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The Quiet Rise of the Pakistan Navy (Part 2)

Last week, the Pakistan Navy (PN) appointed a new Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Naveed Ashraf, who will succeed Admiral Amjad Khan Niazi in the PN’s top role. Like his predecessor, Admiral Ashraf will inherit an expansive modernization effort across the PN’s surface, sub-surface, and aviation domains, one that is arguably unprecedented in scope and complexity in the PN’s history.

In part one of this report, Quwa reviewed the PN’s roadmap for expanding its surface fleet across frigates, corvettes, offshore patrol vessels (OPV), and patrol boats. Part two will explore the PN’s sub-surface, rotary and fixed-wing aviation, drone, and munitions procurement plans.

Things are quieter on the sub-surface front, though that has much to do with the secrecy surrounding the PN’s ‘silent service.’ In 2015, the PN ordered eight S26-based air-independent propulsion (AIP)-equipped submarines (SSP) from China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Co. Ltd (CSOC). Under the contract, the first four ships would be built in China, while the remaining four in Pakistan by KSEW.

Christened as the Hangor-class, the first four boats were due for delivery in 2023. However, Germany’s refusal to release MTU-396 diesel engines likely delayed the program, pushing the PN to leverage China’s CHD620 in its place. KSEW also confirmed that the Hangor-class SSP will use a Sterling AIP system, which is a standard feature of the S26. Thus, it is unlikely that the PN pursued many modifications to the baseline S26 aside from making it compatible with the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

KSEW is building at least two of the four remaining Hangor-class SSPs; it laid the keel for the fifth boat and cut the steel of the sixth boat in December 2022. The PN is due to receive all eight boats by 2028, joining the three Agosta 90Bs with upgraded sensors and other subsystems. Overall, the PN will have 11 SSPs, i.e., second only to India in terms of size in the region, but relatively large considering Pakistan has a markedly smaller coast. This does not include specialized submarines in the PN’s possession, like miniature boats.

In parallel, the PN also has a shallow-water attack (SWAT) submarine program. The status of this program is unclear, though it appears that it is active, with OEMs still promoting their solutions as late as February 2023. The PN is seeking an AIP-equipped design with a displacement of around 700 to 900 tons, but with an emphasis on driving special operations and asymmetrical missions. It could seek two to four boats.

Though upgraded, the Agosta 90Bs are aging, and they lack OEM support from France’s Naval Group. Thus, the PN will likely begin exploring a successor in the late 2020s and, in turn, aim to introduce a new line of SSPs by the late 2030s. This could push the PN to pursue an original submarine program, either through a domestic initiative, or collaboratively with Turkey. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, reportedly said that the PN is interested in working with Turkey on submarines. While likely in reference to the SWAT program, working with Turkey could create a pathway to a larger SSP program.

For the PN, the silent service will remain the key to its strategy of deterring enemy activity, thus it is unlikely that the surface fleet investment would outpace submarine procurement. Basically, an original SSP project could be pursued earlier if the goal was to further expand the PN sub-surface fleet. Alternatively, the PN’s SWAT program – especially as a 700-900-ton AIP-equipped boat – could be a pathway to growing its ASuW and ASW sub-surface capabilities. In fact, it would not be surprising if the SWAT project becomes the basis for an original SSP design; basically, the submarine equivalent of the Jinnah-class frigate.

On the aviation front, the PN is heavily leaning on new, original solutions. The centerpiece of its roadmap is the ‘Sea Sultan,’ a long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) based on the Embraer Lineage 1000E. In 2021, the PN awarded contracts to Paramount Group and Leonardo to refurbish and retrofit the first unit, respectively. In 2022, the PN issued a follow-on contract to Paramount Group for two additional aircraft – the PN has a total requirement of 10 Sea Sultan LRMPAs to replace its aging P-3C Orion aircraft.

The Sea Sultan LRMPA will be configured for ASuW and ASW, though the vendors for the specific munitions have not been disclosed. The PN will likely work with Western suppliers across both, especially as Leonardo is responsible for configuring the jetliners for the LRMPA role.

From a capability standpoint, the Sea Sultan will not have as large a payload as the P-8I Poseidon, i.e., the Indian Navy’s (IN) mainstay LRMPA. The Sea Sultan could be closer in its payload capacity and range to the Saab’s Bombardier Global 6000-based Swordfish platform, which is not far off in maximum take-off weight (MTOW) to the Embraer Lineage 1000E (i.e., 45,132 kg vs. 54,500 kg, respectively).

Thus, the Sea Sultan could have four to six hardpoints for ASCMs and lightweight ASW torpedoes, an aft sonobuoy dispenser, a Leonardo Seaspray-series active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) turret, a sensor-fusion suite, electronic support measures (ESM) suite, and combat management system. Overall, one can expect a similar electronics suite to the PN’s RAS-72 Sea Eagle.

There is a trade-off in play; while the PN will not get a system as directly capable as the P-8, it will receive a credible ASuW and ASW system all the same, but at a markedly lower upfront price and overall lifecycle cost compared to the Boeing P-8. Ideally, the PN would leverage this flexibility to acquire a relatively large fleet, one exceeding the 10 it currently has on the roadmap.

One area that has not seen as much coverage is the PN’s plans for new multi-mission helicopters. Thus far, the PN inducted 10 ex-Qatari WS-61 Sea King helicopters, adding to its existing fleet, giving it a total of up to 20 Sea King helicopters to drive ASuW, ASW, and search-and-rescue (SAR) operations. These helicopters will primarily operate from shore; but shipborne operations from large ships like PNS Moawin is possible.

However, the Sea King does not answer how the PN will equip its growing surface fleet. The PN has three main options: Procure an off-the-shelf helicopter from either the West (i.e., AW159) or China (Z-9), or build an original system in collaboration with another country, like Turkey. Turkey may be aiming to develop its own naval helicopter using the T-625, but the time required to produce it could exceed the PN’s timelines. Thus, the PN will likely procure an off-the-shelf solution, perhaps a Z-9-based system.

Finally, the PN is also delving into unmanned systems, including both unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). In terms of UAVs, the PN acquired Chinese CH-4 medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drones, and, as of December 2022, was evaluating the Bayraktar TB2 from Turkey.

Like the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), the PN could potentially consider larger UAVs – like the Bayraktar Akıncı – to augment its maritime patrol, electronic support, and ASuW/ASW capabilities. These UAVs could even be a cost-effective way of complementing the Sea Sultan LRMPA and RAS-72 MPA and, potentially, set up the groundwork to initiate genuine manned-unmanned-teaming capability in the PN.

In terms of UUVs, there is an in-house UUV program commissioned under GIDS. The UUV design will offer an operating depth of up to 300 m, a range of 2 km, speed of up to 6 knots, and endurance of 4 hours (at a speed of 3 knots). The PN could use the UUV for intelligence and mine-hunting missions.

Overall, the PN’s fleet expansion efforts involve more than additional ships. It is also nurturing additional capabilities through its existing and new platforms. These include, for example, inducting new supersonic-cruising ASCMs like the CM-302 and indigenous SMASH, long-range LACMs such as the Babur-3 SLCM and Harbah, and integrated air defence systems (IADS) like the Albatros-NG and LY-80N. Considering that the average PN frigate was equipped with sub-200-km-range ASCMs and antiquated short-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) only 10 years ago, these additions mark significant qualitative leaps.

In fact, the induction of subsonic and supersonic ASCMs as well as an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) will play a key role in improving the PN’s A2/AD coverage. The PN is not content with leaning purely on a large fleet of surface warships; it is both investing in additional submarines and coastal-based missile systems. The latter is centered on the Zarb ASCM system, but one can expect the PN to induct variants of the CM-302 supersonic-cruising ASCM, Harbah ASCM, and/or P282 ASBM.

The final leg of this investment would be a combined armed forces initiative for space-based assets, such as satellite communications (SATCOM), image intelligence (IMINT), and satellite navigation (SATNAV). The PN could utilize each space-based asset to operate UAV assets at over-the-horizon ranges, support guided munitions (especially cruise missiles), and build strategic situational awareness (especially if it intends to effectively use SLCMs in a nuclear deterrence role).

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