Rise of an oily navy

Abhijit Bhattacharyya, August 2000

(The author is an alumnus of the National Defence college of India)

Two scenarios of post-Kargil security environment of South Asia need to be noted today.

The first reported by Jane's Fighting Ships 2000-2001 (page-82): `The largest single annual increase in India's defence budget follows last year's border war with Pakistan in the Kargil region of Kashmir. Some commentators have credited the Navy's strategic manoeuvres in the Arabian Sea of the Pakistan coast in mid-1999 as hastening the end of that burst of fighting, and as a result some of the budget increase has been directed at the Navy.'

Second is the Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes's statement in the Indian Parliament in August 2000 that India is watching the increasing activity of the Pakistani Navy in the Arabian Sea. Both the points need probing on the basis of hard facts and figures requiring no proof.

Since there was no Pakistan before 1947, the history and geography of Pakistan navy were also Indian. It inherited India s lack of combat maritime tradition. This tradition continued owing to the land-based wars with India and the successive coups by the generals of the Pakistani Army. A theocratic Islamic state administered by an army created by English rulers and armed by the United States, the navy in Pakistan (like in India) was always the step-child till Saturday, December 4, 1971, when Karachi got a brutal blow from the Indian navy s missile boats and the Indian Air Force s air-to-surface missiles. The need for a navy to counter the threat to Pakistan s only port and naval base Karachi was born.

However, the problem with any naval plan is its gestation period which is long and complicated. Warships take years to build.

Pakistan s strategic (lack of) depth, even in a conventional security environment, makes the shape and size of its fleet follow the fleet-in-being tactics, thereby implying strong deterrent against a superior navy s quantity of ships. It also made its naval logistics look west to have several dispersed naval bases to reduce strategic dependence on Karachi s geographical vulnerability owing to its Indian proximity.

The outcome, therefore, is for all to see. From one naval base, Karachi, and 13,000-man navy in 1987-1988 (Military Balance figure), Pakistan now has 2,51,000 personnel (2,300 officers) including 1,200 marines and 1,000 seconded to Maritime Security Agency (set up in 1986) and 5,000 reserves and four ports/naval bases of Karachi, Gwadar (naval base), Port Qasim and Port Ormara ; the latter opened on Wednesday, May 7, 1997, as a major naval base and repair facility to reduce the burden on Karachi. Ormara in future will be the base of half of the Pakistani navy s major units and all the submarines. Situated 300 km west of Karachi on the Makran coast, Port Ormara is a desolate place with a coastal road connecting Karachi in the east and Gwadar (which is another 290 km) to the west down the sea shore. This remote location tactically makes the Pakistani Navy comparatively less vulnerable to first strike attack, thereby giving it more punch to its fleet for classical maritime counter-stroke called fleet-in-being.

The current acquisition and deployment of the Pakistani ships too give a clear idea about the traditional Pakistani love for submarines which could be used for frequent sea denial and occasional (sectoral) sea control role vis-a-vis India. Thus, the shifting of submarine base west of Karachi, on the Makran coast, to Ormara Port will give the Pakistani Navy a vital edge to disrupt the sea lanes of India s oil import from the Persian Gulf, should a crisis take place in the future. That is not all. There now will be three layers of screening areas at the disposal of the Pakistani Navy for the Indian crude s voyage from Muscat to Mumbai or Dubai to Cochi Gwadar, Port Qasim and Port Ormara.

At present, though one may pooh-pooh any suggestion of Pakistan s naval threat to India as a fantasy, it needs an understanding and analysis of the nuances of Pakistan s naval deployment and the assigned task in a particular environment. Undoubtedly there cannot be any comparison between the Indian and the Pakistani Navy, the former having an edge both in terms of number and variety of ships. The point here is not of one-to-one matching of strength and punching ability. The design here is the art and craft of a smaller navy s maritime strategy to take on a superior navy with a modern submarine fleet acquired from France. It is the Agosta 90B class SSK (Pakistani name Khalid) submarines which neatly fits into the disruptive role of the Indian crude s sea lanes, with or without crisis.

Thus, built by DCN Cherbourg, France, the 1,510 tons (surfaced), 1760 dived Agosta 90B s greatest asset is its diving depth of 320 metres (1,050 feet) which outdives all Indian submarines (HDW 209-type 1,500-260 metres = 853 feet; and Kilotype 87 EM/636 class-300 metres = 985 feet). Other parameters being
conventional, what makes the French-built Pakistani submarine ominous for India s strategic raw material crude oil is its plan to have a 200kw MESMA liquid oxygen air independent propulsion system...which would quadruple the dived performance of the submarine at 4 knot.

Clearly, therefore, the role and deployment of the Pakistani navy is military-cum-economic.

Pakistani defence planners have made clever ploy by going beyond the military hardware into the economics of warfare. Thus, apart from the smuggling of drugs and guns, the counterfeit Indian currency is doing roaring business in the Indian market, thereby damaging the macro-economics of India. On top of it all comes the most vulnerable of Indian macro-economic insecurity, the crude oil lifeline which passes through the zone of Pakistani naval activity, wherein the one port of Karachi now has become four-port (Karachi, Gwadar, Port Qasim and Port Ormar) maritime force.

Naval activity notwithstanding, diplomacy too is an indicator towards Pakistan s new push towards West Asia to counter its enemy in the east. Thus, in line with its understanding of the strategic petro-economics of Gulf, required for any burgeoning economy like India s, Pakistan has recently opened two posts of Defence Attache at Muscat (Oman) headed by a naval captain and naval attache in Teheran (Iran). Interestingly, Iran and Oman are the flanking doorways to the Persian Gulf through which sails the largest number of oil tankers per day.

The other newly opened Pakistani naval attaches posts are Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. China fits in well with Pakistani navy s strategy. But how come Malaysia? Is it because of the strategic importance of Strait of Malacca and the operations around Andaman and Nicobar Islands of the Indian Navy! Whatever be the logic or vision, the understanding of the role of navy in the economics and security of a nation is now being understood well by Pakistan. Pakistan is a shade ahead of the Indian understanding, notwithstanding its smaller number of ships.