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Pakistan Navy Commissions Last 2 Type 054A/P Frigates

The Pakistan Navy (PN) commissioned its final batch of Tughril-class (Type 054A/P) multi-mission frigates, i.e., the PNS Tippu Sultan and the PNS Shahjahan.

The commissioning ceremony was held at China Shipbuilding Trading Co. Ltd’s (CSTC) Shanghai shipyard on May 10, with the PN Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Muhammad Amjad Khan Niazi, present as the chief guest of the event alongside other Pakistani and Chinese officials.

By delivering the final pair of Type 054A/P frigates, CSTC has fulfilled the PN’s current frigate order for four ships. Pakistan signed the contract for the frigates in 2017 and 2018 in two orders, each for two ships. This is Pakistan’s third big-ticket naval order from China, following the Hangor submarine and F-22P frigate. The PN is also the sole export user of the Type 054A, which is the workhorse frigate of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which operates dozens of this design.

The Tughril-class frigate has a displacement of around 4,000 tons and a length of 134.1 m. It is the largest surface combatant (alongside the PNS Alamgir) in service with the PN. It is also the PN’s most advanced surface combatant in terms of anti-air warfare (AAW), and anti-ship warfare (AShW) capabilities.

Its AAW configuration consists of a 32-cell vertical launch system (VLS), which contains the LY-80N surface-to-air missile (SAM). The LY-80N has a range of 40 km and is guided by a semi-active radar-homing (SARH) system. It relies on a pair of target-illuminator radars onboard the ship.

However, arguably, the Tughril-class frigate’s AShW capabilities carry the greatest breakthrough in terms of the PN’s capabilities. Each ship is armed with Chinese CM-302 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) in a dual, two-cell configuration. It is unclear if the PN could increase the payload to a two-by-four or two-by-three configuration, but nonetheless, it is a confirmed supersonic missile capability.

This induction is important for the PN because it effectively confers the fleet with a capability that emulates the Indian Navy’s (IN) BrahMos supersonic ASCM. It is relatively difficult to effectively neutralize supersonic cruising missiles because they drastically reduce the response time available for detecting and intercepting them, and even if they are intercepted, the target ship could still suffer from high-speed debris.

The LY-80N may not be the optimal solution for stopping the BrahMos; thus, the next best step the PN can realistically take is have its own equivalent to the BrahMos. Currently, that equivalent is the CM-302. The standard export configuration of the CM-302 has a range of 280 km and 250 kg warhead.

There had been indications of the PN developing a supersonic-cruising missile. It would be worth seeing if there is a relationship between that in-house project and the CM-302. Currently, it appears that the PN is aiming to make supersonic ASCMs a mainstay munition in its inventory. Producing one at home, be it under a license production deal or via an original design, would make sense.

The PN commissioned the lead ship – PNS Tughril – in November 2021, while the second ship – PNS Taimur – joined the fleet in August 2022. Though the current order is complete, the current PN CNS indicated that the PN is open to potentially acquiring additional Type 054A/P frigates.

Inducting the Type 054A/P has given the PN two key areas of flexibility that make buying additional ships a relatively attractive avenue, should the PN opt for it.

First, it now has the infrastructure to operate this frigate. Thus, procuring additional ships with identical or similar subsystems and weapons could cost less per ship than the initial tranche.

Second, the Type 054A class was not only a mature design, but it was extensively produced for the PLAN. Basically, it leverages a significant base in terms of manufacturing expertise, materials, and other inputs geared for this specific design. With the PLAN procuring dozens of these ships, the development overhead of the Type 054A is also likely minimal.

These two aspects could make the Type 054A a relatively low-cost ship, thus it makes sense for the PN to consider additional vessels. It would also be interesting to see if the PN pursues second-hand ships from China, should the PLAN start retiring them in the foreseeable future. However, it would worth be seeing if the PN opts to further invest in the Type 054A/P by exploring different AAW solutions, for example.

The Tughril-class frigate also marks the start of the PN’s effort to both modernize and grow its surface fleet to over 50 ships. Of those, 20 ships will be ‘major surface vessels,’ like frigates. With the CNS keeping the door open for additional ships, the Tughril-class might jointly form the workhorse of the future PN surface fleet with the forthcoming Jinnah-class frigate (JCF). Pakistan is building the JCF in collaboration with ASFAT Inc. of Türkiye as part of the PN MILGEM project, which is reportedly valued at up to $1.5 billion USD.

The JCF – along with the Babur-class corvette and, potentially, the Yarmook-class Batch-II offshore patrol vessels (OPV) – will be equipped with the MBDA Albatros NG, also known as the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile Extended Range (CAMM-ER). If the CM-302-equipped Tughril-class enables the PN to emulate the BrahMos, then the CAMM-ER-equipped ships is its play to counter the supersonic missile threat.

Not only does the CAMM-ER has a greater range than the LY-80N, but it leverages the ship’s primary search radar to identify high-speed targets. The main search radar feeds the CAMM-ER missile with the target’s coordinates in real-time through data-link. Once the CAMM-ER is close enough in range, it switches to its active radar-homing (ARH) seeker to reach the target independently of the radar. Once its in proximity, the missile detonates its warhead. However, this is not the CAMM-ER’s sole quality against supersonic missiles; because it is not bottlenecked by dedicated target illumination radars (like the Tughril-class), the CAMM-ER-equipped ships can launch their SAMs in salvos, thus providing defensibility against saturated attacks.

The CAMM-ER could potentially open the PN to carry out more sophisticated AAW techniques as well. For example, the PN could leverage its network-enabled warfare environment (i.e., connected sensors across surface and air-based platforms, multiple data-links, etc) to optimize SAM deployment and usage. It could also form the groundwork to eventually induct a long-range SAM.

The prudent step of procuring both Chinese and Turkish ships is that the PN has forged multiple avenues to readily induct a long-range SAM in the future. Both countries are actively working on long-range SAMs for naval applications, and having both the Tughril-class and Jinnah-class frigates enables the PN to pursue to either or both options when they become available. Basically, once serviceable solutions are ready, the PN will likely add a long-range SAM system, though it might have to involve the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in across the decision, induction, and deployment/operations phases.

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