Columnist Cdr (Retd) MUHAMMAD AZAM KHAN writes about the recent naval exercise.

Pakistan’s higher military leadership has perennially suffered from miscalculations at an enormous cost to the nation. Operation Grand Slam, Gibraltor, 1971, Afghan crisis and the latest in the series being Kargil instalment are few glaring examples of our strategic misjudgement; a clear lack of understanding and poor higher direction of war. It only reminds one of the famous adage “War is too serious a business to be left to the Generals alone”. As if these military lapses were not enough, the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff (Operations) in a recent press briefing (Dawn February 22) has ruled out any possibility of a “blockade” of Karachi port by the I.N on “technical grounds” and termed it as an Indian political publicity ploy. If memory serves us right (since we are a nation bereft of any useful memory), in its final stages it was the “threat of blockade” that eventually pulled the curtains down on Kargil and the then able-minded Prime Minister dashed to Washington to receive the concluding bashing from our masters in the Oval office. With our economy precariously placed, volatile internal situation and geo-strategic environs favouring our adversary, not much efforts were required on part of I.N towards realisation of such an objective, had it been given a go ahead then. The Indian Naval Chief later, proudly and publicly verified such a claim. What “technicalities” are involved today in such a blockade being enforced by the indians one may ask? After all, P.N Ships taking refuge behind Churna island and other merchantman at Karachi anchorage some 30 years ago was an explicit display of such an enemy mission coming dangerously close to its accomplishment. If some seismic eruptions have lately changed the geography of Karachi and (or) our coastline has, of late, suffered a deformity with new topographic features emerging that may preclude such an Indian operation, it needs to be spelled out for public knowledge. In fact our coastal terrain (almost a straight line extending from Karachi to the mouth of Hormuz) naturally supports such an operation. Not much has come up in terms of surveillance capabilities along our coast either. On the contrary, given the Indian capability in this field (including Remote sensing satellites, A-50 Awacs and other platforms like TU 142 and TU 22-M maritime strike bombers), the upcoming Jinnah Naval Base at Ormara can only provide a limited “liberty of action” and nothing beyond. It is not an answer to the overpowering resilience that the adversary enjoys. Insofar air arm of P.N is concerned, the less said the better. The entire world witnessed the blatant fashion in which our Atlantique was shot out of the skies by the Indians while operating much within its own territorial precincts as also our helplessness to draw even remote international sympathy. Not only that, the tragic incident was an illustration of the serious gaps in our Air Defence capabilities as much as the poor response of PAF (Air Defence alerts) to any threats developing at short notice. Regardless of the nature of conflict, surveillance platforms, like the ones in PN inventory, will continually require air cover for their own protection. It may, therefore, be much beyond what was said in the press briefing by the Senior Naval officer conducting the exercise.

While our Armed Forces have come a long way from 1971, it needs to be remembered that in the absence of any meaningful air support the defence of Karachi, its strategic assets (port, harbour, associated facilities/infrastructure and traffic along our coast) as well as P.N. units (surface and surveillance platforms) would be as difficult as it would be easier for the I.N to enforce blockade in any conventional conflict; limited or otherwise. For reasons already well-known, PAF today is more vulnerable than any other time of its history. Its much talked about F-7P project has only been a subject of debate at premier military institutes of learning and other national forums, without achieving any cognizable headway thus far. The higher command of PAF has, many a times, remained non-committal in extending support to P.N units even during routine exercises. This was true during 1971 and may well be true in any future conflict. What, therefore, may come in the event of a full scale conventional war (where land forces shall require PAF support along the stretch of its entire border besides air Defence of VA’s / VP’s and other feverish activities that may pin down PAF heavily) is anybody’s guess. Offcourse Indians are not fool hardy to undertake any such adventures since we have already set the stage for our own funeral. As mentioned earlier, Pakistan’s inherent weaknesses including small coastline, insignificant strategic room to manoeuvre, limited war stamina, unfavourable geo-strategic environs coupled with fragile economic condition and above all breakdown of national cohesion is all that any foe can yearn for. Alas! we always forget the Clauswitzian dictum: “War is only an extension of policy by violent means”.

Our nuclear strategy that started as a way of countering what we considered was India’s overwhelming conventional military superiority is today caught on the horns of a dilemma. While nuclearisation may have satisfied conventional force imbalance to quite an extent, it has nonetheless undermined our strategic long term objective i.e. resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Our planners failed to appreciate that building nuclear weapons has virtually frozen the existing “territorial divisions” thereby impairing our pursuit of principal objective. The level of insurgency that we wish to maintain in IHK today may not be possible in view of the regional geo-political environs and the mounting pressure from the West which has concluded, beyond a shred of doubt, that the ongoing turmoil in Indian occupied Kashmir has its roots in Pakistan. It need not be stressed, that a nuclear deterrence in the hands of a “possessor” who lacks or does not display the requisite “will” to use the same is akin to a gun loaded with an expired ammunition kept safely in a holster. Such a notion, as displayed by Pakistan, was never more conspicuous in the global nuclear history than during the Kargil episode. In its aftermath, our “Strategy of brinkmanship” (highlighting dangers of nuclear escalation in South Asia) has also suffered a serious setback if not downright failure. While we may walk the edge of war (a dangerous path anyway), active hostilities or an actual war is something that we can ill afford. War has its own dynamics wherein the situation remains highly fluid and events may change rapidly to get out of control. What is anticipated may not come true.

The recent test firings of SM 40 and AM 39 missiles notwithstanding, nuclear missiles onboard conventional Subs shall require major modifications that are, today, certainly much beyond the reach of PN marine engineers who are still struggling to test the efficacy of the prototype equipment on the newly inducted Agosta 90-B subs. And in any case the restricted endurance of a conventional Sub armed with Nukes may pose more problems than can be envisaged at this stage, particularly if the conflict or pre-hostilities phase draws out. Perhaps, the most difficult task for any naval commander, therefore, would be the timing of the deployment of his Subs.

Too early may be self-defeating; too late may decimate the initiative. Such an analogy is more important in case our Subs are to be used for “Nuclear second strike”; a development that has a distinct possibility of unfolding in the dying stages of the conflict by which time these platforms may have reached the furthest limits of their endurance. During his press briefing, the Naval Commander himself visualized, nay, hypothesized an identical future conflict scenario with “prolong forward deployment of forces”. The time span of tension or the period preceding hostilities, during which the intended deployment of Subs and other units shall take place, cannot be determined easily. The actual cost involved in such a conversion programme of Subs, for which not much expertise is currently available in our docks/shipyards, may also be uncertain at this stage. Nonetheless, investing in unmanageable defence projects that can entail exorbitant finances at the altar of other urgent and vital defense needs may require much more than rhetoric. The 1970 vintage Daphne Subs in the PN outfit have already reached the edge of their useful life. Their replacement with the three newer Agostas may not be an answer to the formidable and upcoming Indian naval might, even if considered purely for defensive purposes.

In the emerging US policy towards South-Asia, India is likely to play a crucial role of policing and peacekeeping in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi is, meanwhile, convinced that Sea power is the linch pin for the achievement of its ambitious strategic goals including regional domination and power projection stretching from Hormuz to Malacca straits. Accordingly, IN today is at the cornerstone of the Indian defence policy planners and overriding investments in this arm continue at phenomenal pace. Small wonder then, the Indian Naval Chief in a recent interview to the Jane’s Defence weekly had following to say:

Quote “IN is a well trained and highly deployable force to deal with a nuclear conflict, capable of deploying its highly mobile strike forces to mount a multiple direction attack on enemy and also capable of meeting unpredictable and uncertain crises that India is likely to encounter in the emerging strategic environment”. Unquote

And as the gap between India’s strategic ambitions and capabilities continue to shrink rapidly, our defence planners need to think much beyond issuing press statements that are, primarily, meant to counter growing public concern about our military potential and ability to defend the nation. This concern has grown stronger by the day given the outcome of the past two major wars and increasing involvement of the Armed Forces in civilian affairs. One wonders if men in uniform are a solution to the current ills that plague the nation when, in the first place, they have not been able to distinguish themselves in their true occupation. All in all, PN can draw satisfaction in conducting a “reasonably good maritime exercise” at the termination of which a contemplated project was announced that may one day serve as a “nuclear second strike” platform; if at all it comes off the ground. As of now, the naval strategy may have worked well in bolstering the rapidly sagging national and military morale.