With the support of the Chinese government, the Pakistan Navy (PN)’s strength has recently grown and is on a course to increase further still following the completion and delivery of four advanced warships currently under construction in Shanghai’s Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard. Pakistan’s new China-made naval frigates will be delivered through a bilateral arms agreement by 2021. The revamping of the naval warfare branch of Pakistan’s Armed Forces has captured a lot of attention; however, the acquisition of new and advanced warships will not affect Pakistan’s naval posture, not to mention the military balance between Pakistan and the military giant directly across its eastern border.
The new warships are Type 054A/Jiangkai II-class frigates. Carrying a $348 million price tag, they assume a variety of roles, including anti-ship, anti-submarine, and air defense operations. China has produced the frigate in large numbers, the export of which can potentially enhance the military capabilities of other countries able and willing to acquire them. Based on China’s current multirole frigates operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the Type 054A is capable of launching anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, thus equipping the PN with a set of new generation multimission vessels. With an operation range of some 8,000 nautical miles, its forthcoming units can operate at twice the range of the PN’s $750 million F-22P Zulfiquar-class guided missile frigates.
This is not the first time Pakistan has acquired warships from other nations. The majority of Pakistan’s major surface combatants and its submarine fleet were acquired from several European countries as well as China, Russia, and the United States. Vice Admiral Syed Arifullah Hussaini called the recent acquisition of two China-made warships a historic moment for Pakistan and its military forces. With the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) development project currently under way across much of Pakistan, the four new frigates are slated for security and defense purposes in and around the strategic deep-sea Gwadar port.
Although the Type 054A vessels are not much larger than India’s Talwar-class frigates, the newer and soon-to-be procured ships are more agile in combat. They are armed with Hong Qi 16 (HQ-16) medium-range surface-to-air missiles found on board frigates of the PLAN since 2008. The HQ-16 has a range of 50 kilometers and can surpass Mach 3. The Type 054A’s combat competencies also stem from its multiple-fire capacity.
Although the PN’s new military technology is a welcome replacement of its older units and military hardware, and can be regarded as an instant upgrade, much of India’s military technology exceeds the performance of the Type 054A, which remains limited in its development potential. The new replacement ships will be just that – replacement of the older assets of comparably poorer capabilities. Long-standing tensions have fueled Islamabad’s anxiety over Indian military might and possible aggression in strategic waters next to Pakistan.
As the PN relishes in the acquisition of a few new ships, India’s naval expansion and modernization proceeds with impressive force. Ranking seventh among the largest navies in the world, New Delhi boasts a maritime fleet of 295 ships (all types), including one aircraft carrier in service and another undergoing sea trials. Concerned with China’s growing maritime power, India’s extraordinary naval construction program continues apace. Back in 2008, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta stated that “[b]y 2022, we plan to have [a] 160-plus ship navy, including three aircraft carriers, 60 major combatants, including submarines, and close to 400 aircraft of different types. This will be a formidable three-dimensional force with satellite surveillance and networking to provide force multiplication.”
For decades, New Delhi has shown its unremitting commitment to naval expansion and modernization in an endeavor to retain its position as the leading military power in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Despite the sale of warships to Pakistan by a number a countries and Islamabad’s efforts to keep the PN in the 21st century, challenging Pakistan’s naval power disparity with India has become a near impossible task. Given that China’s ambitions to increase its naval strength and presence in the region has not gone unnoticed, Beijing will likely adhere to supplying military hardware to Pakistan in a strategic effort to offset the amplification of India’s navy today, and over the coming years and even decades.
Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Security Studies at the China Institute, University of Alberta. His research focuses on China’s global security and military roles, China’s political, economic, and (cyber)security policies as well as the rise of security architectures in Asia, robotic systems in international security, and technology and the future of warfare.
Tobias Burgers is a Doctoral candidate at the Otto-Suhr-Institute (Free University of Berlin) where he researches the rise and use of cyber and robotic systems in security relations, and the future of military conflict.