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RIBAT-2018 (Part 1): Improving PAF-PN Interoperability

Introduction:

The Pakistan Navy (PN) and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) conducted a joint exercise in the North Arabian Sea – RIBAT-2018 – from 24 February to 06 March 2018 to “validate … war fighting concepts under evolving multi-faceted threats” involving both “conventional and sub conventional” threats.[1] RIBAT-2018 placed “special emphasis” on enhancing the “interoperability between naval and air assets”.[2]

The joint-exercise contributes to Pakistan’s efforts to secure its littoral waters and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In part, this security is to occur through a credible anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) posture for conventional threats along with a robust coverage and reaction element asymmetrical challenges.

This specific exercise tends to both aspects, but with an emphasis on effectively leveraging Pakistan’s air assets with its naval surface platforms. For example, the utilization of aircraft radars on maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) for stand-off range targeting and guiding anti-ship missiles (AShM), among other tasks. The exercise also drew upon the PN’s coastal and logistics units.

However, RIBAT-2018’s relevance relates to another aspect, i.e. the importance Pakistan could be placing on strengthening its maritime air operations capabilities. The specific technical aspects of this area have been discussed in previous Quwa Premium articles. This article will lean on the organizational aspects of the conventional warfare aspect, such as how the PN and PAF collaborated in previous years to fulfil their respective maritime operations requirements and the future of these service arms’ cooperation.

The Pakistan Navy’s Mission

The PN’s current – and projected – force-size dictates that its primary objective is to implement an A2/AD strategy to deter activity towards Pakistan’s coastlines (and its coastal assets, such as ports), sea-lines-of communication (SLOC) or sea lanes and to secure its EEZ from enemy force presence and criminal activity. Granted, securing the aforementioned areas are the objectives of all navies (with some given additional tasks, such as expeditionary operations and sea-control in other regions), but A2/AD adds nuance that is relevant to the PN and, in general, the Armed Forces of Pakistan.

Technically, one can state that A2/AD is the role of every military. However, the reality of the term in the defence studies and analysis realm is that A2/AD is the threat or obstacle the US and Europe face in their respective strategic theatres, such as East Asia and Eastern Europe, respectively. In other words, A2/AD is the means that the likes of China, Russia and Iran would use – through a multitude of assets such as guided stand-off range weapons (SOW), submarines and aircraft, among others – to prevent US (et. al) access to an area of interest and, if that area is comprised, to deny it from being of strategic value by contesting it.

The inherent assumption in this categorization is that the party deploying A2/AD is, at the broadest level of perspective, weaker (e.g. quantitatively smaller and qualitatively inferior) than its intruder. The extent of weakness varies between countries, e.g. China is a respected power with strong conventional warfare capabilities, while Iran is currently at the fringe in the way of modern conventional weapons, thus heavily reliant on asymmetrical strategies. If seen through a spectrum, Pakistan would reside in the middle of it.

In India, Pakistan faces a superior adversary, especially in the maritime space where the Indian Navy (IN) fields surface, sub-surface and aviation fleets that are superior in quantity and quality to their respective PN counterparts (note: this is at the broad-level, there are specific nuances which are important to the PN A2/AD strategy). However, Pakistan can maintain an inherently credible naval force comprising of modern surface, sub-surface and aviation assets, it just cannot match India ‘ship-for-ship’ to deter an IN maneuver to deny Pakistan of its SLOC usage. Thus, the deterrence goal falls upon an asymmetrical A2/AD strategy.

In that A2/AD strategy is the effective utilization of air assets with surface, sub-surface and land assets to (1) generate a thorough situational awareness ‘picture’ for all networked assets and (2) enable for stand-off range attacks using anti-ship missiles (AShM) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACM). Quwa Premium’s article on the Harba dual-AShM/LACM discusses the technical side of this in detail, including the long-term manifestation once several new assets – such as the Type 054A frigate and ATR-72 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) – are inducted.[3] The desired objective of this A2/AD arrangement is to demonstrate the ability to credibly disable intruding assets through long-range strikes executed by many platforms (i.e. the concept of ‘distributed lethality’). The PAF’s relevance to the PN stems from primarily two areas: (1) boost the targeting and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) element and (2) provide air cover for the PN against aerial threats, such as AShM-equipped fighters from the IN and Indian Air Force (IAF).

Air Force-Navy Interoperability

Speaking to Quwa, retired PAF Air Commodore and now historian and analyst Kaiser Tufail, outlined that a concerted effort to build a PAF maritime operations element commenced in the 1980s, specifically in 1983 with the allocation of Dassault Mirage 5PA2 and 5PA3 (via the Blue Flash IV purchase of 1978) to the No. 8 Squadron and the subsequent formation of the No. 32 Tactical Wing (32TW) at Masroor Air Base in Karachi. The Mirage 5PA3 was the first to equip the PAF with the ability – via the Agave radar – to guide AShM (i.e. the MBDA AM39 Exocet). It fired its (and the PAF’s) first AShM in 1993 during an exercise.[4]

Tufail, who was also once commander of the No. 8 Squadron and Masroor Air Base noted:

“This was an immense boost to its capabilities in the maritime theatre. PAF’s cooperation with the Pakistan Navy improved leaps and bounds through annual exercises, and by the late eighties, the Navy could claim a worthwhile sea denial capability in concert with the PAF.”

The No. 8 was the PAF’s sole AShM-equipped unit until No. 2 swapped its F-7Ps for the C-802AK-equipped JF-17. The No. 8 and No. 2 are joined by the No. 7 and No. 22, which are equipped with the Mirage ROSE and Mirage III/5, respectively. The 32TW also includes the No. 84 and No. 4 for search-and-rescue (SAR) and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), respectively. Not only is the 32TW a complete force – i.e. comprising of multi-role fighter, SAR and AEW&C systems – but it is oriented for maritime operations.

This is evident in the composition of 32TW, which includes AShM-equipped assets in the Mirage 5PA3 and JF-17 along with the Karakoram Eagle AEW&C for supporting naval operations (as demonstrated in the 2015 PN-PAF drill ‘Sea Spark’)[5]. However, the formation of the PAF’s 39TW at Shahbaz Air Base through the No. 5 and No. 11 F-16 Block-52+ and Mid-Life Update (MLU) squadrons provides a strong in-land force for Southern Air Command, further freeing the 32TW at Masroor to focus on maritime operations (as well as rely upon the F-16s for further reinforcement if necessary).

Given the completeness of the 32TW, one might be tempted to re-distribute some – if not all – of those assets to the Pakistan Naval Aviation (PNA). It is an intuitive thought, especially in the fallout of 1999 when a PNA Atlantique MPA was lost to an IAF MiG-21 – if Pakistan’s claim holds true (i.e. the MPA being lost in Pakistani territory) then the absence of fighter cover is notably egregious. However, even a significant lapse in strategy does not necessitate a structural change, especially with limited resources at hand.

First, it would be unreasonable to expect the PN to divert its limited resources to sustain an organic fighter fleet, which has unique organizational, training and cultural inputs in addition to material costs. The PAF has already has those inputs and absorbed the costs. In other words, the gap for having the PAF tightly commit to maritime operations (via the 32TW) is much smaller than raising a parallel structure in the PNA. Instead of a PNA fighter wing, it is a matter of developing synergy between the PAF and PN to enable the PN to utilize the PAF to maximum effect. This could involve joint-operations planning and execution, direct engagement between relevant personnel and execution (i.e. facilitated by RABAT-2018).

In fact, by virtue of raising the No. 8 with the AM39-equipped Mirage 5PA3, the PAF and PN have produced 35 years of experience developing interoperability. Moreover, the deployment of the C-802AK-equipped JF-17 and the Karakoram Eagle AEW&C demonstrates that the scope of this interoperability is growing, both in terms of quantity of AShM-equipped fighters and sophistication (i.e. data-link-equipped JF-17s). This demonstrates that the PAF is invested in backing the PN, rendering the idea of fighters with a PNA insignia to be a cosmetic factor considering all that is in place already.

Hardware Solutions:

With maritime operations ingrained into the PAF’s objectives – through 32TW – it is a question of whether it is fielding enough assets to support the PN. The Karakoram Eagle AEW&C is the centerpiece of the PAF’s airborne surveillance and battle management in that space, providing both aerial and surface assets with long-range situational awareness and targeting support for AShM. In addition, the 32TW’s four squadrons of combat aircraft provide quantitative depth, thus distributing the burden of interdicting naval threats.

The Mirage ROSE I and JF-17 provide multi-role capability, with the latter possessing the proven capacity to deploy AShM and beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM). In fact, the JF-17 shares the AShM burden with the Mirage 5PA3 while also significantly improving upon the F-7P’s air-to-air capabilities. The forthcoming JF-17 Block-III – with its longer-range radar, integrated electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite and payload improvements – could reach the 32TW (replacing the older Mirage III/5s), expanding the multi-role fighter depth in quantity and quality.

However, there is concern regarding the PAF’s ability to cover enough of the EEZ and SLOCs. Highlighting the economic importance of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Gwadar, Tufail added:

“The need for guarding the maritime frontiers as well as enforcing the Exclusive Economic Zone assumes far greater importance than in the past. With China a key player in the changing dynamics of the region, big power rivalry is expected to heat up. It is in this context that Pakistan’s air power in the Arabian Sea needs to be revisited in earnest. This would entail fighter aircraft with a much greater range and patrol time, a very powerful anti-shipping and airborne intercept (AI) radar, and long-range supersonic attack weapons. Political constraints and threat of recurring sanctions all but rule out the Western fighters and leave only the Su-35 as a possible choice for the interim period until a stealthy fifth generation fighter becomes available to the PAF.”

Quwa Premium’s article on the FC-31 discusses the value of a larger fighter in detail. [6] A relevant summary is as follows: a larger fighter would enable the PAF to maintain a credible presence offshore through long-range and long-haul sorties. In addition, the increase of payload and carriage ensures a greater ordnance load along with higher-output electronics, such as longer-range phased-array radars. The latter translates into longer-range air-to-air and air-to-surface detection, tracking and engagement capability.

Practically, a larger fighter can maintain a presence at Pakistan’s EEZ edges for longer periods of time than the JF-17, providing the PN’s offshore activities much-needed air support. Currently, the PN’s surface ship plans do not include much (besides possibly three Type 054A frigates) in air defence capability, thus the PAF is greatly responsible for deterring and neutralizing aerial threats. The FC-31 appears to be the most plausible option, but the PAF is amenable to an existing and mature option if available and affordable. The PAF can use such aircraft to escort PN MPAs and the PAF AEW&C; deter IN MPA activity directed at PN submarines; and deploy sizable AShM loads at stand-off range at intruding surface warships.

However, Tufail cautioned and emphasized the reality of Pakistan’s fiscal constraints:

“Funding constraints are likely to put a limit of the numbers that can be procured. Setting up third and fourth line maintenance capabilities for a few of these fighters is unlikely to be a cost-effective proposition. New support infrastructure, including much bigger hardened shelters, would also add to the cost.”

Ultimately, the PAF would have to focus on maxing the JF-17 to its fullest potential in terms of maritime operations (until the PAF’s fifth-generation fighter comes to fruition). Tufail recommended the integration of supersonic AShM to the JF-17 to augment the C-802AK, which is a sub-sonic cruising missile.[7] The CM-400AKG – a quasi-ballistic missile – has been integrated to the JF-17, providing the PAF an option that leverages hypersonic speed and peculiar arc to penetrate naval air defence systems.[8] Tufail noted, “Even a mix of the C-802 and CM-400AKG can force a significant change in adversary operational employment of [India’s] naval resources”.[9] However, in connection to a larger aircraft, the deployment of a supersonic-cruising AShM such as the CM-302 would boost the deterrence factor, not least from a high-speed sea-skimming missile, but – building upon Tufail’s point – mixing AShM to leverage different flight-profiles and, in turn, reduce predictability for missile interception.

[1] Press Release: “Pakistan Navy’s Operational Exercise RIBAT-2018”. 24 February 2018. URL: https://www.ispr.gov.pk/front/main.asp?o=t-press_release&cat=navy&date=2018/2/24 (Last Accessed: 04 March 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Impact of Pakistan’s Harba dual-AShM and LACM”. Quwa Premium. 09 January 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/01/09/the-impact-of-pakistans-harba-dual-ashm-and-lacm/

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Naval, PAF Chiefs witness exercise ‘Sea Spark’”. Associated Press of Pakistan (via Dawn). 10 November 2015. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1218748 (Last Accessed: 05 March 2018).

[6] “Analysis: The case for Pakistan procuring the FC-31 Gyrfalcon”. Quwa Premium. 14 December 2017. URL: https://quwa.org/2017/12/14/analysis-the-case-for-pakistan-procuring-the-fc-31-gyrfalcon/

[7] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan launches naval exercise as it aims to counter India, protect economy”. 01 March 2018. https://www.defensenews.com/training-sim/2018/02/27/pakistan-launches-naval-exercise-as-it-aims-to-counter-india-protect-economy/ (Last Accessed: 05 March 2018).

[8] “The JF-17’s air-launched rocket option (CM-400AKG)”. Quwa Premium. 23 February 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/02/23/the-jf-17s-air-launched-rocket-option-cm-400akg/

[9] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan launches naval exercise as it aims to counter India, protect economy”. 01 March 2018.

 

 

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