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Pakistan’s Supersonic Missile Should Work From Small Launch Platforms

In its 2017-2018 disclosure, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) stated that the Directorate General of Munitions Production (DGMP) signed-off on the development of a supersonic missile for the Pakistan Navy (PN). It is likely that the PN’s goal is to acquire a capability analogous to India’s BrahMos – i.e., a supersonic-cruising dual anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) and land-attack cruise missile (LACM).

But while one can expect the PN to configure its larger ships – such as the forthcoming Type 054A/P frigate and Jinnah-class corvette/light frigate – with the supersonic missile, the optimal scenario would be to also arm smaller launch platforms. For the PN, this would mean its fast attack craft (FAC), such as the Azmat-class, but it should also include the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) burgeoning JF-17 fleet as well.

The rationale is, simply, to equip as many individual launch platforms with effective stand-off range attack capabilities as possible, especially those platforms that are available in large quantities. In the naval and air combat domains, this would basically be the PN’s FACs and the PAF’s JF-17s.

The benefit of this approach is that it helps Pakistan distribute its stand-off range attack capabilities across a large number of assets. The loss or even downtime of one (for maintenance, repairs, etc) does not lessen Pakistan’s anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capability within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC). It also makes weakening the A2/AD threshold difficult because there are a large number of potential threats involved, i.e., attempting control will likely result in severe losses.

The Benefits of a Naval Supersonic Cruise Missile

The addition of a supersonic-cruising ASCM/LACM provides Pakistan with a varied anti-shipping capability, one that already has multiple subsonic options (i.e., Harbah, Zarb, C-802A, Harpoon, and Exocet).

A supersonic-cruising ASCM/LACM adds another factor, which, in turn, reduces the PN’s predictability. In of itself, a supersonic-cruising ASCM/LACM is also difficult to stop as it offers less time for a response and, even if intercepted, can cause residual damage to the target via its wreckage and high terminal velocity.

Granted, while an analogous capability to the BrahMos, a supersonic-cruising ASCM/LACM is not a direct counter to comparable missiles. For that, the PN will need to invest in its anti-air warfare (AAW) capability, especially in terms of high-velocity, relatively long-range point-defence missile systems (PDMS).

However, as missile trends (especially in the East) move from supersonic to hypersonic systems, the PN is unlikely to be able to invest in the necessary air defence capabilities to stop such threats. Rather, it should focus on developing analogous capability – and widely deploying it – to deter the use of such weapons.

Pakistan Can Develop a Potent FAC Platform

For the PN, its lowest-cost launch platform would be FACs. In fact, it is already arming its FACs for long-range land-strikes through the Harbah, which it test-fired from the PNS Himmat, an Azmat-class FAC, in January 2018 and April 2019. Pakistan did not disclose the Harbah’s range, but if it is based on the Babur, then a reach of 450-700 km is plausible. The Harbah is a subsonic dual-ASCM/LACM.

To effectively deploy the Harbah ASCM/LACM from the Azmat-class FAC, the PN must have developed (or is certainly on track to doing so) a robust network-enabled warfare environment. For land-attack, the PN need only send information about fixed targets to the FACs, but for anti-ship operations, the FACs would need real-time targeting information from long-range, off-board radars.

The PN’s FACs will likely draw on many different off-board radars, including the PN’s Leonardo Seaspray-equipped maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and helicopters, the longer-range radars of the Type 054A/P and Jinnah-class, the over-the-horizon-radar (OTHR) of the Type 054A/P, and possibly a land-based OTHR. You can read more about the PN’s network-enabled warfare efforts in an earlier Quwa Premium article.

Simply put, there is enough evidence to indicate the PN is building a network-enabled warfare system that will allow its FACs to readily undertake long-range land-attack and anti-shipping missions. Aside from that, there is also the possibility of even fitting the FACs with longer ranged radars if and when said radars are more affordable. Thus, independent operations can also occur through FACs.

It also appears that the PN is investing in FAC development. It procured its first three Azmat-class FAC(M) (Missile) off-the-shelf from China, while having Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW) build the third FAC – PNS Himmat – through material kits from China. However, KSEW has apparently been building the fourth FAC(M) from the contract independently, or at least without Chinese material kits.

The MoDP’s 2017-2018 yearbook states FAC(M)-4 was “indigenously designed” and domestically built “without seeking foreign technical expertise.”[1] Compared to the preceding three ships, the fourth FAC is also aesthetically different in some respects, e.g. it has a redesigned bridge area. Reportedly, Pakistan is also working on a domestic SAM[2]; this may factor into the FAC(M) as well.

FAC(M)-4. Source: Karach Shipyard & Engineering Works

However, like PNS Himmat, FAC(M) will be configured with 2×3 ASCM/LACM launcher cells, indicating that it will use either the Harbah ASCM/LACM, or, potentially, the supersonic missile.

But given the longer period of construction (compared to the PNS Himmat), the FAC(M)-4 could be the PN’s attempt at a locally driven FAC(M) design, one that it could build into a larger fleet through the long-term. In 2016, the PN reportedly stated that it needed another four to six FACs.[3] Moreover, its Jalalat and Jurrat-class FACs are also aging, so the prospect for a sizable number of new FACs is plausible.

There are high-end design options, such as the FAC-55 by Turkey’s Savunma Teknolojileri Mühendislik ve Ticaret AŞ (STM). Not only can the FAC-55 reach a top speed of 55 knots (the Azmat-class has a top speed of 30+ knots), it carries its ASCMs in retractable launch cells that can recede behind the superstructure. In other words, the missiles are not exposed, which can contribute to low radar observability.

STM FAC-55. Photo Source: Quwa

However, the PN’s FAC(M) need not follow the FAC-55’s design paradigm. It can still be a modern design, albeit with some progressive ship design changes. One example worth emulating is the Falaj 2 FAC design of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was developed by Italy’s Fincantieri.

In terms of dimensions, the Falaj 2 is similar to the FAC(M). The Falaj 2 has a hull length of 55 m, breadth of 8.60 m, and displacement of 520 tons. In comparison, the FAC(M) offers a length of 63 m, breadth of 8.8 m, and displacement of 560 tons. The Falaj 2 offers a top speed of over 20 knots, while the FAC(M) is advertised with a top speed of 30+ knots. Both rely on combined diesel and diesel (CODAD) for propulsion.

Falaj 2. Source: Navy Recognition

 

With a cursory check, the main difference between the Falaj 2 and FAC(M) is that the Falaj 2 leverages its space better than the current FAC(M). So, while the FAC(M) lacks a SAM, the Falaj 2 is equipped with two triple-silo vertical launch system (VLS) cells for the MBDA MICA-VL. The VLS is configured at the aft, and it extrudes marginally above the hull with a minor superstructure addition.

However, the FAC(M) offers a greater ASCM/LACM load than the Falaj 2 (six to eight missiles versus four). But the Falaj 2’s lighter ASCM/LACM load did not come as a result of adding SAMs, it seems to be a deeper design element. Besides that, a major improvement in the Falaj 2 is that its sensor mast is covered, which might offer a measure of protection to the radar and other sensor equipment.

With the PN seemingly working on FAC(M)-4 independently and, in turn, acquiring valuable ship design expertise from Turkey through the Jinnah-class program, a Falaj 2-like evolution of the FAC(M) is plausible. In fact, some of the Falaj 2’s design attributes, such as optimizing space for more armaments (such as VLS-based SAMs) is something the PN saw with the MILGEM Ada (the Jinnah-class added VLS to the design).

But with the majority of a ship’s cost coming from its sensors, weapons, and electronics, the PN will also need to work on keeping the base cost of the FAC(M) as low as possible. The lower the cost of the FAC(M)’s hull and superstructure, the cost flexibility to add to it. That is the most cost-effective way of achieving a result similar to the Falaj 2 (or Swedish Visby, Israeli Sa’ar S-72, etc).

In addition to further developing the FAC(M) design, the PN can also look at developing a common launch cell that can work with both the Harbah and the supersonic ASCM/LACM. This way, a single FAC can carry a varied weapons load, enabling it to undertake both land-attack and anti-ship missions.

However, going a step further than that and fitting FACs with longer-ranged radars and VLS-based SAMs, and deploying them in numbers, would make Pakistan’s littoral environment a high-threat theater. Not only can the FACs engage in long-range anti-ship missions, but they can also cause problems for low-flying aircraft. In a way, they can serve as low-level air defence assets, but at sea.

Arming the JF-17 Should be a Priority

Deploying a heavyweight ASCM/LACM would not be an issue for the FAC(M), but it would preclude the JF-17 from that capability. The JF-17 is the only platform in the PAF’s fighter procurement roadmap (until Project Azm) at this time, and today, it is also the PAF’s most modern anti-ship warfare (AShW) asset.

It would be a mistake for Pakistan to approach supersonic-cruising ASCMs as India had with the BrahMos. The BrahMos, with its mass of 3,000+ kg, cannot be carried by lightweight fighters (such as the Tejas), and that is the reason why India is developing the 1,500 kg BrahMos NG.

However, Pakistan already has access to a supersonic-cruising missile that the JF-17 can potentially deploy – i.e., the Chinese HD-1A. The HD-1A weighs 1,200 kg, but offers a range of 290 km and a warhead of 240 kg. It can cruise at a speed of Mach 2.2 to Mach 3.5 and skim 5-10 m above sea-level.

Mock-up of the HD-1A. Photo source: Global Times

 

The HD-1A may be too heavy for the JF-17 to carry with its wings (though the Block 3 may correct this via strengthened wing-based hardpoints), it might be deployable from the centerline hardpoint. Like the PN, with the HD-1A, the PAF can deploy a variable AShW capability through different types of ASCM (it could add the HD-1A to its CM-400AKG air-launched rocket and C-802A subsonic ASCM).

However, it is not known how Pakistan is approaching its supersonic missile program. One option (which many observers expect) is that Pakistan will simply buy a Chinese design, potentially with localized turn-key production, and re-brand it with a local name. But while the use of Chinese subsystems is plausible, if one carefully looks at the Babur, Harbah, Ra’ad, etc., they will not find identical Chinese counterparts.

So, for a start, a heavyweight supersonic ASCM/LACM is plausible, especially since it is exclusive to the PN at this time. But Pakistan can also work on an original lightweight design with Chinese (or other overseas) support, which could see a missile similar in concept to BrahMos NG arrive sooner.

It should be noted that India and Russia worked on the BrahMos as a joint venture, but it was Russia that brought expertise in ramjet technology.

The BrahMos official website itself states:

“DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization) had developed crucial systems like inertial navigation systems, mission software, mobile launchers for Prithvi and Agni missiles. NPOM (NPO Mashinostroyenia) had expertise in the area of ramjet engines together with a number of technologies for space systems, launch vehicles and cruise missiles.”

So, Pakistan would merely be taking a page out of its neighbour’s playbook by working with China, quite closely in fact. However, if an original design in play, then it should be modelled on the objectives of India’s BrahMos NG, not the preceding BrahMos variant. Seeing the HD-1A, China evidently has the know-how.

This approach might fast-track timelines, but it could harm any effort on Pakistan’s part to develop critical inputs indigenously. Mastering ramjet technology could open Pakistan up to develop other weapons, and, as importantly, develop the technology further (for hypersonic applications).

If this is the goal, then – just as the PAF is with Project Azm – raising the initial ceiling to a sophisticated lightweight design may be prudent, albeit at the cost of a later induction date.

[1] Year Book (sic) 2017-2018. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. 05 September 2019. URL: http://www.modp.gov.pk/frmDetails.aspx

[2] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan test-fires indigenous anti-ship missile.” Defense News. 05 January 2018. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/01/05/pakistan-test-fires-indigenous-anti-ship-missile/

[3] Salman Siddiqui. “Pakistan Navy considering buying warships from China, Turkey.” The Express Tribune. 25 November 2016. URL: https://tribune.com.pk/story/1243724/ideas-2016-navy-considering-buying-warships-china-turkey/

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