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Analysis: The Pakistan Navy’s Surface Fleet Plans

In June 2018, the Pakistan Navy announced that it ordered a total of four Type 054A multi-mission frigates through China Shipbuilding Trading Co. Ltd. (CSTC). With induction of the four ships slotted by 2021, it is evident that the PN is aiming to supplant its obsolete Tariq/Babur-class – i.e. former Royal Navy Type 21 – anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-ship warfare (AShW) frigates. Currently, the PN has four of the six Type 21s it had bought in service – the oldest remaining ship (PNS Tariq) was launched in 1975.

Though the relatively tight timeline was to be expected given the obsolescence of the Type 21s (old ships generally add to operating costs due to increasing maintenance and repair issues), the sudden push likely lowers the probability of substantive modifications, at least at induction. Though the first part of the deal (i.e. two ships) was signed in 2017, the average turnaround period of one ship per year is relatively short; not only would the process include construction, but sea trials and subsystem certification as well.

However, it is unclear what the baseline configuration for the Type 054A actually is considering the PN is its first export customer. In late 2017, Defense News reported that the PN would acquire the Type 054A in an identical configuration to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Jiangkai II-class frigates.[1] But it is not standard practice for the Chinese to sell the exact systems in use by the PLA; rather, Beijing offers export variants (or different, but comparable equivalents) of the PLA’s armaments.

In the case of the Jiangkai II, notable differences would be the incorporation of the LY-80 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system and C-802 anti-ship missile (AShM) in place of the HHQ-16 and YJ-83, respectively, in the PN’s Type 054As.[2] Likewise, the Type 366 over-the-horizon (OTH) radar will also be replaced by an apparent export variant, the SLR-66. Besides fitting its ships with the export variants of each PLAN system, the PN would require specific – albeit potentially less noticeable – changes to effect compatibility as well as interoperability with its other assets. However, the core munitions framework could be near-identical.

In effect, the PN’s Type 054As would deploy the LY-80 SAM – i.e. a range of 40 km – through 32 vertical-launch system (VLS) cells, dual quad-cell (2×4) C-802 AShM, a 76 mm main gun, two 30 mm cannons/close-in-weapons-systems (CIWS) and dual triple (2×3) Yu-7 ASW lightweight torpedoes. In comparison to the PN’s current mainstay frigate, the F-22P, the Type 054A’s principal additions would be the LY-80 medium-range SAM and its OTH radar (for long-range surface target detection for AShMs).

Thus, the above are basically the capabilities the Type 054As will bring to the PN. First, the Type 054A will provide the PN its first true area-wide anti-air warfare (AAW) capability through the LY80; the PN had lost this capability once it returned its Standard SM-1-equipped Brooke-class frigates. Second, the Type 054A will double the PN’s multi-mission (i.e. AShW, ASW and AAW) surface combatant fleet to eight ships.

This may increase to as many as 12 ships if the PN inks the MILGEM Ada corvette deal it has had on the table with Turkey since 2016. However, even with both surface combatant acquisitions in-place, the PN will not gain the numbers and capabilities necessary to maintain sea-control of key points at its sea-lines-of-communications (SLOC). Rather, the Type 054As (and, if implemented, the MILGEM) will serve to boost the PN’s ongoing efforts to build credible anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Future Fleet Composition

The induction of the Type 054A would improve the PN’s marquee surface combatant fleet in two respects:

First, a substantial qualitative improvement to the Type 21s it is replacing by bringing another true multi-mission asset (with combined AShW, ASW and AAW capabilities) to join the F-22P. Today, the PN’s Type-21s had actually split the AShW and AAW elements. In other words, no single PN Type 21 frigate is armed with both AShM (RGM-84 Harpoon) and LY-60 SAM. Granted, the Type 21s operated in concert with each other (all Type 21 frigates are in the PN’s 25th Destroyer Squadron), but this partial configuration precludes a single Type 21 from operating with other ships unless those other ships plug the Type 21’s gaps.

The Type 054A is a complete package for the PN. Not only would a Type 054A flotilla be vastly superior to the Type 21s in terms of the overall AAW and AShW capability (especially if AShW can leverage coverage from the SLR-66 OTH radar), but a single Type 054A can lead a composite flotilla with other PN ships. In a composite fleet, the Type 21 would require another ship to plugin a gap (AShW or AAW), but a Type 054A would have no need for that support. Rather, the Type 054A would give its composite flotilla an area-wide AAW presence along with an extended-range sensor set for stand-off range situational awareness to small ships – such as fast attack crafts (FAC) – and OTH targeting. The latter is critical for the Azmat FACs armed with the Harba dual-anti-ship missile (AShM) and land-attack cruise missile (LACM).


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Second, the provision of a large platform – i.e. 134 m length and 4,000-ton displacement – with VLS and, if not at induction, the potential to deliver a long-range AAW umbrella if configured. However, this is an issue of potential, not reality at this time. That said, the Type 054A is the ideal platform to eventually take-on a long-range AAW capability thanks to its relatively low procurement price (thought to be in the range of $300-350 m per ship).[3] Compared to a European frigate, the PN can amortize its Type 054A costs sooner and, when the time to configure a new AAW suite emerges, can readily access a Chinese suite (arguably, the likeliest outcome, though it would be worth watching Pakistan’s overtures to Russia as well).

Third, if Pakistan succeeds in implementing the MILGEM Ada corvette purchase from Turkey, the fleet of multi-mission, 2,000+ ton surface combatants would increase to 12 ships. This would add a third so-called ‘Destroyer Squadron’ in the PN while also providing a substantive increase to the ASW element. The latter would materialize through 12 individual sets of ship-based ASW lightweight torpedoes (i.e. Mk45 or Mk45-equivalents from non-U.S. suppliers) and the potential for 12 ASW helicopters in the Z-9EC-class.

Continued A2/AD Focus

Be it via the MILGEM Ada or otherwise, it appears the PN actively intends to expand the 2,000+ ton ship fleet as an adjustment to now covering two major commercial ports (and protecting their respective sea-lanes) – i.e. Karachi and Gwadar. In theory, the PN could have four identically capable composite flotillas, each equipped with one Type 054A and two F-22P and/or Ada, though in a conventional warfare scenario with India, the PN might allocate more of its forces to Karachi. In addition, the presence of the OTH radar on the Type 054A also enables these flotillas to add small (e.g. FAC-sized) combatants equipped with the Harba AShM or (if connected by data-link) land-based Zarb AShM units.

Granted, the 054A’s existing AAW element – i.e. a range of 40 km – tightens the area in which other flotilla ships can travel to the LY80’s radius. However, the Harba AShM could provide a range comparable to that of at least the Babur 3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM), i.e. 450 km. Thus, at least from an anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) standpoint, the core flotilla could still engage enemy ships within that 450 km radius. If one assumes that the 054A’s AAW range is a fixed constraint (i.e. the PN will keep the LY80 as-is without either the range-extended LY80 or another system), then an incentive exists for Pakistan to work on extending the range of its cruise missiles. This would increase the attack envelope of each flotilla at a comparatively lower cost than additional big-ticket procurement.

It is unlikely that even this fleet (a substantial qualitative and quantitative improvement to the PN’s force at present) could sustain a pervasive sea-control presence. None of the PN’s forthcoming ships appear to be equipped to defend against a credible Indian Navy (IN) and Indian Air Force (IAF) onslaught, much less deter it. This would require long-range AAW – to build a buffer against the supersonic-cruising BrahMos – through a higher number of ships. Granted, the Type 054A could acquire this capability in the long-term, but at present, this does not appear to be on the PN’s roadmap.

The PN’s core objective continues to center on A2/AD. The Type 054A will strengthen its A2/AD efforts by providing the PN’s long-range AShM deployment assets an additional air defence layer between the PAF’s high-altitude coverage and the short/very-short-range air defence systems (V/SHORADS) integrated to PN ships. However, it does not alter the core naval dynamics in that it would free the PN to do more than its A2/AD efforts. Though sea-control is not on the roadmap, the dual-leveraging of the surface fleet and the burgeoning submarine force could make the A2/AD element sufficiently threatening to deter an IN push to interdict Pakistan’s SLOCs.

[1] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan shops for warships to replace British frigates, modernize Navy.” Defense News. 27 December 2017. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2017/12/27/pakistan-shops-for-warships-to-replace-british-frigates-modernize-navy/ (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[2](Note: reference for the PLAN Type 054A’s armaments suite) Gabriel Dominguez. “PLAN inducts Type 054A frigate into North Sea Fleet.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 15 January 2018. URL: http://www.janes.com/article/77048/plan-inducts-type-054a-frigate-into-north-sea-fleet (Last Accessed: 12 June 2018).

[3] Gabe Collins. “How Much Do China’s Warships Actually Cost?” The Diplomat. 18 June 2015. URL: https://thediplomat.com/2015/06/how-much-do-chinas-warships-actually-cost/ (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

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