Pakistan’s Oversized Submarine Ambitions

Nawaz Sharif has promised a modernized submarine fleet. It’s unlikely to materialize.

Before his last term ended abruptly in a 1999 military coup, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dreamed that Pakistan would become an “Asian Tiger,” comparable with the rising economies of Southeast Asia.

Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari dashed those hopes: Islamabad is now US$58 billion in debt, and economic growth has slowed to a murmur. Nevertheless, Sharif has swept into power once again with an ambitious vision of Pakistan’s role in the world. “Undoubtedly, our foreign policy demands a brave revision” he told a national television audience in one of his first speeches as prime minister, without which Pakistan “could not become [one of the] Asian Tigers.”

That “brave revision” points in part to a robust naval modernization program, including a major push to revamp Pakistan’s fledgling submarine fleet. As a Muslim-majority country with a fully serviceable Navy (surface vessels, submarines and a naval air arm), the Pakistan Navy (PN) hopes to become “the guardian navy of the Gulf regions.” Haris Khan, a senior analyst at PakDef Military Consortium, an independent Tampa-based think tank, tells The Diplomat in an interview.

Pakistan’s desire for naval modernization is predicated on its sense of strategic position in the complex Indian Ocean region. “Pakistan needs and maintains a balanced navy that can and will play its role effectively and efficiently in the region.” Khan notes. The importance of that role is underscored by a stretch of maritime border at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman and the warm-water Gwadar Port, located just 250 miles from the Straits of Hormuz, a vital chokepoint through which 20 percent of global oil traffic passes daily.

Pakistan’s naval strategy is centered on a number of goals, such as deterring India, keeping sea lanes open to Pakistan’s Karachi port, and ensuring a “stable environment in the North Arabian Sea.” To that end, Sharif has promised that priority will be given to “critical projects,” including building and procuring new submarines and frigates, and constructing new naval bases at Turbat and Gwadar, Khan says. A large corps, with over 25,000 active personnel, including 3,000 Pakistani Marines and 1,000 Special Service Group members, gives Pakistan unique flexibility in conducting missions.

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“Pakistan’s naval acquisition strategy can be seen largely as being proactive and innovative.” Khan says. It will need to be, not only to accomplish a host of ambitious regional goals, but to upgrade a submarine fleet in vital need of repair, the crux of the elite forces within the Pakistani Navy. “Two are French DCNS Agosta-70 which are being upgraded and three are AIP powered Agosta 90Bs. Two of the Agosta -90B were built and assembled locally at Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW),” Khan says. The submarines are equipped with French and German torpedoes, French SM-39 missiles and American harpoon missiles.

Although Defense Minister Tanveer Hussain promised that “all necessary resources” would be provided to enhance the Navy in an interview with the Associated Press of Pakistan this summer, being proactive and innovative has historically gotten the aspiring tiger into serious financial trouble.

Sharif’s plan faces familiar pitfalls. Former President Pervez Musharraf’s ambitious Armed Forces Development Plan (AFDP) envisioned a US$15 billion retrofit of Pakistan’s military by 2015, expanding the submarine fleet from eight to twelve. Since 2008, GDP has stagnated with an average annual growth rate of 2.5 percent, and Sharif was even forced to borrow another US$5 billion in his first days in office in a bid to prevent widespread blackouts.

Already a 2008 IMF deal forced the government to abandon a multi-billion dollar deal with Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) for three U-214 submarines. A tentative US$6 billion deal with China to provide six diesel-electric submarines was also abandoned when Pakistan could not provide collateral. Although the plans are secret, with the Air Force’s AFDP shelved five years ago, “it would be safe to assume that Navy’s AFDP "had a “similar fate,” Khan says.

Pakistan’s domestic politics may present further complications for naval modernization. As noted above, lingering debt forced the government to agree to a fresh IMF bailout package, worth US$5.3 billion, in July. A recent suicide attack on a Christian church in Peshawar, which killed 73 people, underscored the difficulties Pakistan faces in quelling internal violence, even though Sharif has indicated a willingness to reach a settlement with the Pakistani Taliban. Although Pakistan faces other serious problems, including the worst energy crisis in its history, a school system in shambles and ongoing battles to control terrorism, losing control of the naval modernization drive could have precipitous consequences.

The Navy hopes that the creation of a nearly sixteen-ton fleet tanker will promote “greater self-reliance and the increased indigenization of defense equipment production,” Khan notes. But increased focus on that, and the establishment of the Naval Strategic Force Command (NSFC) under the care of the Strategic Planning Division (SPD)— the custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons—may leave conventional submarine programs starved for both attention and funding.

This would be consistent with Pakistan’s long-standing goal of acquiring a sea-based nuclear deterrent to pursue an ambitious maritime strategy. According to Khan, since 2001 the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) has been working on KPC-3, a project “to design and manufacture a miniaturized nuclear power plant for a submarine.” In the long term, that may help Pakistan do less with more. PAEC and the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) have been working on a miniaturized plutonium warhead, a naval version of the Babur land attack cruise missile, which will further enhance Pakistan’s deterrent capability.

But doing more with less will also require Pakistan to be more efficient with the money it has on hand. “Strategic management has been another focus for the PN.” Khan says, referring to Pakistan’s Navy. To enhance the quality of manpower and improve efficiency, the navy has commissioned a review of its entire organization, and will restructure it where it deems necessary. Sharif certainly has the vision to turn Pakistan’s navy around. Whether he has the willpower is another question.

Andrew Detsch is editorial assistant at The Diplomat.