Pakistan Navy is on track to strengthen its surface warfare capabilities with the induction of four Type 054A frigates manufactured by China. In this context, the launching ceremony of the third frigate was recently held at Hudong Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai.
The Type 054As have been designated by Pakistan Navy as “F-22P Batch II” enhance the capabilities inherent in the existing Chinese-origin F-22P Zulfiquar-class (Type 053H3) frigates which include the PNS Zulfiquar, PNS Shamsheer, PNS Saif and PNS Aslat. They form the backbone of Regional Maritime Security Patrols (RMSPs) instituted by Pakistan Navy in 2018 and have been deployed on multiple occasions for Overseas Deployments.
After the induction of the last F-22P warship i.e. PNS Aslat in 2013, Pakistan Navy was faced with the challenge to phase out its aging British-origin Tariq-class (Type 21) warships that were procured in the early 1990s. Four of these ships were decommissioned once the F-22Ps were inducted, while the PNS Tariq and PNS Khaibar remain in active service.
Consequently, Pakistan Navy leadership began searching for replacements that could be acquired within the limited procurement budget while being mindful of emerging regional maritime threats. Keeping these circumstances in perspective, Pakistan once again turned to its all-weather strategic cooperative ally China. In 2017, Pakistan issued a contract for two frigates followed by another contract for two additional (total four) frigates in 2018. It was stipulated that all four vessels would be handed over to Pakistan by 2021.
The context to Pakistan Navy’s interest in Type 054A merits particular attention. This variant emerged in response to Chinese defence analysts’ assessment in 2006 that primary threats to People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels came from the air, necessitating the development of an indigenous ship-borne air defence shield. This resulted in significant upgrades to the Type 054 ships with modern weapon systems, radar and Vertical Launch System (VLS). With time, the PLAN began deploying Type 054As for regional roles beyond littoral/ coastal defence, including power projection capabilities in the South China Sea and Western Pacific. Additionally, the PLAN began deploying Type 054As for anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, giving them sufficient operational experience in the Indian Ocean.
They form the backbone of Regional Maritime Security Patrols (RMSPs) instituted by Pakistan Navy in 2018 and have been deployed on multiple occasions for Overseas Deployments.
From 2009 onward, PLAN ships that visited Pakistan occasionally included Type 054A vessels. There are 11 known instances in which these vessels visited Pakistan, mostly returning from anti-piracy missions in the Gulf. Some of them also participated in naval exercises in Pakistan. PLAN’s Wenzhou and Ma’anshan participated in Pakistan Navy’s multilateral naval exercise Aman 2011, while the Handan participated in the 2017 edition of the same exercise. In 2016, the Pakistan Navy held its first joint exercise with Type 054A frigate Handan off Karachi, followed by another joint exercise “Friend 2017” with the Jingzhou. Pakistan Navy’s experience of engaging with Type 054A frigates twice in joint exercises appears to have left a good impression on the navy leadership. A few months after the second exercise with a PLAN Type 054A frigate, then outgoing Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Muhammad Zakaullah hinted at Pakistan’s interest in a Chinese frigate deal. By the end of 2017, then Commanding Officer of PNS Saif elaborated that the frigates under consideration are the Type 054As.
Public information on the Type 054As suggests that the export variant being specifically developed for Pakistan Navy is powered by four SEMT Pielstick 16-cylinder PA6 STC engines of Franco-German origin, licensed by Shaanxi Diesel Engine Works of China that can achieve top speeds of up to 27 knots. It is expected to be fitted with the Type 517 (SUR17B) long-range air search radars that are already fitted onboard the Zulfiquar-class frigates. This “metric wave” radar has a range of 300kmand is capable of extended surveillance and detection of stealth targets including anti-radiation missiles. This is a noteworthy addition since the Type 054As commissioned by PLAN do not feature such radars.
On the basis of commercial imagery and photos shared by ship-watchers in China, defence observers have noted that the Type 054As being built for Pakistan will likely be equipped with SR2410C, a 3-D multifunctional Electronically Scanned Array radar with an air range of over 250 kilometres that can simultaneously track 150 surface and air targets. There is also the prospect of Pakistani Type 054As to be fitted with Chinese-origin YJ-12 (CM-302) supersonic Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs). A former US Marine Corps officer-turned-contractor described the YJ-12 as “the most dangerous anti-ship missile China has produced thus far”. It has an estimated range of 400-500km while carrying a 200kg payload. This even outranges the United States of America’s principal ASCM, the RGM-84 Harpoon. The YJ-12 is considered by some naval defence observers as a “carrier killer” that could pose a “significant threat” to even the most sophisticated air defence system.
A senior researcher at the PLA’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute asserted that all weapons and radars on the Type 054As being built for Pakistan “will be Chinese products”. This adds weight to inferences that Pakistan Navy’s frigates will be equipped with the latest and most advanced Chinese technologies.
From Pakistan’s perspective, the principal maritime threat comes from India. The force disparity between Pakistan Navy and its Indian counterpart can be gauged from the fact that India’s Western Fleet alone is twice as large as Pakistan’s entire fleet. With a meagre budget allocation, Pakistan Navy planned “smartly” by focusing on advanced weapons, radars and sensors instead of buying expensive platforms.
The Indian Navy is also revamping its surface fleet for the acquisition of seven frigates under Project 17A. While the project was approved in 2015, the first vessel’s construction (INS Nilgiri) began after a two-year delay and the final ship is expected to be commissioned into service by 2025. Keeping past trends in view, deliveries may be delayed for two more years. In contrast, smart procurement will see the commissioning of Type 054A frigates prior to India. By this time, Pakistan Navy will also have received its batch of four new (out of total eight) Air-Independent Propulsion submarines manufactured by China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. In contrast to this improvement in surface and subsurface combat capabilities, the first (of total six) indigenous submarines, being manufactured under Project 75 India (P75I), is not likely to be delivered before 2030.
This time differential will also enable Pakistan Navy to conduct capacity-building exercises with the PLAN. The latter has more than a decade’s experience of operating Type 054As in the Indian Ocean, and also in active missions in the South China Sea. Lessons learned by the PLAN will help achieve optimal performance from these frigates in the shortest possible timeframe.
Indian observers have expressed concerns that the YJ-12, if used by Pakistan, could pose a threat to hypersonic BrahMos cruise missiles which will be fitted onboard India’s own fleet of seven frigates being developed under Project 17A. Though numerically inferior, YJ-12 would help deter India’s aircraft carriers INS Vikramaditya and the INS Vikrant (Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1), which recently underwent sea trials.
In the longer term, interoperability of Type 054s operated by Pakistan Navy and the PLAN would help to offset any hostile maritime interdiction directed against mutual interests in the region, particularly Sea Lines of Communication linking Pakistan’s coast with the broader Maritime Silk Route.
It was expected that at least one of the Type 054As would be built in Pakistan on a Transfer-of-Technology basis, emulating the framework adopted by Zulfiquar-class frigates. Reportedly, the timescale and financial implications involved prompted outright procurement from China. In the prevailing circumstances, especially the need to phase out Tariq-class frigates, the decision was well considered.