The Pakistan Navy in 2016 (and beyond)
May 24, 2022
A Pakistan Navy Zulfiqar Class (F-22P) frigate, one of four bought from China in 2006. The frigates were delivered by April 2013.

The Pakistan Navy in 2016 (and beyond)

Responsible for securing Pakistan’s coastlines and sea lanes, the Pakistan Navy had seen significant growth in terms of attention, and possibly momentum, in 2016. The principal driver of this attention has been the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and, at its core, the Gwadar deep-sea port, which opened for operations this past November.


Currently, the Pakistan Navy’s development plans are primarily focused on strengthening its sub-surface fleet. This should not be surprising considering the central role submarines play in supporting anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) efforts, which are in place to thwart an enemy incursion into one’s coastlines and to secure coastal assets, such as ports and shipyards, from attacks.

In late 2015, Islamabad inked a multi-billion-dollar purchase of eight new-built air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines (SSP) from China. The first four submarines are scheduled to be delivered by the end of 2023, while the remaining four, which will be built at Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW), are to be delivered by the end of 2028. These submarines are being bought to replace the retired Daphne diesel-electric submarines (SSK) and to enlarge the Navy’s subsurface fleet.

Beyond the fact that all eight SSPs will be equipped with AIP, specifics regarding the submarine model, subsystems, weapons, AIP type, etc, are not yet known. Quwa had speculated that the SSPs will be (or at least derived from) from the S20, which is China Shipbuilding & Offshore Co., Ltd.’s (CSOC) sole export design. It would be natural to expect the S20 to be configured for carrying heavyweight anti-submarine warfare (ASW) torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). Some also anticipate a strategic capability as well, this is explored in some detail at the end of this article.

In June 2016, the Pakistan Navy also selected the Turkish shipbuilder Savunma Teknolojileri Mühendislik A.Ş. (STM) to upgrade its three Agosta 90B AIP submarines. The upgrade will be conducted at KSEW and the first submarine is scheduled for delivery in 45 months, with the remaining two are to be delivered in a year of another after the first. Thus far, STM has issued subsystem contracts to Turkish (e.g. Aselsan and Havelsan) and European (e.g. Airbus Defence & Space) companies.

Notwithstanding funding and/or supplier hiccups, the Agosta 90B and Chinese SSPs – specifically the first four – appear to be on the same timeline. By the end of 2023, the Pakistan Navy expects to operate seven modern SSPs alongside two Agosta 70 SSKs. The SSP force alone would be a 1:1 match to Pakistan’s peak submarine force during the final years of the Daphne SSKs (i.e. nine submarines), but the Agosta 70 SSKs will likely be relied upon for training and coastal A2/AD tasks. The final four Chinese SSPs will expand the total fleet to 13 submarines (11 SSPs and 2 SSKs); it is unclear if the Agosta 70s will remain by 2030.

To link submerged submarines to its wider network architecture, the Pakistan Navy commissioned its first very low frequency (VLF) radio transmission site at PNS Hameed, a newly raised naval base. A VLF system can transmit short text messages to submerged submarines (operating up to 20 metres). The VLF station will enable the Navy to issue commands to submerged submarines, which can occasionally surface to reachable depths at pre-determined times.

While 11 SSPs are a sizable force, especially for the Arabian Sea, Pakistan could consider expanding its submarine fleet even further, especially in terms of SSKs. By 2030, the Agosta 70s will be about 50 years of age, and that could call the Navy to consider successors. New SSKs could be used for training as well as littoral defence tasks and possibly even special forces operations, which are currently undertaken by the Pakistan Navy’s MG110 mini-submarines.

The 855 ton DCNS Andrasta, which had been proposed by the French to budget-conscious naval users in the late 2000s, could be an example of what the Pakistan Navy could aim to emulate (in collaboration with China) in terms of a future mini-SSK (or SSP). KSEW could try engaging CSOC to develop this under a joint effort, one that could result in KSEW being allowed to market this design and manufacture it under a collective work share or offset agreement.

Although there is interest in recapitalizing the surface fleet, one should pay heed to Pakistan’s subsurface developments. With China’s support, Pakistan could opt to fine-tune its capabilities in this area, especially in terms of anti-ship warfare (AShW). For example, tailoring one of China’s cruising supersonic ASCMs – e.g. the CX-1 or CM-302 – for sub-surface launch could be a method of boosting the asymmetrical attack value of Pakistan’s growing submarine fleet. Granted, this is an expensive and complex course, but it could still be more affordable than funding a new surface fleet. If Pakistan is caught in a situation where it cannot readily improve its surface fleet, the asymmetrical investment could be the alternative.

Surface Warships

Pakistan has been seeking to replace its five Type 21 frigates for several years, and in 2016, it appears that efforts are underway (again) to secure a long-term successor. In this regard, Pakistan is in talks with STM for four MILGEM warships. STM is aiming to finalize a deal in 2017. There are two distinct subprograms within the MILGEM.

First, the 2,300-ton Ada-class corvette, which is capable of a range of 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km) at 15 knots (28 km/h). It has an endurance of 21 days with logistical support, 10 days autonomously. While it is a well-equipped system, especially in terms of ASW, its baseline configuration does not add much beyond what is already available on the Pakistan Navy’s F-22P frigates.

One of the common assumptions behind the Pakistan Navy’s pursuit of new surface warships would be its need for a platform to support a medium-range air defence system. However, if this assumption is incorrect and Pakistan is, in fact, looking for the Ada-class as-is, or perhaps with even less in terms of subsystems, then it would mean that the Navy is heavily leaning on its submarine fleet. In effect, the Ada-class/MILGEM would be left to undertake peacetime maritime operations, such as policing. This does not preclude a switch to a wartime role (to support A2/AD), but wartime protection of sea-lanes or interdicting attempted blockades are unlikely.

However, if the assumption regarding a maritime air defence network is correct, then there is little sense in Pakistan procuring the Ada-class corvette. Rather, it would be more appropriate to procure the Istanbul-class frigate, which is essentially the Ada-class corvette with a longer hull (by 10 metres), which is there to accommodate a vertical-launch system (VLS) for surface-to-air missiles (SAM). The Istanbul-class frigate (also known as the MILGEM-G) also incorporates space for additional deployable AShM – i.e. 16 versus the 8 onboard the Ada-class corvette. Pakistan could potentially use the additional space for a fewer number of larger missiles, such as land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) or supersonic AShM (i.e. eight sub-sonic AShM plus four LACM or supersonic AShM).

If the MILGEM-G is not being sought, then the Pakistan Navy could have its eyes on a CSOC frigate, be it an improved version of the C28A (itself an improvement of the F-22P), but with VLS, or a new design. In terms of the latter, CSOC showed-off a new frigate during the 2016 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS). The mock-up of this frigate showed 2×4 AShM, two close-in weapon systems (CIWS), an FL-3000N point-defence missile system (PDMS), a main gun, and VLS for SAMs.

In the interim between retiring the Type 21s and inducting new-built frigates, the Pakistan Navy could also pursue used/surplus frigates from among its partners. Pakistan had sought used ships from several places in the past, most notably the U.S. when it requested six FFG-7 frigates. Only one was approved and sold to Pakistan, i.e. PNS Alamgir. For essential peacetime maritime operations, Pakistan could potentially seek used People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigates, be it recently decommissioned or leasing currently serving ships, particularly PLAN Type 053H3 (from the F-22P is based on). This might not be implausible, especially if the PN chooses to procure its next-generation frigates from CSOC.

Of the Pakistan Navy’s development programs, frigates are probably the least assured procurements. It is an expensive area, one Pakistan has had trouble fulfilling, especially with new-built vessels. Economic uncertainty or new fiscal problems on the part of the Pakistani government could again delay frigate and large corvette programs. As noted above, if problems were to arise in procuring next-generation frigates, the Navy could expand its investment in sub-surface solutions, be it in terms of increasing submarine numbers and/or enhance the operational capabilities of those submarines.

Fast Attack Crafts

The Pakistan Navy’s Azmat-class fast attack craft (FAC) program is progressing on-track. Four Azmat-class FACs were ordered from China in 2010, with the first two – PNS Azmat and PNS Dehshat – being built in China. KSEW launched the third Azmat-class FAC for sea trials in September and cut the steel for the fourth one in December 2016. The Azmat-class FAC has a displacement of 560 tons and was designed with littoral A2/AD in mind, which is evident in its ability to deploy eight AShM.

During IDEAS 2016, the Pakistan Navy announced that it was seeking four to six additional FACs. The Navy reportedly added that it is in talks with Chinese and Turkish shipbuilders. These additional FACs appear to be for Task Force-88 (TF-88), a new naval unit dedicated to protecting the Gwadar deep-sea port and its sea-lanes. The Turkish shipbuilder STM, with whom Pakistan is currently in talks with for four MILGEMs, is offering Pakistan its newly revealed FAC-55 design. The FAC-55 will have a displacement of 535 tons and will have a top speed of over 55 knots (102 km/h). Supported by a Thales SMART-S Mk2 radar (license-manufactured by Aselsan), the FAC-55 will be armed with eight AShM, a Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) PDMS, and a main gun (potentially 76.2 mm).

Pakistan could opt for either additional Azmat-class FACs or FAC-55, or both. The STM FAC-55 is a much faster ship, which may be of benefit if the Pakistan Navy is seeking to improve its quick reaction capability. In any case, the primary wartime purpose of FACs would be for A2/AD, and it would be an area Pakistan will prioritize over frigates and corvettes if necessary (i.e. under fiscal difficulties).

The potency of FACs can potentially be elevated through investment in longer range AShM and supersonic AShM, which – with data-link support from offboard long-range surveillance and tracking radars – can effectively expand the engagement range of the FACs.


In August, the Pakistan Navy took delivery of its third modified ATR-72 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). It was procured to complement the Navy’s AShW and ASW capable Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion MPAs. The ATR-72 is an affordable and commercially popular platform, which makes for a suitable choice for building additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and combat – e.g. ASW – capability. Scaling the existing logistics and maintenance base, Pakistan will likely keep its doors open for additional ATR-72 MPAs should it require additional MPAs.

The Pakistan Navy’s helicopter fleet is comprised of Harbin Z-9ECs, Westland Sea Kings, and Aerospatiale Alouette III. Long-term, the Navy would keep an eye on possible successors for its aging Sea Kings and Alouette IIIs, but there is no known estimate as to when these will be replaced. One could imagine seeing the Sea Kings phased out with the Type 21s – and its successor introduced with next-generation frigates.

It would be worth observing how the Pakistan Navy models its helicopter plans moving forward. Under TF-88, there is an emphasis on using the Pakistan Navy’s Marines force to help with securing CPEC sites and defending the shoreline. In this respect, a naval helicopter capable of troop lift could be valuable in that it would enable the Pakistan Navy to lift Marines as well as its special operations forces (SOF).

The Leonardo AW101, while costly, can ferry up to 30 passengers. Like the Sea King, the AW101 can also be used for AShW, ASW, and search and rescue operations. Airbus Helicopters’ H225M Caracal is another option, one very similar in profile to the AW101. The naval version of the S-70i Black Hawk – i.e. the S-70B/C Seahawk – could be another option, especially since the underlying platform is to be produced under license in Turkey. The Sea Hawk is a proven platform, one that the Pakistan Navy had sought with the FFG-7 frigate from the U.S. Granted, it cannot carry as many troops as the AW101 or H225M, but it can still lift 10-12 troops. If not lower acquisition costs, the Seahawk – because its wider international usage and distributed supply channel – could be less costly to operate.

For the Alouette III, the Leonardo AW139 could be among the likely successors, especially for the Alouette’s search and rescue and general utility tasks. It would make sense for Pakistan to scale the logistics and maintenance infrastructure it has already built for the AW139.

Auxiliary and Miscellaneous

STM and KSEW launched the 17,000-ton Fleet Tanker in August 2016. This was ordered in January 2013 and is scheduled for delivery to the Pakistan Navy by April 2017. It is a fleet replenishment vessel which is being aimed at replacing one of the Pakistan Navy’s aging auxiliary tankers.

In April 2016, the Pakistan Navy tested a new coastal AShM by the name of “Zarb.” Specific details are not known, though one could speculate it is the C-602, though this has not been confirmed. There are other coastal AShM as well, but a noteworthy attribute of the C-602 is its 300 kg warhead, which is heavier than the <200 kg warhead on the C-802. Considering there are no weight or space restrictions on land, the Navy would have the option to pursue heavier – and potentially higher velocity – AShM.