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Pakistan Navy Chief Outlines Aviation Modernization Plans

The Pakistan Navy (PN) Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, outlined in an interview that the PN is working to acquire long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and multi-mission helicopters.[1] The CNS did not reveal the status of any of these programs, or the expected procurement timeline. However, the PN rarely seems to comment on potential acquisitions prior to signing a contract or starting a project. Thus, all three programs are likely active at this stage.

Supporting New Surface Warships With Helicopters

The PN currently has four Type 054A/P frigates, four MILGEM corvettes, and two Yarmouk-class corvettes on order. The PN is aiming to procure its 10 new ships by the mid-2020s, which will join its four Zulfiquar-class/F-22P frigates and, likely, replace its three remaining Babur-class/Type-21 frigates.

However, in terms of shipborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters that can operate from ships in the 2,000-ton to 4,000-ton displacement range, the PN relies on only six Z-9ECs.[2] These currently operate with the PN’s four F-22P frigates. Thus, the PN will need additional ASW helicopters to support its 10 new ships, which could necessitate 10-14 new aircraft. However, the PN could also look to supplant its legacy Alouette III, which could see a scope of an additional four to six similarly sized helicopters.

For the PN, the benchmark for an optimal ASW helicopter is likely the UH-60, which it originally sought in the late 2000s alongside six FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry (OHP)-class frigates from the US. However, getting any of the Black Hawk-variants is untenable for multiple reasons.

First, Pakistan is reluctant to finance big-ticket items from the US with its own funding, preferring instead to rely on Coalition Support Funds (CSF) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Second, the cost of new-generation versions is outside of the PN’s budget, e.g., India agreed to pay $108 million per MH-60R. Third, the US may not agree to release all of the subsystems the PN would be interested in from such a platform.

The PN could potentially look at exploring surplus or used airframes under Excess Defence Articles (EDA), but with US-Pakistani defence ties still in a precarious state, these aircraft may not be available. Thus, the PN will likely gauge options in China, Europe and, potentially, Turkey.

In terms of China, the simplest route would be to acquire additional Z-9ECs. This option would extend the use of pre-existing maintenance, logistics and training infrastructure, thus resulting in a lower acquisition cost and, potentially, quicker induction timeframe. Though China is manufacturing newer designs, notably the Z-20, it does not seem as though these models are available for export at this time.

In Europe, the most willing supplier to the PN is Leonardo, which has offered its AgustaWestland-series of helicopters. An industry representative at the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) told Quwa that the AW101 and AW159 were on offer to the PN.

However, the AW101 and AW159 are both high-cost platforms (i.e., $107 million, and $54 million per unit, respectively).[3][4] Thus, even if the PN is interested in either aircraft, it will not be able to order them in the numbers necessary to keep-up with its surface-fleet expansion. Finally, the presence of ITAR equipment, at least in the AW159 (which, like the T129 ATAK, uses an LHTEC turboshaft engine), is another roadblock as it could draw a third-party denial from Washington.

The third route could be to customize a commercial-grade helicopter, such as the Leonardo AW139 or the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) T625, for naval use. The advantage of leveraging the AW139 is that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Pakistan Army (PA) already operate the type. Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) also set-up a maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) facility to support the AW139. Thus, the PN could benefit from the existing support overhead of the AW139 and, in turn, lower its costs.

However, Leonardo does not have an ASW-capable version of the AW139. If anything, the PN would likely have to manage the integration work required for the conversion and, in turn, sustain the non-recurring engineering (NRE) cost. Though customizing the AW139 is not an apparent option, it would fit within the PN’s newfound efforts to create new solutions using commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

At IDEAS 2018, TAI told Quwa that the PN was interested in the T625. Currently, it seems that TAI is in the process of developing multiple military variants of the T625, so a naval version akin to the AW159 or the Z-9EC is possible. However, the availability of Turkey’s in-house engine, i.e., the TS1400, is integral to the success of exporting military T625 variants. Otherwise, the US may not sign-off on third-party sales should those helicopters continue with using LHTEC’s turboshaft engines.

Extending ISR Coverage With Long-Range, Long-Endurance Drones

The CNS’ recent comment on UAVs builds on an official PN news release in January 2020, stating, “Pakistan Navy’s developmental plans include acquisition of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) in support of maritime operations.”[5] The PN already operates unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for surveillance – e.g., the EMT Penzberg LUNA NG – but the CNS’ statements imply that a larger system is in the pipeline.

TAI told Quwa at IDEAS 2018 that the PN was interested in the Anka-S medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV, and that negotiations for the system had begun. However, a source recently stated that the PN actually signed a contract with China for a MALE UAV, but did not disclose the make or model

Quwa understands that the PN was evaluating satellite communications (SATCOM) terminals from Turkey, but the desired application was not known. But with UAVs, SATCOM enables beyond line-of-sight (BLoS) connectivity, which allows for long-range operation.

The benefit of UAVs is that the PN can deploy its sensor coverage – such as radar, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR), and electronic intelligence (ELINT) – at a lower operating cost than its manned aircraft. In fact, not only can it keep drones longer in the air, but it can deploy a larger quantity as well as lessen the risk of loosing manned assets to enemy fire (a real concern considering the loss of a Breguet Atlantic in 1999).

By also leveraging its network-enabled warfare platform, NIXS, the PN can have its drones feed visual and targeting information to any of its other assets, including fast attack crafts (FAC) lacking long-range radars of their own. By maintaining a persistent and extensive airborne coverage with drones, the PN can provide situational awareness and targeting capability to any of its ships at all times (with few gaps).

Thus, if the PN signed a contract with China, the system that would offer the most range and payload flexibility would be the AVIC CH-5. With a payload capacity of 1,200 kg (including 200 kg internally) plus a range of 2,000 km and endurance of 60 hours, it could offer an analogous capability to the MQ-9 Reaper.

One additional advantage of a UAV as large as the CH-5 is that it can also deploy a larger munitions load. So, the PN can also use the UAV as a first-response asset, especially along Pakistan’s adjacent coastal link with India, which could be vulnerable to incursion by state and non-state actors.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) said the CH-5 was available for export, but it exceeds the range/payload restrictions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) – a framework China voluntarily follows. It is unclear if the CH-5 is truly available.

Designing a Successor to the P-3C Orion LRMPA

Finally, the CNS’ comments about a new LRMPA is likely in reference to its in-house program to configure a twin-engine VIP jet into an anti-ship warfare (AShW) and ASW-capable asset. With a required maximum take-off-weight (MTOW) of 120,000 lbs to 140,000 lbs, the PN is evidently seeking a large aircraft, which could point to a desire to deploy heavy munition and sensor loads (so as to supplant the P-3C). A previous Quwa Premium article explores the goal and challenges of the PN’s LRMPA program in detail.

[1] Dr. Lee Willett. “Admiral Modernises Pakistan Navy To Meet Non-Traditional Threats.” Armada International. 15 May 2020. URL:

[2] “Karachi: Anti-submarine helicopters inducted into Pakistan Navy.” Dawn News. 01 October 2009. URL:

[3] Press Release. “Finmeccanica signs contract worth over 100 million euros with the Philippine Navy for AgustaWestland AW159 helicopters.” Leonardo. 31 March 2016. URL:

[4] Jaroslaw Adomowski. “Poland acquires AW101 helos for Navy under $430M deal.” 29 April 2019. URL:

[5] Press Release. “Pakistan Navy Inducts MPA & Unmanned Aerial Systems.” Director General Public Relations – Pakistan Navy. 04 January 2020. URL:

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