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New Pakistan Navy Chief Outlines Procurement Plans

In an interview with China’s Global Times, the new Pakistan Navy (PN) Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Muhammad Amjad Khan Niazi, outlined the PN’s current procurement roadmap.

In addition to the armaments already in its pipeline – including four Type 054A/P multi-role frigates, eight Hangor-class submarines, and drones from China – the CNS revealed that the PN is also seeking “modern helicopters, corvettes and shallow-water attack submarines.”[1]

The CNS did not disclose the specific suppliers it is working with to acquire the above-mentioned systems, but the PN will likely start by talking to its existing partners in China, Turkey, and Europe.

New Procurement Goals

It is unclear whether the current CNS’ revelations differ from the plans of the previous leadership. Some of the new information – such as helicopters and shallow-water attack submarines (SWATS) – is an evident continuation of priorities dating back to 2015, but “corvettes” may imply changes.

Modern Helicopters

In October 2020, the previous CNS, Admiral Zafar Mahmoud Abbasi, announced that the PN is expanding its fleet of “major surface vessels” to 20 ships. The PN likely defines “major surface vessels” as multi-role ships capable of anti-ship warfare (AShW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and anti-air warfare (AAW).

Based on these criteria, the PN would operate 14 “major surface vessels” by 2025 – i.e., four Type 054A/Ps, four MILGEMs, two Yarmouk-class corvettes, and four F-22P frigates. However, other than the five Z-9EC ASW helicopters it acquired with the F-22Ps, the PN’s rotary wing cannot support an enlarged fleet.

The insufficiency of the PN rotary wing fleet stems from two main issues: First, the majority of its current helicopters are either technologically out-of-date or three-plus decades old. Second, the PN lacks enough helicopters to support even a 14-strong major surface vessel fleet, much less a 20-plus force.

Thus, a new multi-mission helicopter order could lead to a significant acquisition program. In 2018, a PN source told Quwa that the service arm was interested in a system comparable to the S-70/UH-60. In fact, the PN had attempted to acquire surplus SH-60s as part of the ill-fated FFG-7 program (when the PN had sought six ex-U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates through the Excess Defence Articles program).

Islamabad’s cold ties with Washington may prevent the PN from seriously considering the S-70-series, but it will remain an option. Simply put, the PN was comfortable enough with the aircraft to pursue it earlier, and (in theory) it can source the aircraft through an intermediary like Turkey or Poland.

If not the S-70-series, the PN would look at solutions from Europe and China. However, the former could exceed the PN’s budget, while the latter may involve more experimental designs. In either case, Pakistan may pursue a composite fleet consisting of a ‘heavy-lift’ type to replace the Sea King, and a ‘medium’ or ‘light’ aircraft to augment the Z-9ECs (and this order could result in additional Z-9ECs).

The third option would be to secure a custom solution. Though unlikely, the PN has a proven track-record of pursuing it if off-the-shelf solutions are unavailable or do not meet its needs. The most obvious of this approach is the next-generation long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) program.

In this respect, the PN could work with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) to co-develop a naval helicopter using the T625, or potentially join TAI’s general purpose helicopter program. Ideally, the PN would work with the Army and Air Force to design a common platform requirement so that Pakistan could collaborate with Turkey or China on a joint-development and co-production basis.

The advantage of working with Turkey or China is that the PN could secure the helicopter as well as ASW and AShW munitions from reliable sources. China is assuredly ITAR-free, while Turkey is moving towards achieving that across key domains, such as turboshaft engines and munitions.

Shallow-Water Attack Submarines

The CNS’ statement about shallow-water attack submarines (SWATS) may refer to the PN’s goal to replace its Cosmos MG110 miniature submarines. In 2015, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) had listed the design and development of a miniature submarine as a goal for 2016-2017.

In 2016, Turkey’s Savunma Teknolojileri Mühendislik ve Ticaret A.Ş. (STM) invited the PN to jointly design “a submarine platform from scratch.” STM confirmed it submitted a design proposal, but neither STM nor the PN revealed whether they would continue with that project.

Local sources told Quwa that a SWATS design is complex, so it is unlikely that the PN would secure it via a domestic program. Likewise, the same sources said that the PN will not acquire it from countries that lack experience with deploying modern SWATS designs (such as Turkey and China).

However, based on the criteria revealed by the sources, there are only a handful of countries the PN could conceivably seek a SWATS. One of these sources could be Italy’s DRASS Group, which offers a number of SWATS designs of various sizes and capabilities (including an autonomous/unmanned system).

The PN did not officially reveal required specifications for the SWATS. However, various sources outlined that the PN is seeking a design displacing 700 to 900 tons and equipped with air-independent propulsion. One can expect the PN to request swimmer-delivery vehicle (SDV) compatibility and, possibly, sub-system integration in the form of electronic support measures (ESM).

In terms of why the PN needs SWATS boats, it may be looking to re-organize its sub-surface fleet to focus on both oceangoing operations and shallow-water operations.

Being a larger design (i.e., a displacement of 2,800 tons), the PN might use the Hangor-class for oceangoing missions. In addition to ASW and AShW operations at sea, the Hangor-class may also undertake stand-off range land-attack missions using the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

On the other hand, the PN may operate SWATS boats near coastal waters and, in turn, leverage the natural environment and commercial ship activities to mask its acoustic signature. With a silent AIP design (e.g., based on fuel cells), the SWATS could be a potent defensive asset. It would be difficult to detect, thereby dissuading enemy ships from operating in Pakistan’s littoral waters.

Corvettes

Based on its current procurement roadmap, the PN would still need six additional ships to meet its need for 20 “major surface vessels.” The previous CNS, Adm. Abbasi, said that the PN would sign a contract for six “large tonnage vessels.” Adm. Abbasi had made the statement after mentioning the OPV 1900-based Yarmouk-class corvettes, thus suggesting a follow-on order of larger Damen OPVs.

However, Adm. Abbasi also confirmed that the PN MILGEM program comprises of two parts: four greatly modified corvettes and a follow-on Jinnah-class frigate project. In terms of the latter, a local news outlet reported that the PN started the design of the Jinnah-class frigate, and that it would order two ships.[2]

Thus, additional MILGEM corvettes could be an option for the PN (instead of additional ships from Damen Shipyards). The benefit of acquiring additional MILGEM corvettes is that the PN could extend the redesign cost invested in the program across more ships and maintain continuity across more of the fleet.

Drones

The CNS confirmed that the PN signed a contract for medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs with China. Local sources claimed that the MALE UAVs in question will be CH-4s. If accurate, the Pakistan Navy and Army would operate a common UAV type. However, it is not known if this is a stopgap ahead of the domestic MALE UAV program (under the PAF), or the start of a larger CH-4 order.

Ship Upgrades

The CNS also revealed that the PN will upgrade its existing surface fleet with “state-of-the-art weapons and surveillance systems.” This statement was likely in reference to a mid-life-update for the Zulfiquar-class F-22P frigates, which the PN acquired from China in the early 2010s. It is not known how the PN will upgrade the ships, though it could look to pattern the program to either the Type 054A/P or MILGEM.

[1] Liu Xuanzun and Guo Yuandan. “Pakistani, Chinese navies play important roles in maintaining maritime order of Indian Ocean: Exclusive with Pakistan Navy chief.” Global Times. 04 February 2021. URL: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202102/1214952.shtml

[2] “Taking Friendship With Pakistan to New Levels – Turkish President.” 92 News. Facebook. 24 January 2021. URL: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2824862584452430

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