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Pakistan’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial Options (Part 3): ISR & Net-Warfare

This article continues Quwa’s series on Pakistan’s anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) options. The series builds on an observation that the Pakistan Navy (PN)’s efforts to expand its surface fleet, while a relatively significant effort, will not be enough to sustain credible sea-control capabilities in the Arabian Sea.

In part-one, Quwa outlined how Pakistan’s supplier pool is now capable of supplying low radar-observable fast attack crafts (FAC) and supersonic anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM). In part-two, Quwa examined the utility of a quantitatively strong submarine fleet in building strong A2/AD through credible anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-ship warfare (AShW), but through platforms that are not readily detectable.

Credible intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are an essential intermediary layer to enabling the A2/AD user to effectively target and engage its adversaries. Arguably, one can identify at least three ISR domains necessary for A2/AD: (1) long-range and over-the-horizon (OTH) object detection and targeting; (2) tactical situational awareness and (3) strategic situational awareness.

Combined, these domains aim to enable the A2/AD user to have a comprehensive insight or view of its areas-of-interest as well as the means to promptly identify and engage intruding targets. Prior to the PN’s surface and sub-surface fleet development, Pakistan had already been building ISR capabilities in each of these domains a decade, if not longer, in advance of current events.

In fact, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had touted its build-up of ISR as an integral feature to its counter-terrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts. However, the ISR domains necessary for A2/AD are significantly more expansive and Pakistan is now staging its efforts to materializing the required inputs. In fact, the drive, especially in terms of strategic awareness, is being channelled through domestic projects.

ISR is Relevant to A2/AD

ISR is integral to A2/AD. In the absence of ISR, Pakistan would not have the means to monitor its area of interest nor the means to effectively engage intruding warships. Fundamentally, A2/AD cannot happen at the hands of a power that is strategically and tactically blind. For example, even a supersonic ASCM would functionally be useless if one does not possess OTH detection and targeting capabilities.

There are three aspects to examine in terms of ISR. First, the ‘passive’ element wherein strategic ISR assets – e.g. imaging intelligence (IMINT) satellites and electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems – provide A2/AD users the means to observe their adversaries’ movements, be in terms of areas of interest or beyond. The information gleaned from IMINT or ELINT need not be confined to A2/AD, but in identifying potential gaps or vulnerabilities that can be exploited for one’s own offensive maneuvers. Second, the ‘active’ element concerns immediate targeting and engagement, e.g. using a radar to guide an ASCM.

The third aspect is defensibility, i.e. the integrity of one’s ISR in response to an opposing electronic warfare (EW) or suppression/destruction of enemy air defence (SEAD/DEAD) effort. Sustained efforts in this regard would, by consequence of eroding ISR, erode one’s A2/AD capabilities by weakening the awareness and targeting capabilities. In this respect, shielding (or creating redundancies) is also an essential area of ISR.

This article will examine Pakistan’s ISR efforts in the context of the three aforementioned domains – i.e. long-range targeting, tactical situational awareness and strategic awareness. To observers, it should be of interest how the strategic awareness element is being aligned with domestic production.

Pakistan’s ISR Work is Geared to A2/AD

Pakistan’s ISR efforts are geared to A2/AD. By 2015, the country had materialized a number of critical ISR assets, including airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, airborne targeting radars (deployed from numerous naval aircraft) and the intermediary networking enabling sensor feeds to reach platforms.

However, the ISR element – especially at the strategic awareness level – is also a work-in-progress wherein a number of critical assets, such as space infrastructure, are still in development.

Long-Range & Over-the-Horizon Targeting

Thus far, Pakistan has made the most of its ISR progress in accumulating long-range and over-the-horizon (OTH) tracking and targeting capabilities. The core of this work are the PAF’s AEW&C assets – i.e. the Saab 2000-based Erieye and the Shaanxi Y-8F600-based ZDK03. In addition to their primary role of long-range, early-warning detection (so as to alert the PAF’s combat aircraft and air defence), both AEW&C platforms offer Pakistan over-the-horizon (OTH) detection and, potentially, targeting.

With two additional Erieye on order (from a follow-on batch of three), the PAF is looking to maintain 10 aircraft (i.e. four ZDK03 and six Erieye). This is a relatively large number, indicating the push to maintain constant AEW&C coverage by possessing enough a sufficient number of serviceable aircraft to offset downtime, e.g. refueling, overhaul, maintenance, repair and/or attrition.

The ZDK03 now strongly figures into the PN’s stratagem. This is evidenced by the fact that ZDK03 has been involved in a series of joint-PAF-PN exercises, including Sea Spark.[1] In the absence of a surface-based long-range radar, the ZDK03 is currently the PN’s sole source of building situational awareness at long-range, especially with OTH (enabling the PN’s surface assets to identify objects past the curvature of the Earth).

With the forthcoming Type 054A frigates, the PN could also gain surface-based OTH target detection and tracking capability, thus augmenting its aerial coverage. Besides the ZDK03, the PN is also adding Leonardo Seaspray 7500E and Seaspray 5300 active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar-equipped ATR-72 and Sea King aircraft, respectively.[2][3] In both cases, the PN can leverage the Seaspray to provide its frigates and FACs with long-range situational awareness and targeting capacity to deploy ASCMs.

Tactical Situational Awareness

To convey information gleaned from radar (and other sensors) to the munitions deployment platform, the A2/AD-user would need a secure and stable tactical data-link (TDL) protocol with sufficient bandwidth. To its credit, Pakistan had executed upon securing its own TDLs to connect its AEW&C to its multi-role fighters – among these is Link-17. Link-17 was shown among several TDL feeds in a news report in 2016, perhaps hinting that the TDL was meant or was in use with the JF-17 at the time. Prior to Link-17’s disclosure, there were numerous hints of domestic TDL programs for the PAF, PN and Army in the preceding years.

In fact, the Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) had overtly listed the indigenous development of a TDL as one of its objectives for the 2010-2011 year.[4] The basic hardware building-block of TDL are its radio terminals, i.e. software defined radios (SDR) that must be properly encrypted and jam-resistant to sustain off-board sensor connectivity in a contested EW environment.

Like TDLs, the MoDP committed to domestic SDR production in 2010-2011.[5] Of Pakistan’s SDR suppliers, Aselsan was the most forthcoming in terms of transferring technology for local production and integration work.[6] However, although Pakistan’s National Radio & Telecom Corporation (NRTC) could be producing SDRs based on Aselsan’s designs, these may not necessarily be SDRs for TDL applications.

Pakistan could simply be importing off-the-shelf SDRs from Turkey and/or Western Europe and, in turn, adding its own software and integration layer to the existing hardware. Likewise, domestic TDLs are also in use with off-the-shelf TDLs, notably Link-16 (on the PAF’s F-16s). Thus, the country’s network-enabled assets are effectively a mix of solutions, which could present a challenge in terms of interoperability and processing different information sources on central assets, such as AEW&C.

One of the vendors assisting Pakistan with leveraging its ISR – i.e. by building Pakistan’s command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) network – is Turkey’s MilSOFT. As per MilSOFT, the company had helped the PN build the Naval Information Exchange System (NIXS).[7] The NIXS was designed to enable a plethora of A2/AD-relevant capabilities including, among others, facilitate sensor data-fusion, a common operational picture (COP) using offboard sensors and communication of a controller and precision-guided munitions (e.g. ASCM).[8]

Strategic Awareness Coverage

The aforementioned details, while a brief outline, should offer clarity about Pakistan’s relative success in building detection, targeting and situational awareness capabilities. However, Pakistan’s A2/AD-based ISR capacity still requires significant work on strategic awareness – i.e. the ability to deeply understand India’s overall strategy, its critical assets and vulnerabilities. For example, ELINT can help towards this domain by enabling Pakistan to collect EW information for its threat-libraries, which it can leverage later through its own EW subsystems (e.g. jamming suites in its combat aircraft). However, there are also over ISR aspects.

The first of these is space-based IMINT. Starting in July, Pakistan is poised to have its first low-earth orbit (LEO) imaging satellite in the Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-01). Discussed in detail in an earlier article, the PRSS-01 is the first in a series of LEO imaging satellites Pakistan intends to have in the coming decades. Functionally, the PRSS-01 should enable Pakistan to begin building strong micro and macro-level insights of India (e.g. the contents of a specific base and how that base factors into the broader picture), which it can then feed into its munitions deployment strategy.

The second is the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), specifically medium-altitude and long-endurance (MALE) UAVs. Although MALE UAVs cannot see as far into India as LEO IMINT, UAVs do offer a sustainable means of real-time ISR coverage along one’s borders. For example, while IMINT can help alert Pakistan of India potentially preparing for a so-called surgical strike (e.g. deploying new helicopters to its forward operating bases or practicing certain maneuvers), a MALE UAV could loiter in an area-of-concern for a day or longer to monitor for and help interdict a potential incursion.

Thus, not only are both assets vital, but there is a measure of synergy wherein IMINT raises awareness of an issue, while a UAV alerts you of immediate movements. Interestingly, Pakistan has tied both satellites and UAVs to domestic development and manufacturing efforts in the Pakistan Space Centre (PSC) and in Project Azm, respectively.[9][10] This commitment could indicate, albeit within Pakistan’s decision-making focus, that strategically valuable assets will not be available on the market.

Granted, sustaining a perpetual line of satellites is very costly, thus incentivizing Pakistan to channel that expenditure through local channels rather than foreign-currency-taxing imports. However, the prospect of eventually losing existing suppliers could remain, especially in clearly defence-centric applications. This is an obvious case with UAVs which, despite China’s progress and willingness to sell, are a subject of great interest to bodies such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

In fact, China itself voluntarily complies with the MTCR in its arms dealings, which leave even technically MALE UAV designs handicapped from reaching their inherent range potentials when sold abroad. Despite purchasing such designs, Pakistan might not be able to readily meet its strategic requirements without at least a partial domestic intervention (e.g. at the integration layer wherein the MTCR limits can be negated by linking the UAV to a domestically-made beyond-line-of-sight communications system).

Precision Engagement

Ultimately, Pakistan’s objectives for building its ISR capabilities are not dissimilar to those of other states. The goal is to essentially have the means to thoroughly understand the threat the A2/AD posture is meant to engage at every stage of interest, be it strategic, macro-level insights to micro-level, tactical monitoring and targeting capabilities. Indeed, efficacy at the tactical level necessitates strong insight of strategic-level threats. For example, deploying the right number of ASCM-carrying assets (along with the correct type of ASCM) to a specific area necessitates understanding the specific kind of expected threat. The latter would be understood through viewing the adversary’s deployment patterns over the long-term.

It is not surprising that an objective as extensive as this is being pursued through the development of local capacities, but Pakistan does not possess every necessary input. Thus, the objective of building strategic awareness capabilities (and continually improving the ISR and network-enabled warfare element in their totality over the long-term) will require foreign suppliers. China is the principal partner, but it will be worth seeing if Pakistan can build ties with others – notably Turkey – that are (albeit partially) feeling analogous limitations to fulfilling their own strategic objectives. After all, pooling resources helps make development more feasible, especially in complex and inherently costly domains.

[1] “Naval, PAF Chiefs witness exercise ‘Sea Spark’.” Dawn News. 10 November 2015. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1218748/naval-paf-chiefs-witness-exercise-sea-spark (Last Accessed: 29 June 2018).

[2] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Navy ATR72MPA to fly in October.” Warney’s World. 28 June 2017. URL: http://warnesysworld.com/pakistan-navy-atr72mpa-fly-october/ (Last Accessed: 08 February 2018).

[3] Gabriel Dominguez. “Pakistan Navy test-fires anti-ship missile from Sea King helo.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 27 September 2017. URL: http://www.janes.com/article/74428/pakistan-navy-test-fires-anti-ship-missile-from-sea-king-helo (Last Accessed: 29 June 2018).

[4] Annual Yearbook (2010-2011). Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. p56

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Export of APCO and Encrypted Digital Radio Systems.” Aselsan. 2013. URL: http://www.aselsan.com.tr/en-us/InvestorRelations/Documents/Annual%20Reports/Aselsan_FaaliyetRaporu_ENG2013.pdf (Last Accessed: 29 June 2018).

[7] Promotional Material: MilSOFT recording Pakistan as a NIXS customer (URL: http://www.milsoft.com.tr/en/references/) and NIXS description (URL: http://www.milsoft.com.tr/portfolio/nixs/)

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Pakistan to launch indigenous remote sensing satellite next month.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 24 June 2018. URL: http://www.app.com.pk/pakistan-to-launch-indigenous-remote-sensing-satellite-next-month/ (Last Accessed: 25 Jun 2018).

[10] Press Release. “Groundbreaking Ceremony of Aviation City and Air University Aerospace & Aviation Campus held at Kamra.” Pakistan Air Force. 06 July 2017. URL: http://www.paf.gov.pk/press_release/uploaded/1503661222.pdf (Last Accessed: 23 December 2017).

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