super-Sukhois. Further, as another user here has already pointed out, the Russians have a wide-variety of missiles which are very similar to the Brahmos. Moreover, the operational requirements of both the countries are very different. So it does not make sense for the Russians to spend already scarce resources on expensive platforms like the Brahmos when they already have missiles (in large quantities) that are somewhat comparable to the Brahmos.

            P.S : I do not know if you are Pakistani (since you have a western sounding profile name) but it would do you a lot of good if you get out of some of your delusions. I agree that India has a very long way to go before it can boast of something even remotely resembling the MIC possessed by Russia, US, China and the likes. But get this fact right, even in it’s current dismal form, India’s MIC, if you can call it that, is much larger, resourceful and technologically advanced than Pakistan’s.

    • Steve

      I partly agree with you about RAM and should have included it in my reply. RAM will extend the short range intercept distance and therefore reaction time for the targeted platform faced with a saturation Brahmos attack. With the missile terminal manoeuvre CIWS may get only a few shots off as it tracks the incoming missile and may sustain damage from missile debris. RAM can form the third layer, but will not be of much use on it’s own. Of course it would be silly for Pakistan to get frigates without a well thought out counter to Brahmos and it’s launching platforms. Need decent sized ships!

  • Steve

    Your naval shipbuilding is to be commended. However are most of the subsystems not imported?

    • Saptarshi Dasgupta

      The AESA radars and few EW systems and engines are imported but rest Indian. Brahmos is jointly developed with Russia so is the Baran 8 missile systems. Sonars,torpedoes,modular ship building ,stealth technology all developed in house. The Air Force is yet to emulate this feat with is Tejas though and JF-17 model should be followed for AMCA and Pak-fa

      • OSD

        The Brahmos is a direct copy of the P-800 Oniks missile, which itself was developed in the 1980s by the Soviet Union. The Barak-8 Missile system is based on the Barak series with work share by the DRDO. India has a large ship building capacity and it has developed a torpedo, but that does not guarantee success in R&D. The Arjun, M-46 Catapult, LCA Tejas, Nirbhay and the INSAS are some of the few examples of indigenous defense projects which have not met the mark.

        In contrast to developing designs from scratch, it seems to be that countries should focus on slowly build up their capacity for development by first collaborating with experience foreign manufacturers. In this regard, I think the JF-17 project has been a remarkable success and the Brahmos has also matured because of sound design support from Russia.

        • MT

          india used DRDO built dual pulse engine in indian barak8 but ER version have Israeli TVC boooster
          Guidance,SBR,AESA radar,seeker are all israeli

          Brahmos have gone though 3 generation dev reforms. It was initially similar to onik but 3rd block is a generation ahead & it can dive steep 90 degree and hit targets behind mountains.
          not to forget the precision in anti ship role and dodging SAM is latest version as some of tech from kalibr/klub have been integrated

          Nirbhay is mostly indigenous(last failed test used russian seeker and engine//But manik engine locally made is under trial and it will be used once DRDO fix the flaws with guidance system of flight control which is buggy as of now) & it face some delay and failures but its being developed with miniscule budget of 20 mill $ . Tejas is being scaled up. INSAS got advanced into future gen rifles such as excalibur

          Arjun was part of technology development program with an aim to maximize indigenous products/subsystem development for FMBT

          So what you will see in next 4/5 yrs is Nirbhay getting induted

          Jf17 project is all about procurement and minimal airframe assembly given airframe cost is barely 20/23% and pak all it does is make 58% of airframe
          Nobody knows what % of babur and raad is pakistani. There is almost no literature study on pak missile technology. Pak havnt shown any significant R&D, patents or published papers in any of defence technologies which put question mark of pakistani capabilities

          • Steve

            Apologise for stereotyping a bit but I honestly don’t know why some of our Indian friends are so emotional and defensive to the point of irrationality about Indian development and products. The post above with (unrelated to topic) Pakistani comparisons is quite revealing. Long threads repeating the same arguments over and over again litter every forum, and every discussion is ruined and descends to the level of a slanging match, full of praise for rather mediocre military products just because they are Indian. Joint products are mostly exercises in relabelled with minor input but that’s also forcefully refuted. They seem to be blinded by patriotism but it’s more than that. There’s a sense of entitlement and outrage about the way they have been treated historically and deep seated grievances. To say the fact that India is a low per capita income, Third World country with appalling infrastructure like many others, produces an immediate aggressive denial. They are entirely blind to how ridiculous the argument actually looks to others. It will take decades before Indian products match developed countries products and that’s a fact, no matter how unpalatable some may find it. Indians however take great offence if you tell them that, to the amusement of all others particularly in the West. My advice is to just keep working hard and don’t fight with other people. Population control and infrastructure are the Achilles heel. I hope their government will pay attention to that rather than more and more expensive weapons. Not posting more on current topic which is Pakistan naval frigates.

          • MT

            India exports 150bill $ of services including software and it act as hub of top fortune companies. .
            indian infrastructure spending is more than pak total federal budget.
            Indian rail budget alone overpower pak federal budget.

            Indian are leading in tech world with dozen ceo of indian origin

            India ranks way way higher in league among chins in top skills capabilities.

            What u see as failure had more to do with public sector monopoly and mediocrity problem leading to in accountability.

            This decade has seen indian pvt sector rise by 10 times in defence sector so 2020 ll be inflexion point once india approach r&d / budget size to deliver project.

            Say for eg nirbhay CM cost barely 15mill $ including cost of all r $ d +4 GLCM prototype.
            Similar russian nd chinese project ll atleast take 3-5times more budget.

    • MT

      Barak8, aesa radar Italian gun and engine from Ukraine

      But it dpends upon platform.

      Kamorta class is better than any of pakistani frigates but it has indigenous pesa radar nd fire control system.
      It’s indigenous up to 90% minus ukrainean engine

      Most of you talk abt jf17 being pakistani but all pak kamra does is make/assemble 58% of airframe.
      Cost of airframe is not more than 20% of total cost
      So everything else including engine avionics radar flight sw landing gear munitions is imported

      • Steve

        Talking about shipbuilding so can you guys please resist the tendency to make every issue an internet competition and hyphenate India with Pakistan. From your info it looks like India is doing indigenous hull building with some confidence. I think modular building is still not mature but experimental. Engines and weapons barring some partly indigenous torpedoes mostly imported. Thanks for the info. I think Pakistan has less of a mountain to climb! We await a decision by the navy for next generation frigates. I just hope they don’t opt for dhows with AK-47’s to save money.

        • MT

          1. India is making italian gun under license.Russian CISW is totally manufactured in india. India upgraded it..India also produce the modified version of russian gun.
          2. PESA radar,firecontrol radar sytem, turbine, generations are made in india for Kamorta class

          3. All of the Ship frames including composite are made in india
          from local raw materials
          4. India have indigenous anti torpedo system decoy including anti submarine
          5. India have inducted 2 kinds of torpedos, 2/3 kinds of SONARS.
          6. India imports state of art torpedos for submarine from Italy,germany and russia
          7. India imports Active sonar from germany// ALTAS

          Kamorta class is around 90% indigenous
          Larsen & Toubro built derivatives of the RBU-6000 anti-submarine rocket launcher, as well as Larsen & Toubro torpedo tube launchers, and a pair of AK-630M close-in weapon system (CIWS). The fire-control system is the Bharat Electronics IAC Mod C system.

          Current focus on naval DRDO teams
          1. Sensors and processing system:Aesa naval radar & Fire control: 5 yr

          indigenous ALTAS sonar/active sonar is about to be tested

          2. Engine is something which ll need decade to fructify
          3. CODAD, DCNS raft mounted gearbox are made in india but it will be scaled up for bigger destroyers
          4. arnament will be totally indigenous minus italian gun. India will have its own LRSAM/MRSAM in next budget plan.

          Barak8 frame and engine,actuators are being made in india from local raw materials. The progress in Akash next gen SAM, PAD/AAD, ashwin interceptors will be mated to produce a good quality MRSAM with locally produced seeker. guidance sytem and SW is key to success.
          given the DRDO/ADA struggle with nirbhay guidance system: I dont see barak8 local MRSAM being fructified before 2025

          • Steve

            Thanks for the long reply and list of systems. Can we leave the future plans out of it as they are just aspirations. India has not got a good track record of delivering on plans. No need to get offended, it’s just a well known fact. The point of my post which you have totally missed is that apart from hull, some torpedo parts, small guns, and some sonar related stuff, India imports most of its naval weapons, engines, radars, and sensors. Some ‘joint’ production is mostly with minimal local input. Nothing you have written negates that. Thanks for confirming what most of us already know. Nothing wrong with accepting where the level of development of your country stands. India like Pakistan cannot produce stuff totally indigenously and it’s good we have established that. I think we have debated this topic to death, but knowing you guys probably a 5 page emotive reply will follow lol. BTW does anyone know what happened to the ship that fell over in dry dock. I suppose it was a write off as all inside stuff comes off mountings and gets trashed. It was an unusual accident and we feel sorry for loss of life and injuries. Thanks

          • MT

            Pakistan is no where in ship builders map.
            Pakistan spends 0.4% of its budget on r&d as compared to 1% by india
            If u realize the size of economics then india ll achieve technical capabilities over turn of this decade

            Just to give u account on nirbhay where drdo has spent barely 15mil $ in last7-8yrs.

            India faced serious failure during missile space technology nd rocket propulsion system in 2000 but a decade later its cruising in medium heavy launch vehicle systems with semi cryogenic technology.

            Chinese spent more money during acquisition and rev engg of ukrainean cruise missile technology during late 90s.

            Pakistan doesn’t even have r&d for basic system.
            Things like babur shaheen are not even designed/developed in pak.
            Babur was down scaled version of ukrainean copy cat from china in return for some broken tomahawk supplied by pak govt to cheen.

            So its futile comparing pak with india given by patents, public research nd industrial pvt sector capabilities.
            I ll give u simple example ; pak doesn’t evn hv credible steel industry while india is among 7 nation producing warship alloy, titanium foundary.

            India have culture of academia and industrial partnership. It may be third world but it rank medium high in innovation list while pakistan lies in bottom 10.
            Indian companies are making nuclear reactors nd other types of power plants. .
            There is govt in india which is accountable and depite slow progress we hv seen how indian defence industry mature.
            Same can’t be said abt pakistan which is yrs away from designing development of aircraft missile including cruise misssile.

            India started making simple doppler radar in 70s and now it has built local fabricated awacs radar with 4000 T/R module.
            Its aesa radar focus is on miniaturisation(aircraft) nd development of advnced algorithms/software
            Pak hasn’t ever put any effort on electronic nd radar development. .
            .
            Coming bak to ins betwa toppling; nothing certain abt its future but its low end platform in frigates and almost everything fit in it is locally made. It was undergoing servicing. Other imported system such as barak1 was yet to be integrated
            So frigate ll be retrofitted over next2-3yrs

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