The formal induction of Agosta 90-B submarine (PNS Khalid) in the inventory of Pakistan Navy on Dec 21, 1999 heralds the service into a new era of technological advancement and submarine operations. With its ability to conduct sustained operations over prolong periods, the submarine has appreciably enhanced the reach of the Navy which hitherto remained questionable. The induction is significant since it comes at a time when Indian navy is not only engaged in modernizing its fleet but negotiating some feverish purchases from Russia in the form of latest and most advanced submarines. This is not to mention the plans to add new aircraft carrier, air defence ship as well as arming its Anti- submarine aircraft (TU 142m) with Supersonic anti-ship missiles (KH31A). The acquisition of a nuclear submarine by I.N. in near future for a second-strike capability also remains a distinct possibility. Such ambitious programme by I.N. is a clear manifestation of its declared policy of 'maritime diplomacy, robust forward presence and dominant manoeuvre'. The launching of Agosta, above all, remains important since P.N recently suffered serious setback with the loss of two aircraft (Atlantic & P3C) that were the mainstay of its anti-submarine and anti-surface operations.
It must be appreciated that the induction of long-range missiles and the terrain friction, over the years, has considerably changed the nature of conventional war on land in the sub- continent. Not only that, with some of the key strategic assets of both countries dispersed along respective coasts and adjoining areas it is likely that future major conflicts may take place at sea. Given the size and number of ports available, our eastern neighbour enjoys considerable liberty of action and advantage to facilitate sea transportation of strategic goods. Pakistan on the other hand is inherently handicapped with a small coastline besides single port. Some 35 million tons of cargo is handled annually at the country's only port at Karachi. The sea lines of communication emanating from Gulf, Red Sea and Far East provide from ordinary to strategic commodities for the country including the indispensable oil imports. An estimated 14 million tons of oil is lifted annually for domestic needs bulk of which is meant for energy sector. To ensure sustained supply an average of 3/4 tankers, each with a carrying capacity between 50,000-75,000 tons, are essentially needed to dock at Karachi every week.
The massive build-up by I.N has strategic implications that stretch from Persian Gulf to Malacca straits. It is meant to assure the United States that it can assume policing role in the region while maintaining an effective rein on China as well. Pakistan's exclusive economic zone extending 200 NM (24000 sq. km) contains a vast reservoir of resources most of which, hitherto, remains untapped. The port of Gwadar lies in close proximity to the Gulf from where 60% of the world oil supplies and some 35,000 ships traverse annually. The Sea Lines of Communication in our area of interest will thus continue to serve as strategically important highways in the coming century. A nation well aware of its strategic maritime interests and the economic benefits that can be accrued therefrom along with a potent and well-balanced Navy remains an assurance for a strong and prosperous Pakistan in the 21st century. Meanwhile P.N must remain mindful that the nation has paid for the purchase of Agosta submarines under conditions of virtual economic bankruptcy and abject poverty. It is, therefore, incumbent upon those who command, sail, maintain and run these lethal machines to prove worthy of the trust reposed in them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Commander (Retd) Muhammad Azam Khan P.N. was commissioned in the operations branch of Pakistan Navy in June 1976. During his career he served onboard Cruisers and Destroyers besides a host of other smaller craft including corvettes. While on secondment with U.A.E Navy he saw active action in Gulf War. Specialized in naval communications in 1983 and served as staff officer in Signals Dte NHQ. Also served as officer in charge P.N. Communication school between 1995/96. He is recipient of TI(M) and a graduate of the Armed Forces War Course 1997/98. He obtained release from the service in 1998.