Interview with Admiral M Amjad Khan Niazi, Chief of the Naval Staff, Pakistan

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The Pakistan Navy have been active in carrying out multitude of roles, be it multilateral maritime operations or humanitarian and disaster relief operations to protecting sea lines of communication. At the same time, to maintain perpetual combat-readiness to thwart any aggression against Pakistan, its naval service, has undertaken initiatives towards capability development through acquisition of new vessels and aircraft including emerging technologies. Ahead of Exercise Aman 23, Asian Defence Journal (ADJ) speaks to Adm M Amjad Khan Niazi on current modernisation plans, collaborative efforts with the Pakistan defence industry and future endeavours.

The service’s 22nd Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) has expressed full confidence over high state of operational preparedness of Pakistan Navy to meet all challenges while safeguarding the nation’s maritime frontiers.

ADJ: Your three-year tenure began in October 2020, what have been your most pressing domestic and regional problems? How successfully would you say you have tackled these?

CNS: In my tenure, global geo-political environment has remained in a flux and is undergoing unprecedented transition, characterised by new alignment of interests and partnerships. In our immediate neighbourhood, situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain post US-withdrawal and normalisation of relations on hold with the international community. This has contributed to unabated and unmitigated narco-smuggling. We are dealing with this problem by putting special emphasis on Intelligence-Based Operations (IBOs) against drug traffickers within the maritime zones of Pakistan.

Furthermore, unilateral and provocative actions by India including nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean through induction of nuclear submarines carrying long-range nuclear weapons beyond Indian legitimate needs are impacting the strategic balance and regional maritime security. In other development, US-Iran stand-off has vacillated risks to ships plying along international sea lines of communication (SLOCs). The ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria also pose impact to regional maritime security.

In short, we continue to face ominous hybrid mix of traditional and non-traditional challenges. This has necessitated maintenance of requisite Maritime Domain Awareness to ensure safety of ships plying through our maritime zones and maintain requisite preparedness to respond swiftly.

COVID-19 was another major challenge in the last three years which we were able to manage successfully by monitoring it closely and initiating timely precautions that greatly helped us to keep fatalities relatively much lower in Pakistan than in most countries in the region.

ADJ: How is Pakistan’s economic situation impacting acquisition/modernisation and operational plans?

CNS: Inflation has been a global phenomenon that has affected every naval force in the world and Pakistan Navy is no exception. Unfortunately, recent severe floods in the country in the wake of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic have further compounded the economic challenges. As you are aware that naval forces, especially in developing countries, operate in a resource- constrained environment and have to look for economical solutions to meet their security needs. In our case, our modest domestic industrial base is constrained to meet hi-tech defence needs. Therefore, a viable way forward for us has been to follow a cost-effective developmental strategy through a mix of indigenisation as well as diverse sources of supply to mitigate specific external dependencies and fulfil our hi-tech needs. This is affording us enough flexibility to navigate through these challenging economic times.

ADJ: By mid-decade Pakistan’s Navy will have a radically different fleet with new Chinese submarines and frigates, Turkish corvettes, and more indigenous missile boats. How does this change the Indian Ocean Region balance of power? Are you confident of having a credible conventional deterrence against India?

CNS: Pakistan Navy fleet is being transformed into a modern multi-dimensional fleet without indulging into an arms race so that our forces are well configured in the next few years to deal with contemporary threats and challenges in the maritime domain. As far as regional balance of power is concerned, conventional asymmetry is growing due to an ambitious naval build-up by India which is a source of concern for us. However, I do believe that Pakistan Navy is well configured to accomplish its assigned tasks and new inductions will further consolidate our credible conventional deterrence.

Notwithstanding, Pakistan is a peace-loving country and Pakistan Navy will continue to play its role towards promoting regional peace and stability. That said, we are determined and well-equipped to preserve our sovereignty and territorial integrity, at any cost.

ADJ: What are the latest developments of the Jinnah-class frigate programme? When will construction commence and the first ship be launched?

CNS: Our strategy with respect to new inductions is to collaborate with foreign builder yards and utilise the experience to enhance our shipbuilding capabilities. We are following the same strategy for the on-going Milgem project wherein the experience gained during construction of two Milgem-class corvettes at Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KS&EW) will be utilised during the Jinnah-class frigate (JCF) programme. In this regard, PN ship design team is working in collaboration with their Turkish counterparts and design of the JCF is in final stage. KS&EW is making requisite preparations to commence construction activity and we look forward to having our first indigenously designed and locally constructed frigate-sized warship within the next five years.

ADJ: To what extent has the private sector been included in your acquisition/ modernisation programmes, and where can you see room for improvement?

CNS: Over a period of time, Pakistan’s defence industry has seen steady growth; meeting national security requirements and drawing down pull on foreign exchequer with increased reliance on indigenisation. While Pakistan continues to venture into technologically advanced markets, contributions from the private sector are still not sizable enough. Accordingly, we continue to work with the private sector so as to develop an industrial base that can support the Armed Forces’ requirements. Regular hosting of the International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) in Pakistan biennially is a bid to explore avenues where private sector can render its valuable contributions towards Pakistan’s defence production. In this regard, Pakistan Navy has also planned to hold the maiden Pakistan International Maritime Expo and Conference (PIMEC) on Feb 22, concurrent with Exercise Aman-23. This will provide a platform for national and international firms to seek investment opportunities in the shipbuilding and repair industries as well as in marine engineering sectors of Pakistan.

ADJ: One high volume but low overall cost area of shipbuilding is steel production. Though not currently the case, will locally-produced steel be used to construct future warship?

CNS: Our local steel mills have the capability to produce shipbuilding grade steel duly certified by the Classification Society as per required international standards. Albeit, considering the relatively small scale shipbuilding activity in Pakistan, primarily in KS&EW, the same is presently not cost-effective. Pakistan Navy’s development strategy is focused on enhancing indigenous ship construction capabilities in Pakistan and currently Milgem-class corvettes, Hangor-class submarines, FAC(M) and gunboats are being constructed at KS&EW.

Efforts are being made to initiate joint ventures with friendly navies to exploit the export potential of KS&EW. Moreover, construction of an additional shipyard is being pursued with the government which will further enhance local shipbuilding capacity. Therefore, with increased demand of shipbuilding grade steel, role of local steel mills in producing Class Certified Steel for construction of warship or commercial ships is likely to become more attractive and cost effective.

ADJ: The first of the Chinese-built Hangor II submarines will be delivered soon. What are the main industrial and operational benefits of this programme?

CNS: Pakistan Navy has always strived to maintain an offensive sub-surface capability through Transfer of Technology (ToT) to accrue its industrial and operational benefits. You may be aware that the third submarine of Agosta-90B series was constructed in Pakistan through ToT by France and commissioned in Pakistan Navy’s service in 2006. The expertise gained during the indigenous construction of Agosta-90B submarine has helped us immensely to operate and maintain these submarines safely and effectively over the years. We are following the same ToT model for Hangor Submarine Project wherein four submarines are being constructed in Pakistan. This will be a valuable capability enhancement in operating and maintaining these submarines, as was the case with Agosta-class submarines. This indigenous effort would also give significant boost to our local ship construction industry.

ADJ: While still participating in Coalition Maritime Forces-led regional security missions, you established your own Regional Maritime Security Patrol (RMSP). With a growing frigate and OPV fleet, can we expect an increased Pakistan Navy presence regionally and further afield?

CNS: The prime objective of RMSPs is to contribute towards maintaining good order at sea by deterring piracy, maritime terrorism, narco-trade, arms smuggling and other illicit activities. RMSP also helps us forge partnerships with other regional countries and enhances interoperability as Pakistan Navy ships undertake port visits and coordinated patrols with friendly regional countries. With the growing number of surface platforms, we will have additional means to fulfil our international obligations and further our commitment towards regional maritime security. In this regard, RMSPs will contribute significantly and play a major role in ensuring regional maritime security.

ADJ: The four F-22P frigates have

served intensively for over a decade and are now due for mid-life refit. Can you give details of the areas you will be upgrading?

CNS: The F-22P ships have remained the mainstay of Pakistan Navy fleet since their induction and have provided much needed operational flexibility to the navy. We have continued to modernise these ships using own resources to meet our requirements, a case in point, being the installation of indigenously developed Naval Combat Management System (NCMS). In order to keep up with the evolving technological developments in naval systems and address obsolescence issues, Pakistan Navy has adopted a rationalised approach to upgrade F-22Ps through acquisition of modern weapons and sensors. Mid-life upgradation of F-22P ships is being pursued with focus on upgradation of surveillance, asymmetric warfare, air defence and offensive anti-ship capability.

ADJ: Despite the increased capacity at recently modernised KS&EW, your Damen OPVs were all built in Romania. Why is this so?

CNS: Strengthening indigenous capabilities of KS&EW in collaboration with friendly countries has remained one of my top priorities. We have achieved a significant headway in this regard, as KS&EW has gained valuable experience during construction of Pakistan Navy’s fleet tanker, F-22P frigates, Azmat-class fast attack craft and various utility craft including the gunboats. Moreover, KS&EW is also undertaking repair/maintenance activities of Pakistan Navy ships and is involved with commercial sector vis-à-vis ship construction and maintenance activities. Thus, the decision to construct OPVs in Romania through Damen was taken in view of the commitments and available capacity of Karachi Shipyard at that time. We are considering KS&EW for the construction of additional OPVs in future, as it is in-line with our goal of achieving self-reliance in building modern naval platforms.

ADJ: What new and emerging technologies do you consider vital for the navy to acquire in order to maintain its effectiveness?

CNS: The character of war has transformed with the use of smarter technologies such as drones, unmanned vehicles, artificial intelligence, supersonic/hypersonic missiles, glide vehicles and loitering munitions, among the few. To keep up with rapidly evolving technological domain, Pakistan Navy has tailored its developmental strategy and procurement process while directing R&D efforts towards induction of smarter future technologies. We are following an incremental approach to increase reliance on unmanned systems in which Pakistan Navy is operating tactical UAVs (Scan Eagle and LUNA NG) and has recently acquired medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UCAVs (CH-4). The available unmanned surface vessels (USVs) are also being evaluated for their utility in harbour defence, mine detection and countermeasure roles. At the same time,  we are undertaking indigenous efforts at our Naval Research and Development Institute (NRDI) to develop remotely operated/autonomous surface and underwater vehicles for meeting Pakistan Navy requirements for oceanographic survey, mine-countermeasure operations, and maritime security operations, among others.

ADJ: The first Lineage 1000E jet has been dispatched to South Africa for conversion under the Sea Sultan maritime patrol aircraft programme. When is the first jet expected to be delivered to the navy, and will future conversions be undertaken domestically?

CNS: I would like to correct the nomenclature of Embraer Lineage 1000E Jet aircraft conversion into LRMPA, being referred as “Sea Sultan” in various online sources, to its correct term “Pakistan Navy Jet LRMPA Upgrade Project”. Our aim through this acquisition is to achieve high-speed surveillance and deep strike capability which will be a significant addition to the Pakistan Navy. In Phase-I of the project, upgradation of two aircraft is being undertaken and we are expecting the first modified aircraft to join Pakistan Navy service within the next two years. Upon completion of the ongoing Phase-I, Pakistan Navy will consider the option to carry out subsequent upgradation of these aircraft, in-country.