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The Pakistan Navy Rises (Part 2): Naval Aviation

This is a continuation of Quwa’s series, the Pakistan Navy Rises.

In part-two, we highlight the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) plans to procure new aviation assets.

In an interview, the Navy’s Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi outlined that the PN intends to modernize across the board. New surface combatants and submarines are in the procurement pipeline, but details are beginning to emerge about aviation and support.


Confirming earlier reports, the CNS had stated that the PN wishes to procure a new long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMP). The CNS termed the P-3C as a LRMP, but the newly inducted ATR-72 as a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) – i.e. two different categories of aircraft.

In other words, additional ATR-72 MPAs are unlikely to be on the roadmap to supplant the P-3C, a new or different aircraft platform will be sought. However, few specifics are available about the intended type or configuration of the new LRMP, though one can imagine that Pakistan will value relative affordability.

The Saab Swordfish cannot be a factor as Saab has opted to stop marketing the platform. However, many of the Swordfish’s subsystems, including its main radar, electronic support measures (ESM), electro-optic and infrared (EO/IR) turret, are commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions.

In theory, Pakistan can look into a bespoke solution using a platform of its choice with those COTS systems. In fact, the PN’s ATR-72 MPA already uses the same radar, ESM, and EO/IR as the Swordfish; the challenge would be finding a larger and longer-ranged platform as well as compatible munitions

In this respect, Pakistan might have three major opportunities.

First, the LRMP necessitates a new special mission aircraft platform. The PN could look at pairing its needs with those of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and/or the Pakistan Army (PA).

The PAF’s Dassault Falco DA20-based electronic warfare (EW) aircraft are aging. The PN and PAF could use the same special mission aircraft platform for LRMP and EW needs, respectively. Likewise, the PA can add another ground surveillance aircraft (via a ground-facing synthetic aperture radar).

Pakistan can save on its long-term maintenance and support costs by standardizing the platform of special mission aircraft. It can further extend this to include VIP/VVIP aircraft as well.

Second, it can extend this standardization to industry development. In an interview with Aviation Week, Air Commodore Liaqat Ullah Iqbal suggested that Pakistan could become a hub for assembling single-aisle jet and turboprop aircraft. The former, if pursued, could fit with special mission aircraft.

Both the PAF and PN intend to support the domestic industry; standardization and linking the integration, testing, assembly, and possibly co-production would be major steps in that regard. This is a costly route, and that alone may dissuade the PAF and/or PN from linking special mission aircraft to the industry.

However, a joint PN, PAF, PA, Government of Pakistan, and private sector order for a single-aisle jet could trigger private sector interest in investing in the industry side of the equation. Their return-on-investment would come from the armed forces’ orders, though 20 aircraft is not enough for economies-of-scale.

Third, pool a joint-order with another country seeking a new LRMP. One option could be Turkey, and doing so could help with sharing integration and testing costs as well as production.

The CNS noted that the PN plans to procure unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). During IDEAS 2018, a Turkish Aerospace (TA) official confirmed to Quwa that the PN was in talks with TA for the Anka-S.

The likely outcome of such a deal (or, alternatively, signing onto Project Azm’s drone program) is boosting the PN’s maritime surveillance capabilities. Though an armed element might also be sought for use against asymmetrical threats. Be it enemy infiltration or non-state actors, a vast maritime space and shared coast is a vulnerability that can be exploited. UCAVs could let the PN maintain a lower-cost surveillance-net.

In terms of helicopters, the CNS stated that the PN plans to procure “modern multi-function helicopters.”

The PN’s most recent helicopter purchase was that of seven surplus Royal Navy Westland Sea King HAR3A and HC4 helicopters for search-and-rescue and troop transport, respectively; of these, only one HAR3A and two HC4 were earmarked for use, while two were sent  as-is and the final two stripped for spare parts.

While upgraded, the Sea Kings are not a new platform. With aging airframes and increasing scarcity in the way of spare parts and attrition replacements, the Sea Kings – and Alouette IIIs – will need to be replaced, though a specific timeline is as of yet unknown. However, it is on the PN’s roadmap.

In this sense, one can categorize the PN’s future helicopter plans into three domains:

  1. Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)
  2. Utility and Search-and-Rescue (SAR)
  3. Multi-Mission and Heavy Transport

The PN likely has its ASW needs settled through the Z-9EC, of which it already operates six aircraft for use onboard the F-22P frigate. That said, Leonardo is positioning the AW159 Wildcat. Despite its commonality with the T129 via the CTS800 turboshaft engine, it would be a redundant platform for the PN.

Currently, the mainstay of the PN’s utility and SAR fleet is the Alouette III.

During IDEAS 2018, Quwa was told by Turkish Aerospace that the PN was watching the progress of the T625 with interest. It is possible that the PN is interested in the T625 as a potential Alouette III successor.

However, it should be noted that the PAF chose to supplant its Alouette IIIs with the AW139. The PAF will also have Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) establish a depot-level maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility for the AW139. Like the Alouette III before it, the PN might look to standardize with the PAF on the utility and SAR platform through the AW139, which itself is a widely adopted and proven platform.

The final domain, i.e., multi-mission and heavy transport, would aim to replace the Sea King. Interestingly, Leonardo displayed the AW101 at IDEAS 2018, though it declined to comment regarding its activities with Pakistan. But with few analogous platforms on the market, the AW101 is a plausible candidate.

As with LRMPs, one route – though unlikely at this stage – is to collaborate with Turkey, but on TA’s own 10-ton general purpose helicopter. However, the PN itself does not need a large number of such aircraft, so a relatively high unit price could be offset by a comparatively manageable overall cost.

Given that the PN’s current pipeline is slated to materialize by the mid-2020s, the PN will need to push its helicopter procurement programs into motion before 2020. Considering how there will be more ships in the future, the goal will not be restricted to replacing old aircraft, but expanding the helicopter fleet.

This concludes part-two. In part-three (Tuesday, 15 January 2019), we will outline the PN’s plans for new support/auxiliary assets and its network-enabled warfare efforts.

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