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The Quiet Rise of the Pakistan Navy (Part 1)

In September 2023, the Pakistan Navy (PN) gifted PNS Tariq – the lead ship of the Type 21s, it bought from the Royal Navy (RN) in the 1990s – to Falls of Cycle International. Not only did the handover mark the end to the service of the Tariq-class frigate, but it closed a chapter to one aspect of the PN’s past procurement efforts – relying on mothballed ships from the U.K. or U.S. Instead, it has embarked on an ambitious plan to both modernize and expand its surface fleet with new warships from China, Turkey, and the Netherlands – and, in time, will complement those with locally built original designs.

In 2020, then PN CNS, Admiral Zafar Mahmoud Abbasi, announced that the PN was embarking on its plan to both qualitatively modernize and quantitively expand its fleet. In fact, expansion was an important goal; Adm. Abbasi stated that the PN’s small surface fleet had “constrained (Pakistan’s) regional footprint and influence.” Thus, the PN aimed to expand its surface fleet to over 50 ships, of which 20-plus will be “major surface vessels” such as multi-mission frigates and corvettes.

Since then, the PN inducted four Tughril-class (Type 054A/P) frigates and the first of four Babur (MILGEM)-class anti-submarine warfare (ASW) corvettes. Both the Tughril-class and Babur-class are complete multi-mission platforms with anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-ship/surface warfare (AShW/ASuW), and anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities. Furthermore, both ship types are capable of supporting ASW helicopters.

In parallel, the PN also ordered a total of four offshore patrol vessels (OPV) from the Netherlands’ Damen Shipyards Group. The first batch of two Damen OPV 1900 ships were ordered in 2017 and commissioned in 2020 as the PNS Yarmouk and PNS Tabuk. The PN sought the OPVs to support a wide assortment of roles – i.e., combat search-and-rescue (CSAR), intelligence and surveillance, maritime security, and ASuW/AShW operations. However, the ASuW/AShW element will likely be activated in wartime; otherwise, the PN will likely use the OPVs as primarily patrol and sea-policing assets in peacetime.

In October 2020, then PN CNS, Adm. Abbasi, said that the PN was looking to acquire six additional OPVs of “larger tonnage,” and, shortly thereafter, signed a contract for two Damen OPV 2600-based ships. Like the OPV 1900s, the OPV 2600s are ASuW/AShW capable; however, unlike the OPV 1900s, the OPV 2600s are also equipped with an AAW system via a vertical launch system (VLS). The PN could potentially order up to four additional OPVs, thus giving it a total fleet of eight ships, six of them being multi-mission peace- and wartime assets via ASuW/AShW and AAW capabilities.

In addition to being a relatively affordable way to grow the surface fleet, the PN could begin leaning on its OPVs for coalition or multi-national efforts, like CTF-150 and CTF-151.

The remainder of the PN’s fleet expansion effort will likely center on the forthcoming Jinnah-class frigate, a joint-program with Turkey’s ASFAT. According to Karachi Shipyards & Engineering Works (KSEW), the new frigate has a displacement of 3,300 tons, length of 119 m, and breadth of 15 m.

The Jinnah-class frigate will be armed with anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM) in a 2×4 configuration, 16 VLS cells containing the MBDA Italy Albatros NG surface-to-air missile (SAM), a 76 mm main gun, an Aselsan Gökdeniz close-in-weapon-system (CIWS), main air and surface surveillance and targeting radar, and electronic support measures (ESM) system, among other subsystems.

The PN did not officially disclose how many Jinnah-class frigates it will procure, but reports peg the number at currently six ships. However, the Jinnah-class frigate is significant for the PN. Not only is it the first ship designed for the PN’s requirements from the ground up, but PN will be leaning on KSEW to construct them in a time and cost-efficient manner. For its part, KSEW expanded its capacity with a ship-lift-and-transfer system ordered in 2017; it has 30 in-land workstations with a load capacity of 7,300 tons.

Overall, the success of the Jinnah-class frigate is important on multiple levels. Not only is it a key piece of the PN’s surface fleet goals, but a pathway to maturing Pakistan’s shipbuilding at every step of the process – i.e., design, development, construction, integration, and testing. Localizing these steps will help the PN control costs by sourcing key inputs, such as steel, locally or – where necessary – overseas via competitive bidding. OEM-level knowledge of its platforms will also help the PN with upgrades and retrofits, freeing it from pressure or control from overseas contractors like Naval Group and others.

Building on the Jinnah-class frigate, the PN could produce a larger design in-house, especially as the Zulfiquar-class (F-22P) frigates age through the 2030s and 2040s. Or, alternatively, the PN could look to expand its surface fleet further.

The other leg of the PN’s fleet expansion effort centers on maritime security assets. The mainstay piece of this program are 20 new 38.8 m patrol boats, the first of which is due for delivery in January 2024. Designed in collaboration with Swiftships, KSEW started building the first patrol boat in October 2022.

With a length of 38.8 m, the new patrol boat likely has a displacement of 200 tons to 250 tons. According to Swiftships, it will be armed with a 30 mm Aselsan SMASH cannon, a 12.7 mm semi-automatic gun, two 12.77 manual guns, and 7.62 mm machine guns. It will have a top speed of 33 knots. The PN will use these boats for “force protection, maritime interdiction, maritime security operations, high-speed escort, coastal defense, surveillance, and search and rescue missions.”

From a quantitative standpoint, this is the PN’s largest single program. Though not as large or complex as the Jinnah-class frigate, this is still a complete asset within its role. Thus, it will be a test of KSEW’s efficiency and ability to scale, though a standardized design will help in reducing risks along the way.

It would be interesting to see if the PN creates a level of interoperability between the patrol boats and the larger OPVs, like the OPV 1900 and even the OPV 2600. Interestingly, the intended roles of the OPVs seem quite similar to the patrol boats, suggesting that the two platforms could be working together. The OPVs, for example, could carry a superior sensor suite (e.g., longer-ranged radars) and, in turn, provide the patrol boats with greater situational awareness. However, the patrol boats – by virtue of being numerous – could cover more area and, via data-link, potentially provide the OPVs with over-the-horizon awareness.

Being the larger ships, the OPVs would possess ASuW/AShW and AAW weapon systems, which the PN can use to provide coverage to the patrol boats. Thus, the PN could form task forces using the OPVs and patrol boats, with the former serving as command ships to coordinate certain types of operations, such as anti-piracy, counter-narcotics, anti-smuggling, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian and disaster relief.

However, at a broader level, the patrol boat project could give the PN more experience with designing and configuring smaller naval ships. It could leverage the experience to design a new series of fast attack missile boats, for example, and expand its anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) coverage.

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