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Pakistan Gets First Type 054A/P Frigate from China

On November 08, the Pakistan Navy (PN) commissioned its first Type-054A/P frigate. Designated as the PNS Tughril, the ship is the first of four frigates on order from China.

Pakistan ordered the Type 054A/P from China Shipbuilding Trading Co. Ltd (CSTC) in two batches in 2017 and 2018. Currently, the second Tughril-class frigate is undergoing sea trials, while the Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding Group is building the third and fourth ships.

Alongside the Babur-class corvette and Jinnah-class frigate, the Tughril-class frigate is a major piece of the PN’s surface fleet modernization program. Of the three new surface combatants, the Tughril-class would be the largest ship; it has a displacement of 4,000 tons and a length of 134 metres.

Compared to the Type 054A frigates in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the Tughril-class has a number of key differences in its sensor-suite and armament package.

For example, the Tughril-class frigate is equipped with the SR2410C 3D electronically scanned array radar, which is similar in design and concept to the Thales SMART-S Mk2. In contrast, the PLAN Type 054As are equipped with the Type 382 radar. Likewise, the armament set-up of the Tughril-class draws on a selection of export-oriented versions of the PLAN’s weapons, such as the LY-80N surface-to-air missile (SAM), which is the export variant of the HQ-16, for example.

One noticeable difference change in the Tughril-class frigate is its surface-to-surface missile (SSM) system. It is unclear exactly what this SSM system is, but analysts observed that it could be either the CM-401 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) or CM-302 supersonic anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM). The PN said that it is working on a hypersonic ASBM under the designation, “P282.” However, the PN did not officially confirm if it would equip the Tughril-class with the P282 ASBM.

However, the Tughril-class is certainly not fitted with a standard subsonic ASCM like the C-802. Thus, the Tughril-class does signal a sea change in the PN’s approach to anti-ship warfare (AShW). Realizing that the task of defending against the Indian Navy’s (IN) supersonic-cruising BrahMos is not currently feasible, the PN opted to emulate the capability with supersonic and hypersonic solutions of its own.

Based on the information available, it seems that the PN is working towards distinct capabilities. The P282 ASBM forms up the ‘hypersonic’ capability, while there’s a yet-to-be-announced supersonic missile under development since 2017-2018. The latter may be a supersonic-cruising ASCM similar to India’s BrahMos.

Combined with the subsonic-cruising, long-range Harbah, the PN is working towards a varied inventory of AShW solutions. Based on its known procurement roadmap, the PN will have hypersonic, supersonic, and subsonic attack capabilities. Moreover, the PN will likely configure these missiles to work from numerous platform types, e.g., large frigates to corvettes to small fast-attack crafts (FAC).

Though it is unclear what missile the Tughril-class is using, it does seem to confirm that the PN’s upcoming hypersonic and supersonic missiles will be off-the-shelf. This was the likeliest route considering Pakistan’s limitations in R&D and industrial capacity. It would also follow the PN’s general approach to acquiring new weapons – i.e., original solutions, but using commercially off-the-shelf (COTS) inputs. Thus, while the new hypersonic and supersonic missiles are of Chinese origin, they may not be vanilla export variants, but have a number of modifications in line with the PN’s requirements.

If the missile in question is the CM-401 ASBM, it would have a range of 290 km. The CM-401 is equipped with an active radar-homing (ARH) seeker for terminal-stage engagement. The CM-401 can reportedly hit a speed of Mach 4 to Mach 6. Some analysts believe that the CM-401’s range could be much higher than 290 km. For example, even with a speed of Mach 4, the CM-401 should reach a range of 600 km, and if it can hit Mach 6, it should extend to just shy of 1,000 km (East Pendulum).

Relabeling the CM-401 into the P282 could be a way for China and Pakistan to distance themselves from Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines (which limit the range of exportable missiles to less than 300 km). Moreover, Pakistan may not limit its ASBM deployment to ships alone. It could potentially use the P282 (or CM-401) ASBM from land as well, thus adding to its anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) coverage, especially across its littoral waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Assuming it selects COTS for its supersonic-cruising ASCM, the PN will likely opt for either the CM-302 or HD-1A. Interestingly, the latter is also on offer with an air-launched variant that may be compatible with the JF-17. There is an opportunity for the PN and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to have a common missile.

In either case, the Tughril-class will have a credible AShW capability. However, its weakest link is its anti-air warfare (AAW) suite, especially in comparison to the Babur-class corvette and Jinnah-class frigate. The latter two ships will use the MBDA Italy Albatros-NG, which is a newer SAM platform than the LY-80.

The Albatros-NG offers a range of over 40 km and is equipped with an ARH-seeker. It can use information from the ship’s main radar to reach the target and, once in range, use its ARH seeker to go terminal.

In contrast, the LY-80 relies on a semi-active radar-homing (SARH) seeker. While the LY-80 offers a range of 40 km, it relies on illuminator radars onboard the Type 054A/P to reach its target. However, these same radars are a bottleneck as the ship can only launch as many SAMs as it has illuminator radars. The Type 054A/P has four illuminator radars, but it is unclear how many missiles each radar can guide. The Albatros-NG does not have this constraint, so it can provide coverage against ASCM salvos, for example.

However, the LY-80 is a large missile. In of itself, the fact that the Tughril-class can carry a 32-cell vertical launch system (VLS) system for those indicates that the ship can support a heavy payload. If the PN could acquire a more efficient SAM, it could potentially bring the Tughril-class’ AAW capability to a much higher level. It would not be surprising if the PN’s long-term roadmap foresees upgrading the Tughril-class’ AAW, potentially as a mid-life update in 10-15 years, so that it is on par with the rest of the PN fleet.

That said, the Type 054A/P purchase does break somewhat from the PN’s wider modernization efforts. It does not follow the smaller design focus of the Babur-class corvette or Jinnah-class frigate programs. The Tughril-class also uses different sensors and weapon systems. One would have expected the PN to focus more on the Jinnah-class, for example, and add more of those ships to its roadmap. One plausible reason for purchasing the Type 054A/Ps is that the PN got a very competitive price-point and a commitment from China to deliver the ships over a short turnaround time.

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