Pakistan’s Security Concerns and the Navy

Columnist MALIK AYAZ HUSSAIN TIWANA discusses our naval defence.

With the development of sea ports at Gwadar, Ormara and expansion of facilities at Karachi and Port Qasim, Pakistan is on the threshold of becoming a major conduit for the trade and commerce as well as oil outlets for the Central Asian Republics. Pakistan’s own ninety-six percent of trade with the outside world is sea borne. In addition, the country is blessed, in the Arabian Sea, with a big Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is termed as the biggest province of Pakistan, with a huge potential in economic terms. Strategic international sea-lanes of communications, especially out of the Persian Gulf, pass very close to us. We have important interests in the Gulf states and a big Pakistani expatriate community, who need a strong link with their motherland. The sea could be separating communities and nations, but at times it may be the only link between them. These links and lines of communications must be safeguarded and defended. This can be done only by a strong Pakistan Navy, which must be balanced in all three dimensions i.e. surface, subsurface and the air, for mutual support. 

2. However, we the people belonging to a contiguous landmass, have failed to understand the sea, its advantages and its demands along with the dynamics of naval warfare. It is alarming to know that there are still some people, in and out of the decision making process, who would rather reduce the effectiveness of the Pakistan Navy to that of a Coast Guard. Their mindset seems to be the same as that of the Moghals, who neglected to secure their sea frontiers and failed to challenge the European encroachments in time. Haider Ali’s and Tipu Sultan’s subsequent efforts at redeeming the situation proved too late. Even in the heydays of united Pakistan (Pre 1971), the governments of the period did not comprehend the naval threat, did not take adequate measures to strengthen the navy and consequently lost the only link with our eastern wing. This was inspite of clear warnings, given a few years earlier, by the then chief of the naval staff, the upright Vice Admiral H.M.S. Chaudhry, one of the very few officers in Pakistan’s history (civil or military), to have resigned on a matter of principle at the altar of his convictions and military honour. If his proposals for a strong navy had been accepted and the Pakistan Air Force elements in the east beefed up, the military outcome (not the political outcome) of 1971, in the Eastern Theatre, might have been quite different. For all practical purposes, East Pakistan was, in fact an island in a sea of hostility. 

3. Credit must be given to the Hamoudur Rehman Commission Report and the government of Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which implemented some of its findings and recommendations. Over the years, Pakistan Navy’s operational capability has enhanced to levels where it could effectively prevent the Indian Navy from attempting a blockade (an act of war) of Karachi Port during the Kargil crises, when Indian troops were being squeezed in the mountains of Kashmir. In the present volatile situation, while the Indians have massed their troops on flimsy grounds, if they had noticed a weak spot in our naval defences, by now they would have started harassment of our shipping followed by arrests and a selective blockade. The fact that they have not adopted this dangerous course of action as yet is because they are aware of the terrible retribution that is likely to be meted out to them. Undeniably, this speaks volumes for the dedication, professionalism and ingenuity of Pakistan Navy’s men and officers, who, inspite of limited resources, have kept the enemy at bay. 

4. However, the adversary has also learned his lessons and has taken various technological measures to increase his offensive capability. This demands a reappraisal of the naval threat and our response to it. While India is trying to expand its navy for the projection of power far beyond her borders in order to achieve regional hegemony (the littoral states of the Indian Ocean better watch out), Pakistan’s aim is to achieve a reliable defensive capability. Navies being more capital intensive than the other services, Pakistan should not, and need not, try to match ship for ship or submarine for submarine. Instead it should go for acquiring the latest technologies. In future, the added responsibility of defending Gwadar and Ormara along with the Karachi Complex, would put additional burden on the scant resources of Pakistan Navy. 

5. It is imperative that we recognize the limitations of our naval forces and start remedial actions within our budgetary constraints. Naval warfare, like aerial warfare, is very technology intensive, therefore, apart from contracting for additional ships, submarines, helicopters and aircraft, we must upgrade the existing platforms with state of the art weapon systems and electronic warfare equipment to counter the enemy’s numerical superiority. In modern naval warfare better onboard weapon and electronic technology will be the dominant factor (like in aerial warfare) along with many other intangibles like training and morale.

6. Once a conflict starts, the duration of war could turn out to be a very unpredictable factor. Essential supplies, even for the war effort, could run out. Oil refineries could be bombed and refined petroleum products and other essential supplies would have to be brought in by sea. On the other hand, the Indians have a much bigger logistics stamina and the advantages of their eastern ports. To keep the Indian navy off balance, our naval forces must have offensive elements within an overall defensive strategy, something like our other two services, the army and the air force — a strategy of defensive offence. For this, the most appropriate naval weapon systems would be the missile-equipped submarines backed by long range maritime aircraft, which can take the battle deep into enemy waters. 

7. In any future conflict, Pakistan naval forces should be capable of selectively operating on India’s eastern seaboard, threatening its shipping and tieing down a portion of the Indian navy in the east. Also, Pakistan naval units should be adequately equipped to challenge and break any enemy blockade attempted away from the ranges of our Air Force cover. Till the development of long range intercontinental missiles by Pakistan, the only weapon system, which can give a global reach (if required) to Pakistani arms, is the nuclear missile-firing submarine. 

8. Missile boats would essentially remain in the defensive role because of their inability to operate in rough seas and endurance limitations. The role of capital ships like the frigates and destroyers has been a subject of much controversy. Although technology has certainly changed some of the traditional roles of naval platforms, we must remember that the surface ship (2000 tons and above) relates to the navy what the infantry relates to the army. It is the primary platform for sea control and most naval operations (not easily understood by ordinary mortals outside the profession) are intertwined with the (vulnerable) surface ship. In our environment, the role of frigates and destroyers would primarily be defensive, for escort and anti-submarine operations, unless the Strategic Command wants to use them, for the time being, as the launch platforms, to complete our “Nuclear Triad”, in which case they would be called upon to operate in an offensive role. However, due to the proximity of Indian Air Force airfields and the availability of an aircraft earlier (acquiring a second one from Russia), our surface units, especially destroyers/frigates would remain vulnerable to anti-ship missile attacks from Indian aircraft. Therefore, to ensure their defence, adequate air protection would have to be provided to them by the Pakistan Air Force, during critical phases of transition/battle. As it is, navies cannot function without air support. This would require very close coordination between the Pakistan Air Force and Pakistan Navy. This coordination would be most effective if it is backed by an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) system, to give sufficient reaction time to respond to enemy air attacks. This has become all the more important now because the Indian navy’s new carrier-borne aircraft have much bigger ranges than the earlier versions and while staying well outside our land based fighter bomber ranges, they could carry out effective air operations against our ships and other targets on land. 

9. We must take into account the effect of sea power upon the course of history, including our own short history, and relate it to the political, geographical, economic and psychological factors which are likely to influence the course of future events in our region. Due to technological advancements including nuclearization, changed geostrategic requirements and the lessons learnt in the past few decades, we need to revise our naval doctrine, ensuring that it fits within our Grand National and military strategic objectives. Here, we must remember that inspite of our supposedly enhanced geostrategic importance (for the time being), we cannot depend on foreign fleets to come to our rescue. As on land and in the air, we have to fight our sea battles ourselves and cannot let our naval battle-readiness deteriorate. Although the high cost of naval armaments (inspite of indigenization) makes them politically controversial, we should not allow “Technological outflanking” by the enemy. We must ensure that the past mistakes are not repeated and the navy is not hurled into battle without the requisite means. Constant upgradations and new acquisitions must be considered so that our sea frontiers remain secure. Any lapses would be at our own peril.