Discussion: The Pakistan Navy’s Frigate Options (2016)
December 6, 2023
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).