China’s Hudong Zhonghua has launched the first Type 054A Frigate for Pakistan Navy (PN) on August 23, 2020. After systems and weapons integration and tests, it will be handed over to PN by March 2021. Pakistan will get a total of four ships of this type and the remaining three ships will be sent by the end of 2020. The induction of these ships will add to the PN capability for meeting the present challenges in the Indian Ocean Region. However, these four ships will neither alter the strategic balance vis-à-vis India nor they will introduce new technologies in the region. They are only part of Pakistan’s moderate efforts to catch up with, and maintain a reasonable fleet in the face of continued modernization of Indian naval surface fleet ships. The balance of power remains in India’s favour and will tip even more in the future when India gets more ships like the Nilgiri and Talwar classes of frigates.
Nonetheless, their induction to the PN will make them the most advanced and sophisticated ships of the fleet. Their introduction would thereby enhance both the offensive and defensive power of the PN. The sophistication and advanced nature of the ship can be judged by the fact that these ships are the backbone of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) who operates 30 such ships.
However, these four ships will neither alter the strategic balance vis-à-vis India nor they will introduce new technologies in the region.
Currently, Pakistan has nine operational frigates of different types with varied capabilities. Four of them, F-22P ships, have FM-90N surface to air missiles (SAMs) and two Tariq class ships have LY-60N SAM system. Few of them carry Harpoon anti-ship missiles (AShM) and others carry subsonic C-802A AShMs. Other patrol boats and patrol crafts, i.e. Jalalat and Azmat class respectively, are also heavily armed with anti-ship cruise missiles like C-802A and C-602. Patrol boats and crafts have limitations when it comes to the range and variety of systems they can carry.
Capabilities of Type 054A
Induction of Type 054A ships will increase the number of total large ships available to PN up to 13. With over 4100 tons of displacement, Type PN fleet. The ships have low radar cross-section (RCS) design which decreases the chances of the ship’s detectability. These ships can carry out all types of operations such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface, and anti-air operations. These will be equipped with an H/PJ-26 76mm main gun, 32x VLS cells for HQ-16 surface to air missiles (SAMs), two Type 730 30mm Close in Weapons System (CIWS), and two Triple Torpedo launchers. LY-80N medium-range surface-to-air missile will be an up-gradation to the LY-60N missile system. LY-80N has a range of 40km. There is also an upgraded version with a 70km range, but it is not certain which version is Pakistan getting.
Their induction to the PN will make them the most advanced and sophisticated ships of the fleet.
The armament package of Type 054A ships is not public yet. However, it may carry locally developed Harbah cruise missiles. PN is also developing an indigenous supersonic cruise missile which in the future can be deployed on these ships while considering the compatibility issues.
Relative disparity between Indian and Pakistani naval ships
As Pakistan’s defence procurements are primarily aimed to counter the Indian capabilities, it is important to compare these capabilities with that of India. India operates a larger number of ships which also have capabilities similar or advanced to the Type 054A ships. India currently operates 13 frigates of different types. It has Barak-1, Barak-8, Shtil, and Volnya surface to air missile systems, and its anti-ship missiles range from 3M24E, 3M54TE to the Brahmos supersonic missile.
In addition to frigate ships, India also has 13 destroyers which are heavier ships than frigates, can carry more weapons and have great endurance. Pakistan as a reference has no destroyers, as frigates are the largest ships it operates.
Considering the current fleet of major surface ships and not factoring in smaller ships, submarines, and naval aviation, India both have the numbers, in terms of a large fleet of destroyers and frigates, and technology in terms of Brahmos anti-ship cruise missile and the Israeli made Barak- 8 SAMs.
Besides the greater number of ships that the Indian Navy (IN) operates, it has a major advantage over Pakistan in supersonic cruise missile capability. The Brahmos supersonic cruise missile can strike its target faster with precision than the subsonic missiles that the PN operates.
Presently, there is little to no defence against supersonic cruise missiles. Pakistan can get a similar capability in the future to off-set the Indian Brahmos advantage. It may be the Chinese CM-302 supersonic cruising missile in the near term or locally developed future cruise missile of the PN. However, there is no timeline given of the PN’s supersonic cruise missile development plans. Therefore, an off-the-shelf capability or a joint venture might be one of the options.
The possible future composition of Pakistan Navy
Pakistan does not want to maintain a regional naval force. Its areas of operations, therefore, are limited to the Arabian seas and near waters. For the same reason, in the past, it has not acquired destroyers and focused on the acquisition of smaller ships in reasonable numbers suiting its defence needs. This may, however, change in the future due to an increase in maritime activity and continued modernization of the IN.
Considering the overall gap in numbers and technology, Pakistan may be interested in getting more ships to maintain a reasonable force ratio against the IN. The second option may be, developing another class of frigates in a joint venture with another country. PN is already working on the design of the first Jinnah Class frigate along with the acquisition of four MILGEM Class ships with Turkey’s Military Factory and Shipyard Corporation (ASFAT A.Ş.).
The outgoing naval chief, Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, in his farewell address outlined the future modernization plan of the PN. He envisioned a fleet of 20 large vessels for the navy, among other plans. Among the 20 ships six maybe destroyers.
Moreover, Type 054A would gradually replace the older ships like the Type 021 class ships which were acquired during the 1990s from the United Kingdom. While the Type 054A four ships are a good addition to PN capabilities, the induction of more ships will be critical to maintaining a survivable force in case of a long war against the adversary and the continued modernization of the IN. The leadership of the PN seems aware of this shortcoming.