By Shahid Raza
A brief look at the history of warfare is enough to establish the dominant role of a naval force in defining the outcome of a limited or full-scale shooting war. All great powers throughout human history, relied heavily on their naval might, be it the Viking raiders, the Chinese, the Ottomans, the British, the Soviets, the Americans and others. The Second World War saw intense naval combat and it defined the outcome of the war in all major theatres. This dynamic hasn’t changed since, and all aspiring powers in the 21st century, India included are looking to build a very expensive but powerful ‘blue water navy’ to project their power well into the future.
Unfortunately for reasons I can’t explore in this article, Pakistan will find itself at the receiving end of India’s ambitious naval build-up in the immediate future. The author is willing to acknowledge that it is simply impossible for Pakistan to be able to match the offensive power the Indian navy is projected to have in the coming decade, however there are smart counter strategies based on the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ to ensure that while Pakistan won’t be able to match the power projection capabilities of the Indian navy with its own, it can maintain a reliable and potent defensive naval strategy to keep its ports and Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) open during a limited or full scale three dimensional war with India.
This article will, therefore, explore what Pakistan can do in the future to guarantee its defence from its most powerful enemy; the Indian Navy.
Kill the Carriers
The Indian navy plans to build up to 4 aircraft carries in the coming decade, which will form the centrepiece of its ‘Carrier Battle Groups’. The Indian naval carriers will be equipped with fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft to maintain operational flexibility. The construction, armament, training and operational costs of Indian carriers will cost Indian taxpayers around $30-50 billion eventually, which makes these carriers an asset, too expensive to lose and too important to fail during battle. The Indian carriers, on one hand, will form the crown jewel of the Indian navy but on the other hand, a prime target for Pakistan navy during a future conflict. India, due to its complex geo-security dynamics cannot afford to field all of its carriers against Pakistan.
Building a credible deterrence against the Indian carrier fleet would give Pakistan navy ample flexibility to realize its dream of eventually becoming a force to be reckoned with not just in the Arabian Sea but also in the Indian Ocean Region.
At best the number of carriers deployed against Pakistan will be either one or two because at least one carrier will always be in the dry dock for maintenance and repairs at any given time and the remaining one or two carriers will have to be kept available for the Chinese navy which is expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean Region with Pakistan’s help. The Indian carriers will be absolutely indispensable to the survival of the Indian surface and submarine fleet deployed in the ‘Carrier Battle Group’ because without the carrier air wing, the surface and submarine assets will become easy targets and the CBG will lose its mission-critical standoff attack capability. Having established the critical role of the aircraft carriers to the Indian naval operations against Pakistan in the future, it, therefore, becomes critical that Pakistan develops capabilities to effectively detect, target, damage, disable or destroy the Indian carriers during the first phase of the war.
The loss of carriers alone will not only deplete and deprive the Indian Navy off of its offensive capabilities but will also make its surface and submerged fleet immensely demoralized and easier to destroy or neutralize. Losing a carrier will cost India, thousands of highly trained sailors, crew and billions of dollars in monetary terms. The loss of a prized warfighting capability will make India much more exposed to its other rivals like China as the destruction of Indian carriers will result in a massive – overnight – a gap in warfighting capabilities vis-à-vis Chinese navy. So now that we’ve established the Indian carriers as our prime target, I will address the question of how those carriers can be removed from the battle space.
Build a Sensor Network
The first step in developing a ‘carrier killing capability’ is to develop an advanced sensor network to collect strategic intelligence on the capabilities and deployments of the Indian carriers. To develop such a capability, existing resources and assets would have to be tuned for the job. Such a sensor network will guarantee timely detection of enemy vessels, provide reliable all-weather targeting capability and real-time intelligence to the naval command for adapting its naval defence strategy under adverse circumstances. Here are some of the elements which will come into play for developing such a sensor network.
HUMINT: Human Intelligence has always been a critical part of Pakistan’s war-fighting psychology and in this instance; it retains its central position in providing intelligence on India’s carrier operations, technical intelligence (TECHINT), forecast and early warning. Pakistan maintains an extensive HUMINT network inside India which has proven its capabilities time and again. Such a HUMINT network will be critical in providing situational awareness.
IMINT: Pakistan has access to various surveillance satellites for procuring high definition imagery for analysis of enemy capabilities and installations. For ensuring the constant supply of Image Intelligence (IMINT) during wartime, plans are being made to develop or acquire a native spy satellite. The IMINT will prove to be a reliable source of information on the Indian navy, thus helping to generate another layer of Strategic Intelligence.
AEW&C: Airborne Early Warning and Control assets will form another layer of providing Strategic Intelligence (STRATINT) against the Indian naval movements and deployments. Pakistan already possesses a handful of AEW&C assets to do just that, however as things move forward, it would be wise to add numbers and capabilities to the AEW&C fleet, especially by purchasing High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) like the ‘Divine Eagle’ currently being developed by China. A small number of unmanned submarines, equipped with early warning and communication sensors would be a smart investment.
The Indian carriers, on one hand, will form the crown jewel of the Indian navy but on the other hand, a prime target for Pakistan navy during a future conflict. India, due to its complex geo-security dynamics cannot afford to field all of its carriers against Pakistan.
Coastal Surveillance Network: Just like India has commissioned a large scale Coastal Surveillance Network in 2015, it is also imperative for Pakistan to slowly but steadily build up a sophisticated Coastal Surveillance Network with short to long-range capabilities. Such a network ought to be geographically dispersed along the entire length of the Makran coast.
It might also be wise to diversify the Coastal Surveillance capabilities by deploying these sensors on littoral vessels as well as road mobile vehicles, to increase its survivability.
Build an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile System
A modern frigate can cost anywhere close to $500 million, but such an expensive vessel remains vulnerable to enemy surface warfare, airborne and submarine assets. The author acknowledges that an advanced fleet of surface vessels is absolutely critical for any navy and their role cannot be replaced by an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile System (ASBMS), regardless of how advanced the later system is the surface fleet would have to be needed. Pakistan navy is making efforts to acquire and build new surface vessels, however, it still lacks the capability to attack and kill the Indian aircraft carriers. That job would have to be taken care of by the ASBMS. China developed its DF-21D ASBMS to counter the carrier threat from the US Navy; Pakistan will face the exact same threat from the Indian navy in the near term. Therefore it is logical for Pakistan to invest efforts and resources into developing an ASBMS based on its tried and tested Shaheen series of Ballistic Missiles, with a standoff range of between 1000 -1500km.
That effective range would be sufficient to keep the Indian carriers far enough from Pakistan’s coastline to ensure the survivability of our ports and Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) so Pakistan can keep its trade and energy routes open during the period of war. Building such an ASBMS would also mean that the Indian carrier air-wing operating from a standoff ranges would require mid-air refuelling if it attempted to attack the Pakistani coastal assets or our surface fleet, which is an unfeasible proposition unless India can establish total air-dominance over Pakistan, which is simply not going to happen. In simple terms, the Indian carrier-borne jets would run out of combat worthy fuel before they even reach their intended targets close to or at the Pakistani coastline.
Building an ASBMS is economically and technologically feasible for Pakistan because such a system will be built upon existing and available technologies and the technological breakthroughs needed to develop such a system are not significant as most of the technological parameters required to develop this system are either already available or in the development pipeline
According to the US Naval War College, the unit cost of the DF-21D is between $5-10 million, which in layman terms means that Pakistan can develop and deploy a potent arsenal of 50 -100 Sensor Network Enabled, all-terrain, road-mobile ASBM systems with shoot and scoot capability in the cost of buying a new AAW Frigate. If we compare it to the cost and battlefield value of an Indian aircraft carrier, it certainly proves to be a very cost-effective solution to a very powerful problem.
Developing such an ASBMS is a wiser move not only from the technological and economic standpoint but it also emerges as ‘strategic trump card’ which can become an ultimate weapon of blackmail and deterrence against a much larger and more powerful adversary. Importantly there is no reliable countermeasure against such a system available to the Indian navy, nor is it likely to come anytime soon.
That effective range would be sufficient to keep the Indian carriers far enough from Pakistan’s coastline to ensure the survivability of our ports and Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) so Pakistan can keep its trade and energy routes open during the period of war.
During a war when a Pakistani ASBMS scores a carrier kill or succeeds in damaging and disabling one or potentially more Indian carriers including the helicopter carriers, thus sending them out of the battlespace, it will mark an abrupt end to the Indian naval campaign against Pakistan because the rest of their surface and submerged fleet will also take heavy losses without the air wing of their carriers.
With the loss of their carriers, they will lose their eyes and ears, standoff interception capabilities would suffer from a decline in combat morale, and would become vulnerable to attacks from Land, Surface, Air and by Submarines. Thus it is established that developing an indigenous ASBMS meets the ‘disruptive innovation’ criteria and remains an attractive option for Pakistan’s defence planners.
Build a Cruise Missile System Architecture
Thanks to the foresight of its defence planners, Pakistan is fortunate to be among the select few countries in the world which possess the capability to research, develop, manufacture and deploy highly advanced, medium – long range Cruise Missile systems. The Cruise Missiles can form a daunting deterrence against even the most powerful and well-equipped adversaries like the Indian navy. Keeping this in view, Pakistan has already been developing a range of different Cruise Missile systems which are capable of keeping the Indian navy far away from our shores, despite all of its might and capabilities. Here is a brief introduction of Pakistan’s Cruise Missile arsenal.
Babur-I Land Attack Variant: In the context of Coastal Defense, the Babur-1 LACM can be instrumental as a weapon of deterrence because India’s major peripheral military ports from Gujrat to Mumbai fall within its operational range. In simple terms, Babur LACM can neutralize high-value stationary targets located between the states of Gujrat and Maharashtra. These targets include military communications, ports, fuel, radars, runways and other high priority targets which would be essential for the Indian navy to mount an offensive campaign against Pakistan as well as for replenishments, repairs and supplies.
Babur-II Multi-Role Variant: Pakistan possesses an advanced version of Babur-I LACM dubbed ‘Babur Weapon System Version-2’ which brings a very unique capability for Pakistan as this particular Cruise Missile system not only has upgraded avionics and guidance system but is also capable of targeting moving surface targets like aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers and other naval surface assets. Thus this system with its outstanding range and capabilities will form a credible deterrence against the fast-growing Indian surface fleet, as well as against high-value land-based targets.
Babur-III Submarine Launched Variant: Although Pakistan’s Babur-III SLCM variant is meant for carrying out a second nuclear strike, it, however, can be used as a conventionally armed weapon to attack large surface vessels of the Indian navy. Under such a scenario, Pakistan’s air-independent propulsion equipped submarines, armed with a conventional variant of the Babur-III can plausibly infiltrate close to the home ports of the Indian carriers and attack those carriers while they are still a long distance away from posing a threat to Pakistan. Similarly, the conventional version of Babur-III can also be deployed against high-value coastal targets in India which do not fall within the range of Pakistan’s Babur-I/II LACMs due to the long range of Pakistan’s Submarines.
Harba Cruise Missile: Pakistan recently test fired a new variant of the Babur Cruise Missile called ‘Harba’ from the domestically developed Fast Attack Craft (Missile) PNS HIMMAT. This new missile system reportedly has a strike range of 700km, which is almost 3 times more than the strike range offered by the Harpoon and C-802 missiles, currently in service with Pakistan navy. Harba is also dual-mode and is capable of attacking both surface and land targets which gives it a great operational flexibility.
The system is also considered to be quite survivable since it is mounted on a Fast Attack Craft which operates in littoral waters where radar clutter makes it hard to find and attack this system. So essentially, Harba gives Pakistan the capability to maintain effective area denial capability only if this system is produced in enough strong numbers to make a dent in the overall war-fighting strategy.
Developing such an ASBMS is a wiser move not only from the technological and economic standpoint but it also emerges as ‘strategic trump card’ which can become an ultimate weapon of blackmail and deterrence against a much larger and more powerful adversary.
Zarb Cruise Missile: The Zarb Cruise Missile System essentially is a locally produced version of the Chinese C-602A Coastal Defense System. This missile carries a very powerful 400kg warhead and is capable of destroying surface targets for up to 290km. Zarb is a Coastal Defense System which means it is similar to Boeing’s Harpoon Coastal Defense system, which is designed to protect the coastline from enemy intruders or a marine landing.
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Since it appears that Pakistan is producing this system locally, its further development of operational capability and range is expected and it will certainly make another potent layer of coastal defence for Pakistan’s coastline. It is also worthy to note that Pakistan also possesses a sizeable arsenal of air, sea and submarine-based Harpoon, Exocet and C-802 anti-ship missiles which form another layer of Pakistan navy’s defence strategy. In this domain, Pakistan Navy is doing fairly well as opposed to many regional navies because of its unique capability to acquire cutting-edge Cruise Missile Systems, tailored for its own requirements without being limited by the international missile export standards as defined by MTCR.
Build a Potent Surface, Air & Submarine Fleet
After having developed a powerful sensor network to detect enemy mobilization, a long-range Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile System and the third layer of up to 8 different Cruise Missile systems to develop a credible attack capability, it becomes imperative to also build a strong fleet of new advanced Anti Air Warfare Frigates, Littoral Patrol Ships, a sizeable fleet of AIP Submarines, a Nuclear Powered SSBN for completing the nuclear triad and air-borne attack assets including fixed, rotary wing aircraft and unmanned systems. The author acknowledges the limited budget available to the Navy; however, the defence planners and the Govt must find a way to finance the acquisition or development of these assets for the navy in the future, because most of the Navy’s surface, submerged and airborne assets are ageing and some are due for retirement.
The new acquisitions have to be made under a broader strategy to not only transfer technology of these systems to Pakistani industry but they must also retain the capability to work with the existing sensor network as well as offering a potential for future upgrades and integration with new sensors and weapons. In the given context, the surface, submerged and airborne fleet of the navy will form the last line of defence against a massive Indian naval advance and therefore it must be carefully planned to narrow the capability gap vis-à-vis the Indian Navy while keeping the budgetary limitations in mind.
The Indian Aircraft carrier fleet will pose a balance of power altering challenge to Pakistan’s overall defence strategy and not just to the Pakistan navy. Indian navy will almost certainly be deployed against Pakistan should the Indian ‘Cold Start’ doctrine turn hot in the future. It has to be acknowledged that while able to defend Pakistan’s naval frontiers, for now, the Pakistan navy remains the weakest arm of the state’s war-fighting machine and it is becoming increasingly outnumbered and outgunned. It would not be wise for Pakistan to try and match the Indian naval might pound for pound because it will be a very expensive exercise which an economy like Pakistan can ill afford.
The author believes that Pakistan’s naval strategy should be based on the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ which can offset the Indian naval advantage while remaining inside our national spending and technological envelope and more importantly without relying heavily on foreign assistance, be it financial or technological.
The author strongly believes that Pakistan ought to build further upon its inherent strengths like it’s a rather potent capability to design, develop and manufacture highly advanced ballistic and cruise missile systems which will not only reduce cost but also reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers.
If Russia’s Sarmat and Iskander missiles are an example to go by, it is not hard to understand that the future battlefield is likely to remain dominated by countries which can design, develop and manufacture advanced ballistic and cruise missile systems as well as associated technologies like propulsion, target guidance like radiation homing, flight control, mission computing and advanced warheads like hypersonic glide vehicles and electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
Pakistan finds itself in a position to develop those cutting edge technologies which can overwhelm India’s carrier fleet in a limited or full-scale shooting war, at a very manageable cost; thus deterring a more powerful and aggressive adversary by neutralizing its tactical and strategic advantage from the battle space.
The author also believes that Pakistan can maintain its naval defenses while remaining inside its budgetary limitations by developing an indigenous capability to design, develop and manufacture unmanned aerial and submarine systems, artificial intelligence based guidance systems for its ballistic and cruise missiles as well as by building a sizeable number of littoral Fast Attack Crafts which are armed with long-range weapons like Harba.
The unmanned systems will cut development, manufacturing and operational costs so they can also be deployed in strong numbers. Such unmanned systems can also be operated in high-risk environments due to their long endurance and the capability to operate beyond the physical capabilities of human operators. Thus unmanned systems and other emerging technologies like the artificial intelligence can help maintain the naval balance of power without sending the national economy into crisis.
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Pakistan must also muster its diplomatic muscle to acquire naval bases in friendly peripheral countries under collective security agreements, so the Pakistan navy has diverse options to deploy and disperse its forces as required during a naval war scenario with India. There are countries which are strategically located and will be sympathetic to Pakistan’s security concerns while benefiting from the collective defence agreement with Pakistan.
The author believes that Pakistan will benefit immensely by opening a strategic dialogue with friendly countries like Maldives, Indonesia, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan to grant naval bases or rotation and replenishment rights from their own installations. Building a credible deterrence against the Indian carrier fleet would give Pakistan navy ample flexibility to realize its dream of eventually becoming a force to be reckoned with not just in the Arabian Sea but also in the Indian Ocean Region.
The article was first published in Global Village Space
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