Chief of the Pakistan Navy, Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi discusses how he is expanding the capabilities and operational outputs of his navy at a time of increasing strategic instability in Pakistan’s regions of interest.
Pakistan is developing a navy designed to be a multi-dimensional, balanced force configured to safeguard Pakistan’s maritime borders and maritime interests, and to contribute to wider regional maritime security. In the context of Pakistan’s geo-strategic position in the Indian Ocean, including its close proximity to the Gulf region, the Pakistan Navy (PN) plays an important role in supporting regional stability and in ensuring free movement at sea, including through participation in international constructs such as the US Navy (USN)-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), and also through its own Regional Maritime Security Patrol (RMSP) initiative. The PN is also continuing to transform its roles and capabilities as a regional naval power, as the Indian Ocean region’s strategic realities continue to change.
Changes in the regional security balance and more widely around the world are an area of continuing focus for the PN’s senior leadership. “In my assessment, the global environment is in a state of flux and is characterised by growing competition of interests, which is having deep impact on the maritime domain,” Pakistan’s Chief of Navy, Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, told Armada International.
As regards the major security challenges affecting Pakistan’s national interests as well as regional security more widely, Adm Abbasi stated: “In our immediate neighbourhood, the long-drawn instability in Afghanistan simmers and continues to impinge upon regional security.” Tensions between India and Pakistan have peaked again in recent times, especially over the Kashmir region. As regards naval capability, he said, the Indian Navy’s development of a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN)-based long-range nuclear weapons capability has also impacted the region’s strategic balance.
In addition, Adm Abbasi pointed to a number of other strategic challenges affecting the security balance in the Indian Ocean region from Pakistan’s perspective. “On our Western flank, the US-Iran stand-off is manifesting into a precarious situation for shipping plying international sea lines of communication (SLOCs)…(and) the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria are also impacting regional maritime security. The access to shore-based missiles and remotely operated vehicles for the warring groups [in Yemen] is a particularly serious threat to SLOCs transiting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden,” said Adm Abbasi. Closer to home for Pakistan, “attacks on motor vessels in the Gulf of Oman clearly demonstrate the seriousness of the prevailing threat,” he added.
“Ongoing conflicts in Pakistan’s extended neighbourhood have resulted in threats of maritime terrorism, piracy, narcotics trafficking, and human and weapons smuggling,” said Adm Abbasi. “In a nutshell, threats to our maritime security range from traditional to non-traditional, with an ominous mix of hybrid ones.”
Set against this security context, the importance of Pakistan’s maritime geo-strategic position is clear, and the PN plays a key role in contributing to Pakistan’s national defence and coastal security. Pakistan is located at the confluence of vital energy SLOCs, commented Adm Abbasi. “Our trade substantially depends on sea routes, and nearly all our oil imports are seaborne.” Pakistan’s growing port at Gwadar – what the admiral referred to as “a new addition to our maritime canvas” – is located close to the Gulf of Oman. Moreover, said Adm Abbasi, Gwadar “will act as a lynchpin for the on-going China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) [and] will serve as a transit port for Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan, which would contribute significantly to the prosperity of our region.”
“The PN’s core tasks are to ensure seaward defence of Pakistan, protect its vital sea routes, and safeguard the country’s maritime interests,” Adm Abbasi explained. “The PN is a well-balanced force, fully capable and prepared to cope with the entire spectrum of non-traditional and sub-conventional challenges.”
As part of a first layer in Pakistan’s seaward defences, “In order to enhance vigilance along the coast and to respond to any emerging threat, the PN has established the Coastal Security and Harbour Defence Force,” said Adm Abbasi. The force comprises a network of security stations, equipped with radars, electro-optic sensors, automatic identification systems (AIS), and response elements to monitor and generate timely responses. This force was established in 2015: with around 30 stations now in place, it is designed to provide continuous coastal coverage.
There are other layers to such defences. “We understand that prevention of maritime terrorism requires round-the-clock monitoring and co-ordinated efforts in order to sever its links with trans-national crime. In this regard, the PN established the Joint Maritime Information and Co-ordination Centre (JMICC) at Karachi, in 2012,” Adm Abbasi explained. “The JMICC aims to harness the efforts of all relevant national agencies and international stakeholders to bolster maritime security. It is growing steadily and has developed links with 48 national and seven international organisations to date, sharing information and co-ordinating efforts to augment maritime safety and security.”
“The PN has also been participating in regional and international initiatives for maintaining maritime order and freedom of navigation on the high seas,” the chief said. “The PN’s continuous participation in CMF since its inception is testimony to our commitment to international obligations in ensuring collaborative maritime security and the uninterrupted flow of maritime trade.” “In the same spirit,” he continued, “we have been participating in various international fora, multinational exercises, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts, and have undertaken non-combatant evacuation of stranded foreign and Pakistani nationals from conflict zones, such as Yemen.”
CMF itself is made up of three separate task forces. Combined Task Force (CTF)-150 provides counter-terrorism and wider maritime security capacity across the Northern Indian Ocean from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman. CTF-151 covers piracy and armed robbery at sea, particularly in the Horn of Africa region but also more widely across the Indian Ocean. CTF-152 aims to deliver maritime and wider theatre security in and around the Gulf region.
Adm Abbasi illustrated the PN’s contribution to CMF. The PN joined CTF-150 in 2004 (taking command on 11 occasions to date) and CTF-151 in 2009 (commanding the force eight times, overall). “So far, over 100 PN ships in rotation with embarked helicopters have participated in CTF-150 and CTF-151 patrols and operations,” said Adm Abbasi. “As part of these deployments, PN ships have intercepted and denied numerous narcotics and other contraband shipments. During [these] deployments, PN ships – in line with national commitments and international obligations – have provided humanitarian assistance to stranded fisherman and ships, irrespective of their nationality.”
Alongside contributing to CMF at the international level, the PN’s role in supporting Pakistan’s national maritime security objectives is demonstrated in the RMSP initiative. Launched in 2018 and designed to protect Pakistan’s national interests in the Indian Ocean and also support its international obligations, “RMSP is focused on establishing maritime patrols along critical sea areas and choke points in the Indian Ocean region to augment maritime security and contribute to freedom of navigation,” the admiral explained. “These patrols have been established along three important axes, including the Horn of Africa, the Northern Arabian Sea, and the Central Indian Ocean.” Another important objective for the RMSP, he added, is fostering partnerships and enhancing interoperability with other regional countries.
Multinational Maritime Security
Such interoperability with regional countries is demonstrated in the PN’s ‘AMAN’ biennial series of multinational maritime exercises, which has been underway since 2007. In discussing how other regional and international partners are responding to the opportunity to engage with the PN in such a series, Adm Abbasi reiterated that “One of the key responsibilities of the PN is to ensure security of our sea routes and contribute towards uninterrupted maritime trade through our region, in league with other navies. We have therefore actively participated in maritime security and counter-piracy operations along with partner navies.” In this context, he continued, the PN decided in 2007 to expand its relations with other navies by instituting the ‘AMAN’ series.
“’AMAN’”, an Urdu word, literally means peace,” Adm Abbasi explained. “The purpose of these multinational exercises is to engage our partners, promote co-operation, and enhance interoperability between regional and extra-regional navies operating in the Indian Ocean region.” “Exercise ‘AMAN’ is a clear manifestation of Pakistan’s commitment towards peace and stability,” he continued, and “[brings together] the navies of the East and West under a common platform for the good of the global commons”.
International participation in ‘AMAN’ has grown steadily since its inception, and 46 countries from across the world took part in the sixth iteration, at Karachi in February 2019.
The PN has also extended its engagement with key partners at distance from home, as it pursues other opportunities to collaborate with other countries and enhance naval diplomacy. “The PN contributes to national foreign policy objectives through naval diplomacy by ‘flag showing’ in countries far and wide,” said Adm Abbasi. Such diplomacy includes key leadership engagement; navy-to-navy expert-level talks; overseas deployments; and regular participation in bilateral and multilateral international exercises. “Recently, PN ships conducted a deployment around Africa and visited various ports in line with the government’s ‘Engage Africa Policy’,” said Adm Abbasi. “Apart from operational activities with the host navies, PN ships also established medical camps to assist local communities in providing easy and necessary medical care.” The deployment, which took place from November 2019 until January 2020 and took in nine countries, comprised the PN’s Zulfiquar-class frigate PNS Aslat and the fleet tanker PNS Moawin.
The PN’s robust level of operational output at sea is being underpinned by a similarly robust capability development and modernisation programme.
“Continuous capability development is one of the important pillars of my vision for the PN,” said Adm Abbasi. “In this regard, we have contracted construction of new surface ships from China, Turkey, and other friendly countries, along with transfer of technology. In addition, we are building Hangor-class diesel-electric submarines in China, with their planned construction in Pakistan with Chinese support.” In the case of the submarines, a class of eight is planned.
“We are also focusing on enhancing our long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability through the induction of long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPAs) and modernising our existing surface ships with state-of-the-art systems,” said Adm Abbasi. As regards the surface ship system modernisation, capability upgrades will cover air, surface, and sub-surface systems; electronic warfare and missile capabilities; and greater focus on indigenisation. The PN is also looking to invest in modern helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, he said.
A central element of this continuous capability development is improving Pakistan’s indigenous shipbuilding capability, and the navy is playing a core role in supporting this effort. “The PN has always remained keen on and supportive of this philosophy, especially in developing its critical naval shipbuilding capability,” said Adm Abbasi. “The navy has encouraged and relied on Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KS&EW) for in-country construction of vessels including utility craft, fast attack craft, frigates, and fleet tankers. Gaining experiences from these ventures over the last two decades, KS&EW has transformed itself into a modern shipbuilding yard, capable of undertaking ship construction and repair/maintenance activities, as per international classification rules.”
“Contracts for the Hangor-class submarines [China] and Milgem-class ships [Turkey] include transfer of technology and in-country construction at KS&EW. To support this, presently modernisation is in progress at KS&EW,” said Adm Abbasi. “Moreover, the government of Pakistan has also approved construction of a shipyard at Gwadar, which will give [another] fillip to our shipbuilding industry.”