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Analysis: Pakistan’s Type 054A Frigate Acquisition

On 01 June 2018, the Pakistan Navy (PN) and Pakistan Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) announced that they concluded a deal with China Shipbuilding Trading Co. Ltd. (CSTC) for two Type 054A frigates. This is a follow-on to an order – ostensibly for two other Type 054As – made in 2017. Through the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), the PN stated that it will have four Type 054A frigates by 2021.[1]

“[The] Pakistan Navy will now have a total of 4 x Type 054 A ships in its Fleet by 2021. The induction of these ships will substantially enhance Pakistan navy’s war fighting capabilities, while effectively contributing towards Maritime Security Operations in the region.”[2]

The Type 054A joins a series of Pakistani naval procurement orders from China:

In 2006, Pakistan ordered four F-22P (an upgraded variant of the Type 053H3) for $750 million US.[3] These have been delivered and commissioned into service in 2008-2013 as the PNS Zulfiqar, PNS Shamsheer, PNS Saif and PNS Aslat. The final ship, PNS Aslat, was constructed in Pakistan by Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW) under a transfer-of-technology (ToT) agreement.

In 2012, the PN inducted its first of four Azmat-class fast attack craft (FAC) ordered from China Shipbuilding and Offshore Company Limited (CSOC) for reportedly $50 million US per ship.[4] Thus far, the PN has inducted the PNS Azmat, PNS Dehshat and PNS Himmat – the fourth and final ship is currently being constructed at KSEW. The PNS Himmat and its forthcoming sister ship also sport 2×3 anti-ship missile (AShM) launchers instead of the 2×4 AShM configuration of the previous two ships (for the C-802A AShM). In January 2018, the PN revealed that the revised launcher was for the new Harba dual-AShM and land-attack cruise missile (LACM).

In 2015, Pakistan inked its largest single big-ticket purchase from China to-date in the form of eight new air-independent propulsion (AIP)-equipped submarines (SSP). The model and price of the submarines were not disclosed, but they are reportedly slotted for delivery to the PN from 2022 to 2028.[5] The strategic importance of these submarines is well-established: they will enable the PN to field the Babur submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM); strengthen the PN’s anti-ship warfare (AShW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, especially within littoral waters; and serve as a deterrence to enemy naval activity in Pakistan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In 2017 and 2018, the PN has committed to four Type 054A frigates. Interestingly, the slated 2021 induction date indicates that the frigates are being sought on an expedited basis – this is likely to immediately supplant the ex-Royal Navy Type 21 frigates bought in the early 1990s (but in use by the UK since the 1970s). In addition to being new-built ships, the Type 054As are superior to the Type 21s in their respective subsystem, sensor and weapon suites. Thus, the Type 054A purchase effectively closes the chapter on the PN’s pursuit to replace the Type 21s.

Like the SSP deal, the pricing of the Type 054A contract has not yet been disclosed. However, The Diplomat estimated the unit-cost to be $348 million US per ship.[6] In 2013, China reportedly offered the Royal Thai Navy three Type 054 frigates for a price under Bangkok’s $1 billion US budget.[7] Though the pricing is not officially known, there are two key factors that will help keep the cost of each Type 054A low, at least in comparison to Western European ship designs. First, China’s generally lower material and production costs. Second, the economies-of-scale the PLAN has provided to the Type 054A through its procurement of a staggering 29 ships (with additional ships in the pipeline).

The PN’s Journey of Replacing the Type 21

The PN began its search for replacing the Type 21s in earnest in the mid-to-late 2000s. In 2008, then Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral Afzal Tahir had outlined that efforts were made to pursue various surplus and second-hand frigates, namely: two Elli-class frigates from Greece, three Type 23 frigates from the UK, two Wielingen-class frigates from Belgium or six FFG-7/Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates from the US.[8] The PN had intended to deploy these second-hand frigates in place for the Type 21s for a five-to-ten-year period, ostensibly until a new-generation design could be secured.[9]

Evidently, none of those plans came to fruition. Granted, there appeared to have been promise in FFG-7s when the US approved the transfer of the ex-USS McInerney in 2008, but the PN was unable to secure the additional five FFG-7s it had intended to acquire. Rather, in 2014 Congress blocked the transfer of further FFG-7 ships to Pakistan on account of conditioning military aid to Pakistan.[10] Thus, the PN had to endure with its heavily-aged Type 21s until it could basically secure a viable next-generation replacement.

The Type 054A – i.e. the Jiangkai II-class – has a length of 134 m and displacement of 4,000 tons full-load. It has a ferry range of 8,000 nautical miles at 15 knots and a top-speed of 27 knots. It is armed with a dual quad-cell (2×4) AShMs (C-802A), a single 76-mm main gun, two-triple (2×3) torpedo tubes and 32 vertical-launch system (VLS) cells for the HHQ-16 medium-range surface-to-air missile (MR-SAM).[11] The Type 054A also has an aft helicopter hangar and deck for a medium-weight ASW helicopter, notably the Z-9EC.[12]

Selecting the Type 054A

In retrospect, the Type 054A was the most plausible new-build, next-generation frigate outcome for the PN. Granted, there had been reports of the PN exercising an option to build another four – and apparently ‘improved’ – F-22P frigates;[13] but doing so likely made limited sense in the end. First, although CSIC offers a variety of frigate platforms, including those derived from the Type 053H3 (like the F-22P and C28A), the Chinese shipbuilding industry at this stage has extensive experience manufacturing the Type 054A. In fact, because of the PLAN’s orders of nearly 30 ships, considerable expertise, tooling and refinement has been in place and developed since 2005 for the Type 054-series. Thus, it is a mature and scale-driven product.

It would not be surprising if an ‘improved F-22P’ was ultimately deemed to be a less optimal expenditure, e.g. its decisive lack of capabilities compared to the Type 054A – e.g. in anti-air warfare (AAW) and sensor load-out – did not reflect in a low-enough price point. In other words, signing onto the Type 054A could have been an issue of paying a marginally higher premium for substantially superior capabilities. Granted, one could argue that the Type 054A (or a close analogue) had always been on the roadmap. However, the PN’s procurement approach (until now) had not underlined the need for substantive AAW, especially via a vertical launch system (VLS) suite. This was essentially skipped in the F-22P and (likely) the MILGEM.

Prior to activating its procurement roadmap, it appeared that the PN was basically using its surface fleet to primarily police its EEZ, support coalition efforts (e.g. CTF-150/151) in suppressing terrorist and criminal activity at sea and other non-conventional warfare tasks. Thus, it seemed that the mainstay of Pakistan’s conventional warfare (especially offensive) tasks would be executed by the burgeoning SSP fleet (which is to reach 11 ships by 2028). In fact, the order of two 1,900-ton offshore patrol vessels (OPV) from Damen Shipyards, pursuit of four MILGEM Ada corvettes from Turkey, and hopes for two (plus an option for two more) Swift Corvette OPVs from Swiftships in the US had all alluded to a continuation of this approach.

However, the order of four Type 054As has indicated a significant shift in the PN’s doctrine. Thanks to the OPVs, which will ultimately assume the bulk of maritime security operations – such as policing the EEZ or supporting coalition activities – the PN has the flexibility to mostly limit frigate and corvette operations to conventional warfare scenarios. In fact, not only is an OPV fleet cheaper to acquire (e.g. the Damen OPV 1800 has a unit-price of $55-60 m per ship compared to the $350 m of each Type 054A), but they endure less risks (from a cost-standpoint) when put in asymmetrical warfare situations. For example, the cost of damage on a Type 054A, MILGEM or F-22P (especially if it is upgraded in the future) would be higher (e.g. damaged sensors, missile systems or proprietary composite materials) compared to an all-steel OPV.

Deploying the Type 054A

Thus, the PN is in the process of building a wartime-capable surface fleet, particularly through the Type 054A and, if finally inked, the MILGEM Ada.[14] However, an effort must be made to optimize these platform acquisitions to exact the maximum operational potential, especially in terms of AAW and AShW.

Given that the Ada corvette is by design a non-AAW platform (rather, it is optimized for ASW), it falls upon the Type 054A to provide an AAW umbrella. Granted, one can equip the MILGEM Ada and Type 054A with promising point-defence missile systems (PDMS) or short-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to intercept incoming AShW threats (this is discussed in context of the Ada in Quwa’s Monthly Report for March 2018).

However, a truly effective AAW umbrella must be layered with medium-to-long-range SAMs. It would be advisable to pivot from adopting the PLAN configuration and, instead, embracing CSIC’s export variant of the Type 054A. In comparison to the Type 054A, the export variant is described as a “new ship” that is a “derivative of the Jiangkai II … but [with] a renewed superstructure.”[15] The export variant uses an active phased-array radar (APAR) with the SLR-66 over-the-horizon radar (OTHR) long-range air and surface target tracking, respectively.[16] The APAR should provide improved range and defensibility against enemy electronic warfare (EW) jamming, thus strengthening the Type 054A’s AAW mission profile.

CSOC/CSIC export-centric 4,000-ton frigate (based on the Type 054A).

Secondly, the 40-km range HHQ-16 ought to be swapped with the 70-km range HHQ-16B.[17] Granted, this is not much more than a range upgrade (the HHQ-16-series relies on semi-active radar-homing seekers, not active terminal-stage seekers). However, it extends the Type 054A’s air defence coverage by 75%. This could build another air defence layer above the F-22P and Ada (which can then focus on ASW and AShW).

Ideally, one ought to pursue a medium-to-long-range SAM akin to the Russian 9M96E2 (120 km), but this avenue is likely unavailable to Pakistan. The respite would have to come from China, which is plausible considering that the PLAN has the strategic imperative to acquire a compact SAM akin to the 9M96E2 or Aster 30 for its mainstay frigate fleet. Thus, a long-term opportunity via a mid-life-upgrade is plausible.

Finally, the AShW suite ought to comprise of the CM-302 supersonic-cruising AShM. Granted, it would not be surprising if the Type 054As deploy the Harba dual-AShM/LACM (this would, in theory, provide a strategic deterrence element if the Harba can carry a miniaturized nuclear warhead). However, the strategic role should be left to the SSP fleet; rather, the Type 054A must strengthen the conventional warfare and A2/AD capability. Ultimately, the idea is to add a conventional deterrence layer to the region’s security dynamics.

India’s deployment of the BrahMos supersonic-cruising AShM would leave the PN’s surface warships in a very vulnerable position, especially with the apparently limited investment in AAW. Even if the best-case-scenario is achieved with the Type 054A – i.e. APAR coupled with the HQ-16B – it would not be the most effective technical solution to stopping the BrahMos. Yes, it adds a credible layer, but not enough to just ignore the need to acquire analogous capabilities – i.e. one’s own supersonic-cruising AShM.

In fact, be it the export-variant Type 054A or the PLAN’s own configuration, an OTHR should be reaching the PN in the coming years. An OTHR such as the SLR-66 would enable the PN to build an extended-range situational awareness picture at-sea (adding a surface dimension to the ZDK03/Karakoram Eagle airborne early warning and control aircraft) and ability to track and engage over-the-horizon targets at up to 280 km. Of the AShM options available, the CM-302 would be the most ideal as it would stress the Indian Navy’s air defence capabilities (which are superior to those of the PN) in earnest. Ideally, the CM-302 would find its way to other PN surface warships along with Pakistan Air Force fighters as well.

The Potential is Long-Term

Ultimately, the necessity of immediately replacing the Type 21s and fiscal constraints will likely result in a modest subsystem, sensor and munitions package in the PN’s Type 054A. However, the presence of a platform of its size in the PN fleet opens it to significant long-term opportunities for upgrades, especially once new subsystems and weapons permeate across the PLAN fleet.

[1] “Pakistan Signs Contract To Acquire Two Chinese Naval Warships”. Associated Press of Pakistan. 01 June 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Iftikhar A. Khan. “China to build frigates for Pakistan”. Dawn. 05 April 2008. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[4] Baqir Sajjad Syed. “Stealth missile craft inducted.” Dawn 23 April 2012. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[5] “China to provide eight submarines to Pakistan.” The News International. 27 August 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[6]  Gabe Collins. “How Much Do China’s Warships Actually Cost?” The Diplomat. 18 June 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[7] Jon Grevatt. “China offers Type 054 to meet Thai frigate requirement”. IHS Jane’s. 30 January 2013. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[8] “Pakistan maintains search for second-hand frigates.” Defence Review Asia. March-April 2008. Vol. 2 No. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christopher P. Cavas. “US Frigates Approved For Transfer – Finally”. 19 December 2014. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[11] “Type 054A Jiangkai-II Class”. SinoDefence. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan Seeks To Energize Naval Modernization”. Defense News. 17 June 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[14] Sena Guler. “Pakistan looks for helicopters, naval ships from Turkey”. Anadolu Agency. 25 November 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 March 2018).

[15] Michele Capeleto. “China’s CSOC showcases a new 4,000-tonne frigate”. IHS Jane’s Navy International. 28 March 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richard D Fisher Jr and Neil Gibson. “China develops longer-range HQ-16 SAM variant”. IHS Jane’s. 16 September 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

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