Pakistan’s Small Navy Packs A Punch

To understand the strength of the Pakistan Navy, it is necessary to delve beneath its surface. Brian Cloughley examines a service that is small compared with that of its Indian neighbour and greatest perceived threat.

Pakistan’s coastline stretches 1,046km from the Iranian border in the northwest to the Rann of Kutch, abutting India in the southeast. It is sparsely populated with the exception of Karachi, the country’s main port and commercial centre (population 15 million). The smaller harbour of Port Qasim, 60 miles to the south, was built to reduce congestion in Karachi and has largely succeeded in spite of initial silting problems and incompetence at lower levels of project management.

Given Pakistan’s poor land communications to the west, and little if any land traffic with India, Karachi and Port Qasim are the only facilities for Pakistan’s foreign bulk trade, and both operate efficient purpose-built container terminals.

Karachi is the main warship base, Qasim being too shallow and even closer to the border with India. Integrity of these ports is essential if Pakistan is not to succumb to economic strangulation in time of war. Two other naval facilities are being improved and built at Gwadar (PNS Akram) and Ormara (PNS Ahsan) but the majority of the fleet will continue to be based at Karachi.

Pakistan considers its main threat to be India, and in that context the tasks of the Pakistan Navy (PN) are to:

defend coastal waters and offshore economic resources; and
secure sea lines of communication and protect the merchant fleet.

The PN is small, consisting of a handful of surface combatants and a limited but increasingly effective diesel-electric submarine (SSK) force. The Naval Air Wing operates helicopters and land-based maritime aircraft including Breguet Atlantic 1s and Lockheed Martin P-3C Orions. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) operates a number of dedicated maritime surveillance aircraft including: 12 Mirage Vs and five F27-200s.

Naval HQ is in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad and follows a conventional structure. The Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Abdul Aziz Mirza, appointed in October 1999 and a graduate of the French War College, exercises command through the Karachi-based fleet commander (COMPAK, PNS Haider), logistics commander (COMLOG, PNS Peshawar), commander Karachi (COMKAR, PNS Dilawar) and commander North (COMNOR), who is responsible for administration, personnel and facilities in northern Pakistan. COMKAR is responsible for training establishments, including the Naval Academy (PNS Rahbar) and Engineering College. The fleet’s tactical school is subordinate to COMPAK.

Pakistan’s overall nuclear doctrine is embryonic, and there is as yet no concept of operations for the navy in nuclear war. However, major combatants are equipped to operate in an NBC environment. Underground command and control installations are equipped with VLF/ELF link facilities and are hardened against nuclear attack.

The Threat

The primary concern of the PN is the potential damage that could be caused by mining the approaches to Karachi/Port Qasim during war or conflict escalation. While it is improbable that the Indian Navy (IN) would seek to lay siege to the coast, Pakistan believes that covert action, including inshore mine-laying (including air-dropped mines), could threaten critical sea lines of communications (SLOCs). India’s initial objective prior to or during any conflict would be to blockade Pakistan’s fleet in Karachi. As a result, accurate national intelligence gathering, maritime strike and mine- countermeasures are of prime importance to the PN.

India’s lack of a credible seaborne attack aircraft capability (the IN only has one carrier, INS Viraat, which is in refit and will be unavailable until mid-2001 at the earliest) is a key factor in the PN’s essentially defensive surface posture. However, the impending addition of the 44,900-ton Russian-built aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, may shift the balance, if not for some years. India will purchase the ex-Russian carrier for its ‘scrap value’ but will pay for the repair and modernisation; details have still to be finalised with a contract. Russia’s Nevskoye Project Design Bureau (PKB) will convert the Admiral Gorshkov to accommodate short take-off but arrested recovery operations (see JNI, January/February 2000, p17).

In addition to the carrier, a deal was also struck for the supply of one carrier-borne fighter aircraft group of MiG-29K (Type 9-17K) strike aircraft from the Mikoyan design bureau. This brings the overall cost of the deal to US$1.8 billion. There is hangar space for 34 aircraft. The IN’s extant fixed-wing strike capability comprises 19 Sea Harrier Mk 51 short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) aircraft.

INS Viraat features a 47-year-old hull, and is likely to be scrapped before 2010 when an ‘air defence ship’ (to be laid down in mid-2001, according to CINC Western Command, Adm Madhavendra Singh) might enter service.

The remainder of the surface fleet is a mix of 25 Indian- and Russian-built vessels of varying degrees of capability, for which replacements and modest additions are planned. It is expected that the number of DDGs/FFGs/FFs will not change dramatically in the next decade. Almost all weapons systems are Russian in origin. Indigenous development of several missile systems is taking place, but India is far from production of any type of submarine-launched cruise or ballistic missiles. The indigenously produced Trishul surface-to-air (SAM) missile is said to have performed poorly during tests last January. India has equipped two of its Sindhughosh-class (Kilo- class; Type 877EKM) with the latest Russian submarine-launched version of the Novator 3M-54E1 anti-ship missile (see JNI, December 1999, p24). Two more vessles are being “fitted for but not with” this missile.

The IN has 17 submarines, including nine Sindhughosh-class and four Shishumar-class (Type 209/1500) SSKs. From January 1988 to 1991, the IN leased an ex-Soviet Charlie-class nuclear-powered submarine as part of its ongoing programme to develop a nuclear submarine capability, designated the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV). The IN’s Defence and Research Development Organisation has run the programme since its inception in the mid-1980s. Work on the ATV is carried out at facilities in Delhi, Hyderabad, Vishakapatnam, Kalpakkam, as well as the new naval base being built at Karwar (Project Seabird). In spite of taking money from all other naval programmes, the future of the ATV project is in doubt. Negotiations are under way concerning the acquisition of three next-generation Amur-class SSKs from Russia. Two are to be built at Mazagon Docks (Mumbai) under licence (see JNI, Jan/Feb 2000, p10-11), and may be modified 209s (Shishumar class).

The IN has three maritime reconnaissance squadrons capable of monitoring its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ, together with Coast Guard patrols) and the entire Indian Ocean as far as the coasts of Western Australia and South Africa. It operates 11 Tu-142M and over 40 other maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), but serviceability of the former and the eight Il-38s is causing difficulties. There is a basic but effective satellite (IRS-1C, launched 1995) reconnaissance capability, and western sources indicate there may be provision, although not real-time, of Russian satellite imagery and intelligence. Research into communications, especially underwater acoustics and oceanography specifically related to submarine operations, takes place mainly at laboratories in Goa and Cochin.

Given India’s vast maritime responsibilities, offshore resources and an EEZ of over two million km, its fleet is barely adequate to simultaneously contain or neutralise the PN, defend critical SLOCs and maintain surveillance over any hostile Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) presence. India is acutely aware of Chinese naval developments. However, the recent period of extreme hostilities with Pakistan in May-June 1999 demonstrated that involvement of the PLAN was an unlikely contingency. As a result, the IN moved several ships to the west from its Eastern Fleet (HQ, Visakhapatnam) to bolster the Western Fleet (HQ, Bombay).

According to one Indian source, it was calculated that redeployment from the west would have been practicable in the event of Chinese movement, of which at least 10 days’ notice would have been obtained. The reaction is considered to have been ‘unnecessary’, according to a senior western naval officer, as were the trials of Harrier VTOL from a merchant ship, and movement of two frigates and a destroyer to the south-west of Karachi.

The IN’s high-profile reaction to events in the disputed territory of Kashmir in mid-1999 is thought to have been spurred by budget allocation fears on the part of senior officers rather than by realistic tactical considerations. India’s chief of naval staff (CNS), Adm Sushil Kumar, stated that the PN was on ‘red alert’ (there is no such readiness state) and that he “would not rule out help to [the] Pakistan Navy by its neighbours.” According to the PN, the IN’s manoeuvres demonstrated problems in quantity, mix and logistics of fleet units. Pakistan Navy HQ also officially rejected the notion that any neighbouring country had agreement with Pakistan for maritime co-operation in time of war, although it confirmed that three frigates had put to sea, and that a ‘normal’ level of aerial reconnaissance patrols had been maintained.

India’s threat to Pakistan is significant, but it is unlikely that numbers of IN warships will increase in the next decade. Budget difficulties will also preclude engagement in more ambitious programmes than presently exist.


The PN would be outmatched if the IN could concentrate all its efforts against Pakistan. Most western intelligence assessments indicate that a PLAN threat to India is unlikely in the event of another India-Pakistan conflict. However, a potential Sino-Indian conflict could impact the strategic balance if China and India have a major confrontation over ongoing border disputes. Were concurrent hostilities or escalation to occur with both China and Pakistan, the IN would not be able to track PLAN submarines and engage Pakistan’s surface and submarine fleets, protect offshore oil/gas facilities or blockade Karachi/Port Qasim.

In spite of political considerations in India concerning China’s military posture, and a desire on the part of the navy to emphasise a ‘China-threat’ (aided for some time by defence minister George Fernandes, whose enthusiasm for such a stance appears to have declined in 1999-2000), it is apparent that almost the entire Indian fleet would be directed against Pakistan, should all-out war take place. Pakistan’s tactical doctrine includes:

demining Karachi harbour under intensive local air defence;
maritime attacks by Karachi-based Mirage aircraft out to 500km;
possible deployment of aircraft and support ships to friendly facilities;
use of the surface fleet to escort neutral shipping in vital SLOCs;
offshore protection against Indian commando incursions from the sea; and

attacks on Indian sea-based and shoreline facilities by commando and special forces groups, involving insertion by conventional submarine, offshore helicopter drop and, especially, midget submarine and swimmer delivery vehicles. In a conventional war between India and Pakistan, which is thought would last only three to four weeks, Pakistan’s submarines would be used aggressively throughout the region.

Surface Combatants

From 1989 to 1994 the PN operated four Brooke- and four US-leased Garcia-class, single-screw frigates that served as valuable training ships but could not be regarded as effective fighting units. Following examination (as required by a Congressional Amendment) and determination by the US that Pakistan was involved in a nuclear weapons programme, the frigates were withdrawn (and scrapped) at the end of the initial lease period. Considerable quantities of stores and ancillary equipment were left in Karachi. Three Alamgir-class (ex-US Gearing-class) destroyers remained in service for a further two years before decommissioning.

Main surface combatants include six Tariq-class (ex-UK Amazon-class) FFGs and two obsolete Shamsher-class (ex-UK Leander) frigates. Pakistan purchased the Tariqs, which are being extensively upgraded, under very favourable conditions in 1993-94. The ships were regarded as ‘second eleven’ by the UK Royal Navy, but in spite of some shortcomings (aluminium superstructure, austere crew accommodations and vibration), are considered adequate.


The PN’s submarine force is its most potent asset. The introduction of three French-built Khalid-class (Agosta 90B) SSKs to the fleet presents a more significant threat to the IN. It is expected that the four Hangor-class (Daphne-class) SSKs, which were launched between 1968-1970, will be decommissioned sequentially, with the final boat leaving operational service within five years. By that time the PN will have three Khalid- and two Hashmat-class SSKs (older but effective Agostas), which will be homeported at the new purpose-built base at Ormara. The new facility can accept vessels alongside but infrastructure for more extensive use has yet to be completed, as has the coast road linking Karachi, Ormara and Gwadar.

In 1993 a foreign chief of naval staff visiting Pakistan advised his counterpart to examine carefully the air-independent propulsion (AIP) option in whatever submarine might be ordered by the PN. For various reasons the visiting admiral argued that AIP was largely untested, and that expense of its development by France (as a French submarine appeared to be the front-runner), would undoubtedly be met by increased costs to Pakistan.

There were submarines in service, said the admiral, that did not have AIP and yet were almost undetectable. Further, these submarines were cheap, with a training package and ancillaries provided, not to mention a generous and guaranteed supply of armaments. There were, he said, other submarines under construction, of the most advanced type, for which AIP might possibly be considered for a mid-life upgrade in 2015.

During recent trials held at an acoustic test range, various devices had failed to detect a particular submarine and it had been thought, erroneously, that the system was not functioning. The argument was persuasive, so far as could be gauged by an observer present during the meeting. However, Pakistan placed a US$950 million order for three Agosta 90B-class submarines with Direction des Constructions Navales International (DCNI), the second and third of which will be fitted with the MESMA AIP system.

The intriguing point is that the visiting CNS was from Australia, whose Collins-class submarines are suffering from an array of well documented design and system faults, including inadequate combat system performance, high radiated noise levels and cracked propeller blades.

Following an investigation into the terms of the submarine contract, Admiral Mansur-ul-Haque was dismissed on 24 April 1997. A commodore and captain involved in the programme were subsequently handed prison sentences on corruption charges in November 1998.

Pakistan’s submariners are highly regarded by foreign experts. Their training on the new Agosta-class SSKs is said to have been not only comprehensive, but most demanding, as was the training of 150 technicians involved in the construction programme. The chairman of France’s DCNI, retired Vice Adm Castellan, said that “full support” would be given to Pakistan in completing the trio of vessels. The first boat, PNS Khalid (S137), was built in Cherbourg.

Vice Adm Castellan’s statement was echoed by Rear Adm Baudonniere, commander of Toulon’s naval base, who said that the French Navy would “continue to extend all possible co-operation in the operational functioning of the PN submarine force.” The crew of PNS Khalid (36 plus reserves) was trained in France, and will in turn train the crews of the next two vessels. The second unit was laid down for modular assembly in the Pakistan Navy Dockyard in Karachi on 2 December 1999, and is scheduled for launch by March 2001 and commissioning a year later.

The third Khalid-class boat, with a projected launch date of 2002, will also be built in Pakistan. Unlike Australia’s Collins-class programme, the PN did not insist on extensive alterations from an effective design. Modifications have been made in order to accommodate the Sub-Harpoon rather than Exocet. At one stage of negotiations, it appeared that France would refuse to agree to the contract unless Exocet was the chosen weapons system.

Several PN senior officers were trained in France (or spent time there on projects), and links with their French counterparts are strong. Apparently, it was the involvement of senior French officers, including Adm Castellan and Adm Baudonniere, which resulted in the departure of PNS Khalid November 1999. France had prevented the vessel from leaving on 21 October following the dismissal of the corrupt Pakistani government by the army 10 days prior. However, the value of the France-Pakistan defence relationship was considered too important to be sacrificed for political reasons. Concurrently, 12 rebuilt ex-Libyan Mirage 5 aircraft were released to the PAF. PNS Khalid arrived in Karachi on 16 December 1999 and is now operational.

The Agosta 90B’s systems are integrated and monitored/controlled from six twin, multifunction consoles. The six consoles are interdependent and their links with weapons control, ESM and navigation systems are said to be not only advanced but comparatively simple in display and operation. The class’ standard 350nm submerged range could be extended to 2000nm at 3.5kt by the addition of AIP. PNS Khalid may be retrofitted with AIP in due course.

Mine Countermeasures

The PN operates three Munsif-class (French eridan-class) minehunters, the first of which (PNS Munsif) transferred from the French Navy in 1992 following active service in the Persian Gulf in 1991. PNS Muhafiz, second-of-class, was built in France, and PNS Mujahid was assembled in Karachi and commissioned in 1997. The three vessels are equipped with proven detection and sweeping/neutralisation systems, but will be stretched to adequately sweep Karachi and Port Qasim in the event of hostilities. The PN requires at least two more MCM vessels, but financial constraints preclude early acquisition.

Naval Aviation

The Naval Air Wing’s three squadrons (29, 111, 333) plus 8 Sqn PAF (Mirage) can conduct reconnaissance, surveillance, ASW, EW, tactical direction and strike missions in the northern Arabian Sea. The single naval air station, PNS Mehran, is collocated with the PAF facility at Sharia Faisal, Karachi. Economic benefits from this grouping in servicing, training and operating costs are significant.

The Wing suffered a setback in August 1999 when two Indian MiG fighters shot down an Atlantique aircraft. This was followed by the loss of a P-3C Orion during a training accident. This aircraft is unlikely to be replaced in the short term due to the open-ended embargo placed by the US on defence supplies to Pakistan since the dismissal of the civilian government in October.

Negotiations concerning an Atlantique replacement are continuing, but there are problems over finance. The remaining three Atlantiques and two Orions are armed with Exocet and Harpoon missiles respectively. The Sea Kings and Atlantiques can be armed with Exocet, the Orions with Harpoon. Pakistan claims that the Sea King Mk 45s also have an SAR (search and rescue) role in war and peace. The aircraft are now suffering from a shortage of spares becuase of the US boycott. Of five F27-200 maritime surveillance aircraft, three have had recent ESM/surveillance capability updates. (The PAF has two Falcon ECM/ELINT aircraft which have reportedly participated in joint exercises.)

In the past it would have been possible for the local (PAF) air defence commander to dictate tasking of PAF aircraft earmarked for fleet protection and maritime strike. This was unsatisfactory, and offensive air capability has been refined, especially in command and control, to ensure that there is dedication rather than operational control by the Navy of the Exocet-equipped Mirage aircraft. Air defence of Karachi and Port Qasim are regarded as ‘normal’ PAF tasks, with priority being fleet protection.

Helicopter ASW is not entirely satisfactory as the Tariq-class frigates operate only three Lynx and negotiations continue for supply of a further three, although the six shore-based Sea King Mk 45s have re-deployed quickly during exercises. The four Alouettes (SA-319B) are not armed, and are used for communications and reconnaissance.

Patrol And Missile Craft

The PN operates four ex-Chinese Huangfen-class fast attack craft (FAC) of doubtful operational capability. The new indigenously- designed and built Jalalat-class FACs (two in service, one building) provide a significant upgrade to the patrol force. It is difficult to envisage a situation in which these vessels, or the four inshore patrol craft, would contribute significantly in a combat role, but they have considerable value in training, especially on exercises and in development of junior officers and ratings.

The Naval Special Services Group (SSGN) of marines (numbering 1,000, including recruits) is responsible for conducting unconventional operations at sea and along the shoreline. The SSGN also plays a minor role in close protection of individuals and facilities. Most training, including all parachuting, is conducted in liaison with the army’s SSG at the School in Peshawar, but sea-specific training is carried out from the shore establishment, PNS Qasim, at Manora in Karachi.

Delivery or insertion of maritime special forces includes fixed- wing/helicopter low-level parachuting, light craft beaching and underwater conveyance, for which the navy operates at least three Cosmos Class MG110 miniature submarines (SSI) and some swimmer- delivery vehicles.

So far as can be judged from attendance at some training and observation of the deportment of many all ranks of the Group, it is a strong, well-trained and equipped force. It appears its major targets are not economic – offshore platforms and rigs are assessed as being less relevant to the outcome of a limited war. SSGN focus would be applied to major Indian naval facilities and especially ships at anchor. It is possible that Pakistan may manufacture SCEs for overseas markets.

Coastal Protection And Surveillance

Anti-smuggling tasks are undertaken by the Coast Guard (CG), a paramilitary element (HQ at Karachi) numbering 2,000 and grouped in three battalions distributed along the coast, excluding Karachi port. It is commanded by a brigadier and its officers are seconded from the army, with most soldiers being directly-recruited ex- regulars. The length of secondment in any one area is short, generally 12 months, as it is considered inadvisable to expose its members to the offer of large bribes (of mainly liquor) made by smugglers into Pakistan from the Gulf States. The CG operates about 30 small craft and its interaction with the navy-oriented Maritime Security Agency (MSA) is on occasions strained. It has a requirement for helicopters that has yet to be met.

The MSA is a an independent service of the armed forces but is commanded by a commodore and is reliant on the PN for manning and support. Officers serve on three-year attachments. The Agency is based in Karachi and has the tasks of:

protecting Pakistani fishermen and discouraging Indian fishermen, especially in the region of the Rann of Kutch where boundaries are disputed;

Policing The EEZ

search and Rescue in the maritime zone, in co-operation with the PN; and

Conservation Of Marine Life

The MSA flagship is the former PNS Tughril (Gearing-class destroyer), now MSS Nazim, is unarmed and is berthed in Karachi harbour. Active ships include four Barakt-class offshore patrol vessels and two old Shanghai II-class inshore patrol craft. More extensive EEZ surveillance is conducted by Britten-Norman Islander aircraft. The MSA is moderately effective in carrying out its tasks, but requires more assets to police Pakistan’s notoriously smuggler- friendly coast.

The Pakistan Navy is small but effective. It has the potential to make a major contribution to Pakistan’s defence should hostilities with India arise, and its modern and well-trained submarine force will act as a strong deterrent to hostile coastal deployment. It is unlikely that the navy’s requirements will be met in the current strategic environment – the cost of PN programmes must be balanced against PAF and army priorities. Consequently, it is likely that the PN will, once again, be low on the list of national defence imperatives.