Pakistan’s Naval Transformation: Dangerous Delusions, Soaring Ambitions
India’s maritime watchers have had much to talk about lately. A few days after it held a bilateral exercise with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) in the Northern Arabian Sea, the Pakistan Navy claimed its “anti-submarine” assets had prevented an Indian submarine from entering Pakistani waters. The military’s public relations wing announced that on November 14, antisubmarine units of the Pakistan Navy detected an Indian submarine close to the Pakistani territorial sea and promptly “drove it away.”The next day, India rejected Pakistan’s claim, terming it a “pack of blatant lies.”Even as New Delhi was coming to grips with the grave accusation, however, the media reported that Islamabad had invited the Chinese navy to join its own ships in securing Gwadar port, presumably against the threat of an Indian attack.
This delirium from Islamabad should not be a surprise. Since September this year, when the Indian Army carried out surgical strikes across the line of control in Kashmir, Pakistan’s naval commanders have been nervous about an Indian naval build-up in the Arabian Sea. In the aftermath of the latest cross border exchange of fire, as the Indian navy embarked on a series of combat exercises on its Western sea-front, -Pakistan has been expecting an escalation in maritime tensions. The Pakistan Navy’s claim of detecting an Indian submarine in Pakistani waters appears to be a manifestation of a deep-seated paranoia over an Indian naval encirclement of Karachi. Since 1971, when Indian missile boats carried out a daring attack on Pakistan’s premier maritime hub, destroying a significant portion of the naval fleet and harbor facilities, Pakistani admirals have feared another assault at their strategic nerve-center. With tensions and tempers running high, Pakistan’s naval headquarters is besieged with anxiety over the prospect of another blockade in its near-seas.
For Islamabad’s maritime analysts, however, raising the bogey of an Indian submarine in Pakistani waters is an effective way of projecting a robust front. Navies know well that the presence of a foreign submarine just outside their territorial waters is par-for-the-course during an operational stand-off with a rival force. India, however, has traditionally eschewed deploying submarines close to the Makran coast in a conscious bid to avoid an inadvertent skirmish, which could potentially spiral into a full-blown conflict. Both during the Kargil conflict (Operation Vijay in1999) and Operation Parakram (2001), it was the Indian surface fleet that laid siege at a considerable distance away from Pakistan’s littoral seas, not submarines. Besides, Pakistan now has a robust multi-tiered coastal defense grid— including shore based radars, coastal missile batteries (YJ-62s), air-reconnaissance (P-3Cs)/ strike aircraft (JF-17s with C-802 missiles),and even a coastal marine force which makes Indian submarine operations in the proximity of the Makran coast, an extremely risky proposition.
India’s maritime thinkers say that the Indian navy has never meant to use its undersea assets to aggressively bait Pakistan’s naval forces. To the contrary, the Indian approach has been confined to posturing in the Arabian Sea in times of political tension, limited to the use of its surface fleet for the purposes of deterrence. Pakistan’s naval commanders, however, realize that the image of an Indian submarine in Pakistani waters can be galvanizing force. It could (and perhaps, to a degree, did), unite the military behind a common objective: forestalling any Indian incursion into Pakistani waters. This is one reason why the Pakistan Navy, as part of its modernization plans, has chosen to emphasize submarine warfare and strategic deterrence. Serving and retired Pakistan Navy officers have in recent years raised the pitch for a stronger submarine force, including a nuclear deterrent at sea. Since October this year, when India operationalized a nuclear triad, reportedly commissioning its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, Pakistan’s maritime analysts are convinced that the strategic equilibrium in the western Indian Ocean has shifted decisively in India’s favor. Mohammad Azam Khan, the main author of the Pakistan’s new maritime strategy even believes that the Arihant has been active in waters close to Pakistan’s coast gathering operational information – an unreasonable claim, given that nuclear missile submarines are rarely ever used for tactical missions such as intelligence collection.
India’s Arihant, however, has become a good excuse for the Pakistan Navy to make a case for its own nuclear missile submarines. Pakistan’s maritime watchers now claim that the navy has been ready for a sea based nuclear weapon ever since the establishment of the naval nuclear authority in 2013.
While claims of an Indian submarine near Pakistani waters help in making a stronger case for a nuclear deterrent, Islamabad’s maritime establishment believes that the nautical deficit vis-à-vis India must ultimately be overcome through a strategic compact with China. There is wide-spread consensus in Pakistan that in order to protect its equities in the Western Indian Ocean, the Pakistan Navy must collaborate with China in containing growing Indian maritime influence. China has come to dominate Pakistan’s strategic imagination so much that at the inauguration the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) last week, the stand-out feature was the joint Pakistan Navy-PLAN exercise off the Makran coast. At a time when the Pakistani prime minister and army chief were attending a military drill close to the India-Pakistan border, many saw a joint Pakistan-China naval drill in the Arabian Sea as being deeply symbolic.
Beijing has yet to officially react to media reports of Islamabad’s bid to get a squadron of PLAN warships placed at Gwadar. However, an article in the Chinese state-controlled Global Times said that the benefits of Gwadar Port to the Chinese economy were limited, both on account of inadequate port capacity, as well as the economic and geographical infeasibility of a proposed pipeline to deliver oil and gas to western China. This suggests that even if the PLAN does deploy warships at Gwadar, it would a move aimed solely at assisting Pakistan’s maritime agencies in securing the near-littorals.
Oddly enough, Pakistan’s maritime plans do not figure prominently in New Delhi’s nautical calculus. India’s maritime analysts have a pronounced eastern bias and tend to focus excessively on the Chinese challenge in the Eastern Indian Ocean. While China’s plan to supply the Pakistan Navy with eight S-20 (export version of Type 39 and Type 41) submarines is often a subject of discussion, Indian observers seem surprisingly dispassionate about Pakistan’s naval build-up in Western sub-continental littorals.
New Delhi should be worried though. For one, China may already have begun construction of the first set of submarines for Pakistan, even as the infrastructure for building the remaining four at Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW) is being put in place. Given China’s track record of efficient delivery, these boats will likely enter service during the next decade. Not just on account of their sophisticated sensors and high-tech weaponry, but merely in terms of sheer numbers, the new submarineswould confer the Pakistan Navy with an edge over the Indian navy, tilting the tactical power-balance in favor of Pakistan.
Islamabad’s offer to Beijing for the PLAN to use Pakistan’s naval facilities in Gwadar further alters the strategic equation in the western Indian Ocean. After it opened a logistics base in Djibouti last year, China has been on the lookout for a suitable pretext to expand its naval presence in littoral-South Asia. Piracy off the coast of Somalia provided Beijing with an excuse to send submarines in the Indian Ocean, but the PLAN still wasn’t sure about basing warships in Pakistan. Beijing believed that even while it needs maritime bases in the Indian Ocean to protect its investments and infrastructure projects along the Maritime Silk Route (President Xi Jinping’s grand strategic initiative in the Indo-Pacific), a Chinese naval outpost on the Pakistan coast would be a bridge too far, confirming Indian fears of a Chinese “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean. Mindful of Indian objections, especially in the wake of the PLAN’s first maritime base in Djibouti, China then politely refused Pakistan’s suggestion. But the CPEC now has handed Beijing the perfect alibi to build a base in Gwadar, further skewing the strategic equilibrium in the regional littorals in China’s favor.
While the China-Pakistan maritime nexus is being proactively shaped by the Pakistan Navy, its wider maritime strategy has escaped scrutiny in New Delhi. Indian analysts believe that the Pakistan Navy still follows a “sea-denial” mode of operations in its near-seas, but there is some evidence to suggest that the operational template has changed overtime.
In recent years, the Pakistan Navy has embarked on an expansion of its maritime operational space. The development of new naval facilities at Ormara, Pasni, and Jiwani has provided the force with viable options for dispersing its assets. Alternate basing facilities away from Karachihave, in fact, acted as catalysts for a more assertive posture in Pakistan’s near-seas. Reports suggest that the ongoing revision of its maritime strategy is meant to introduce an aggressive streak in its naval operations. The presence of a joint Pakistan-China maritime squadron at Gwadar indicates that the Pakistan Navy is planning for a ‘limited sea-control” strategy in its near-littorals. Focused otherwise on the safety of sea lanes and the defense of the sovereign waters, the new maritime strategy is likely to advocate a more assertive posture to repel an Indian offensive.
As things stand, submarine operations and aerial surveillance are likely to constitute the mainstay of Pakistan’s emerging strategy at sea. But the land-attack cruise missiles and heavy torpedoes on the new submarines, as well Chinese catamaran Fast Attack Craft, all suggest the Pakistan Navy might also be developing a template for littoral operations in the Arabian Sea. The recent commissioning of a new VLF transmitter station in Sindh does indicate a shift towards prolonged submarine operations and a sea-control strategy in Pakistan’s near seas.
It is the prospect of a naval nuclear deterrent in Pakistan’s maritime strategy that has the gravest implications for India. In 2013, a sea-based version of the indigenously built nuclear capable Babur – cruise missile was developed for launch from the old Khalid class (Agosta 90B) submarines. With a stated policy of “first-use” of nuclear weapons against India, Pakistan does not really need a sea-based nuclear deterrent. The Pakistan Navy, however, wants strategic parity with India in the Western Indian Ocean. Its rhetoric of “Indian aggression” in Pakistani waters is meant solely to push fora second-strike capability, which Pakistani admirals believe will correct the prevailing strategic imbalance.
The advocacy of a sea-based deterrent also elevates the Pakistan Navy’s stature vis-à-vis the Pakistan Army, which traditionally dominates the security establishment. A sea-based nuclear option also gives senior naval officers greater leverage within the Pakistani security establishment. The Pakistan Navy’s power-driven aspirations, however, do not detract from the futility of what is essentially a risky and costly experiment. The combination of dangerous delusions, soaring ambitions and a fatal nuclear obsession could spark another round of strategic brinkmanship in South Asia, with disastrous consequences for regional security.
Abhijit Singh is Senior Fellow and Head of Maritime Policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. A former Indian naval officer, he has written extensively about India-Pakistan naval rivalry, and China’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean Region.