As the Pakistan Navy celebrates its anniversary on 8 September 2022, its political leadership in Islamabad will probably be weighed down by the continuing humanitarian support operations across the country. A third of Pakistan is underwater, and as per estimates by the Economist, at least half a million people have lost their homes in the deluge actuated by the heavy monsoons. Add to that the ongoing economic crisis in the country, leading to a sharp increase in fuel and food prices amidst a $1.1 billion IMF immediate disbursement. Challenging times indeed!
Amidst this chaos and the political instability, however, there is no denying that the Pakistan Navy has much to cheer for ‘come  September’ in the way it has grown and modernized in the last few years. Pakistan’s Navy, since its inception, was allocated lesser funding and resources when compared to the Pakistan Army, given its continental obsession across the 3,300-kilometer Radcliffe Line. It was consequently structured as a defensive force to protect the nation’s interests against seaborne aggression with dozen-odd ships armed with rudimentary systems.
Much has changed since then. Modernization plans in the last few years include the induction of more than 50 warships, 10 converted commercial jets (to replace its P3C aircraft in the maritime surveillance role), 20 indigenous gunboats, a fleet of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs and a project to develop an anti-surface ballistic missile with the capability to deliver advanced ordnance at extended ranges; both from the sea and over land. Said simply, the Pakistan Navy has come a long way.
That said, Pakistan Navy’s Achilles’ heel now, and for some time to come, will be the lack of full systems interoperability. Systems interoperability affects the speed of sensors to detect, decision makers to decide, and naval commanders to initiate operations. The argument is straightforward: Pakistan Navy’s modernization and acquisition plans – in the air, sea, and underwater domain present three likely unsurmountable challenges.
After World War II, Admiral William F. Halsey stated, “A fleet is like a hand of cards at poker or bridge. You don’t see it as aces and kings and deuces. You see it as a hand, a unit. You see a fleet as a unit, not carriers, battleships, and destroyers. You don’t play individual cards; you play the hand.” Individual cards, then, won’t win Pakistan’s naval “game”.
The maritime environment is completely nonlinear, and threats can come from any dimension. “Finding the other guy” is vital, but being able to escape detection while doing so is equally important. Pakistan Navy’s sensing and shooting systems have undergone enormous changes over the past forty years.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pakistan received the P-3C Orion maritime patrol platforms from the United States of America (USA), and then the Harpoon anti-ship missiles for the Hashmat-class (Agosta 70) submarines, again from the Americans. Since the turn of the century, however, new Pakistan Navy warships are only being acquired from China and Turkey; few being claimed to be made in the country. Among these are the four Tughril (Type 054A)-class frigates from China and four Babur (modified MILGEM)-class corvettes from an Istanbul-based shipyard in Turkey. In the underwater domain, Pakistan is set to acquire eight Yuan-class submarines from China commencing 2023.
It is an open question whether these disparate components of equipment (procured from multiple foreign nations; do not forget the Alamgir from the USA) can be made to work together efficiently by systems integration or whether disintegration will undermine the Pakistan Navy’s effectiveness. To illustrate a specific example, irrespective of how potent the Tughril is, if it is forced to act alone or protect numerous low-quality Turkish-built corvettes from destruction, she could offer limited resistance.
Jointness is a continuing weakness of the Pakistan Armed Forces. Much ink has been spilt to highlight the dominance and interference of the Pakistan Army in the overall political and bureaucratic environment. Obviously, not many in Pakistan are aware of the strong linkage that the 19th-century strategist Carl von Clausewitz had established between the statesman and military commander. Unequivocally categorizing War as an “instrument of policy” and a “branch of political activity”, he declared, “War does not have its own logic and purpose. The soldier must always be subordinate to the statesman; the conduct of War is the responsibility of the latter…” In Pakistan, the ‘tail (read the Army) wags the dog (the political establishment),’ which invariably leads to a lack of synergy when it comes to synchronizing war efforts. And yes, in conflict, this is a challenge!
Pakistan’s National Security Policy (NSP) was released on 14 January 2022. The policy places economic security at its core and urges the need to move away from the ‘traditional guns versus butter debate’ and the importance of ‘introspection coupled with a pragmatic approach that privileges national interests over emotive policy making.’ If the political establishment were to ‘walk the talk’ during these challenging times of economic crisis and natural calamity, the nation is more likely to invest in infrastructure, early-warning systems, and efficient channels for swift financial relief for the affected masses; the modernization plans for the Navy may have to wait. And this will directly impact the force structuring and readiness of the Navy.
Although the Pakistan Navy has made enormous strides recently, particularly in merging foreign and indigenous platforms, in times of conflict, the current Pakistan Navy could face a crippling capability mismatch between its Chinese and Turkish-built ships. The Navy must best focus on consolidating and improving its anti-access/ area denial capabilities which best align with its NSP. So, happy anniversary to the Pakistan Navy. Moreover, is it also combat-ready?
Not really! At best, “both shaken and not well stirred.”
Capt. DK Sharma (Retd)