The forgotten sea frontier - Taj M Khattak - Saturday, January 29, 2011

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In an unprecedented development, Russia recently signed a deal to procure at least two of France’s advanced Mistral-class amphibious warships at an estimated cost of $750 millions each, with option for two more. Ordinarily, this should be of no interest to Pakistan, were it not for the near-synchronous timing of an Akula II nuclear-powered Indian submarine sailing for Vishakhapatnam in the weeks ahead; if the voyage is not already underway, that is, since such movements are always shrouded in secrecy. India is expected to receive one more Akula II submarine to train its crews, for a total of five nuclear submarines. The indigenous production of two more Arihant-class submarines in the near future is also on the cards.

The submarine bound for Vishakhapatnam, INS Chakra, has been undergoing sea trials for some time and its ten-year lease period, with a purchase option, has reportedly been agreed at a cost of $650 millions. This Russian-Indian-French defence nexus has been dubbed by some analysts as Russia’s newest “sell-in-the-east-and-buy-in-the-west” strategy. Russia views Indian ambitions to sortie out into blue waters as a seller’s paradise for its hardware, and France, with its double-digit unemployment and doubts about long-term sustainment of its defence industry, as a willing supplier of modern sea platforms.

This fits in well with Russia’s desire to reorientate its Cold War-era maritime paradigm of deploying a large number of nuclear submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, to investment in more practical rapid-response intervention capabilities, such as those successfully employed by the US over the years.

The Indian navy has an ambitious expansion plan of having 166 ships by 2022, at a cost of $12 billions. Its Naval Aviation is already operating BAE’s Harriers and is further being equipped with Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon MMA (multimission maritime aircraft), which is a successor to P3C Orions. For conventional submarines, it has been operating the Russian Foxtrot-class vessels with some German 209s, and of late has signed on for the French Scorpions. Its surface fleet and maintenance support structure are Russian to the core and are likely to remain so. There have been some calls for the cancellation of the Scorpion contract because of allegations of $113 millions in kickbacks, but the corrupt across the border too appear to be managing the din well.

The Pakistani navy has historically maintained an edge over the Indian navy in submarine warfare. But with a sizable number of newer Russian nuclear and French conventional submarines in the Indian fleet, this edge may not be maintainable; more so as the first of the Pakistani navy’s Agosta submarines reaches its midlife in 2013-14, and the other two will reach theirs by the end of the decade.

There has been slippage in timely replacements of our fast-depleting subsurface assets; not least because the preferred German three-submarines option was way beyond our financial affordability. But nor is the status quo tolerable, as this important maritime defence capability, structured so painstakingly over four decades, cannot be allowed to wither away.

Rather than for us to lose more precious time, one option which merits serious consideration by Pakistan is revival of collaboration with France for the construction of a fourth Agosta-90B submarine at the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works. There was a significant indigenous capability installed at the KSEW during the execution of this programme, a capability which would go to waste and skilled manpower degenerate if not put to further use. On the downside, if Sarkozy and Zardari have to deal with such an idea twice in their political careers, well, that is fate.

The Amazon-class frigates in service with the Pakistani navy, acquired from the UK in the ‘90s, are nearly 40 years old. The Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates currently under transfer from the US under an FMS programme are also over 30 years old. Unless there are more additions, the four Chinese-built F-22P frigates supported by some lower tonnage vessels with over-the-horizon missile capability will, in all likelihood, fall well short of a minimum force structure required for protection of our seaborne commerce and maritime assets, including under-the-seabed exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons and metals in the EEZ. On the other hand, the Indian navy’s goals for 2022, helped by India’s stable politics and a performing economy, appear realisable.

The Pakistani navy is presently participating in the US-led Combined Task Forces (CTF 150, 151 and 152), and quite rightly so, if we are to remain in contention in the region. This, however, is not without the dilemma of our utilising valuable national assets in an international effort. The blue water navies of the developed world have built-in extra-regional potential and stamina, unlike the navies of the developing countries. Any overstretch with blue-water horses in CTFs has therefore to be watched, since some day we will have run our own Derby, and, more importantly, will win.

To compound our difficulties, we are beset with a serious ongoing insurgency. The 1948-1960 insurgency by the Communist Party of Malaya is usually taken as a datum for longevity of wars against the state, as it lasted for 12 years. The LTTE’s movement in Sri Lanka died down after nearly 25 years. In Pakistan, judging by the tenacity of the enemy within, we may similarly be in for a long haul.

This growing disparity and our apparent helplessness to do something tangible about it is a source of concern. Our political system is far from stable and courts failure to inspire the confidence of foreign investors. Without foreign investment economic progress will remain elusive, and this means that our financial strength will be insufficient for generation of the kind of resources required for a planned naval replacement programme.

Energy security in the 21st century is likely to remain a key concern for both the developed and developing economies. China and Japan, to cite one example, are jointly putting up $25 billions to build a navigational canal through southern Thailand, which will obviate the need for oil tankers to steam through the pirates-infested Malacca Straits.

Gwadar can play a crucial role in Pakistan’s energy security in this century. The Chinese petroleum ministry has surplus capacity and is looking at Gwadar for any possibility for investment in view of the special relationship between the two states. China has other interests too, as the distance between its more developed eastern region and the less developed western region is greater than that between the Chinese west and Gwadar. The differential is causing demographic dislocation, and China wants to take advantage of Gwadar’s proximity to speed up development and stem the population surge to its east.

Let us hope that there is an early decision in the Supreme Court on the petition for cancellation of management control to the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) which, shorn of corporate jargon, establishes a baseline throughput roughly the equivalent of 21 ships calling per week before any royalty can be paid to the Gwadar Port Authority. The PSA has also not yet started the contractual $525 millions investment which is to be completed by 2013. How one wishes the Pakistani negotiators of this deal were a little bit sincere with the country.

If the contract is cancelled, Pakistan should seriously and expeditiously engage China on its interest to invest up to $13 billion in such areas as increase in Gwadar Port’s existing berths from three to 18, building of an oil pipeline between Xinjiang and Gwadar to set up an energy corridor, development of a 21-million-tons capacity Gwadar Port Energy Zone, setting up of an energy-sector industries in this zone and oil and gas exploration ventures.

If this was an academic debate, there would be no issue losing out to the predominant landlubbers’ lobby in the country, but the ramifications of ignoring Pakistan’s maritime frontier go far beyond and are too grave to neglect. It will be unfortunate if in the 21st century, Japan and China, and even India, have secure seaborne energy lifelines, while Pakistan, in spite of Gwadar’s strategic location just 180 miles east of the Strait of Hormuz, remains vulnerable for its energy needs. There is enough common cause in Gwadar to work with China for mutual benefits. Let’s go for it.

The write is a retired vice admiral. Email:

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