In the eyes of some observers, the past few years have seen Pakistan switch from being a very close friend of the West to being a potential danger to the international community. While the country was at the forefront of resistance to Soviet regional expansion during the Cold War - a role enhanced when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 - once the Red Army had withdrawn, India became the greatest threat to Pakistan's security. The subsequent search for a nuclear arsenal raised Western fears and curtailed arms sales.
This has, in turn, led to a shift by Pakistan away from a Western-style democracy towards closer links with its Islamic neighbours, especially Iran. The mutual relationship between Pakistan, a relatively poor but well-armed country with a very advanced nuclear programme, and Iran, an ambitious and unpredictable state, could signify a major change in the balance of power. The recent election of Benazir Bhutto could shift the balance yet again. In this fast changing political scenario, it is important to consider the role played by a small but elite branch of the Pakistani Armed Forces - the Naval Special Service Group (SSGN).
The Formation of the SSGN
In 1966, Pakistan raised a group of special forces under a centralised command which was similar to the US Special Forces Command (SOCOM) concept. In this Special Service Group (SSG), which fought bravely during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, the navy had a small but important part to play.
At the outbreak of hostilities, there were some 100 naval servicemen in the SSGN. They were trained especially in counterinsurgency and anti-terrorist operations in coastal and riverine environments. The unit was tasked with long-range operations in western Pakistan (then Bangladesh) to counter infiltration by Indian agents and special forces. It was also required to keep pressure on local rebels of the pro-Indian Bengali Party. This latter task was relatively successful even if conducted with scant regard for human rights. Eventually, when the Indian Army invaded western Pakistan, the sub units of the SSGN which were deployed there suffered heavy casualties; most of the operators were killed, captured or escaped to neutral bordering states.
The headquarters of the SSGN is the naval station of Iqbal in Karachi. Here, amphibious and underwater training for the SSGN and otherservices is carried out. Furthermore, Iqbal has the necessary facilities for accommodating the mini-submarines which represent a valuable asset.
The training of the SSGN involves weapons, tactics, martial arts, camouflage and concealment, escape and survival, explosive ordnance disposal, communications, as well as swimming, diving, air and heliborne operations. Free-fall parachuting, path finding, mountain and rock climbing also form part of the syllabus. These training activities are conducted within the SSG bases of Cherat and Peshawar. Close-circuit oxygen breathing equipment is commonly issued for underwater activities to a maximum depth of about 12 m. In the case of deeper missions, for mines clearance or explosive disposal for example, common air breathing equipment is used.
The SSGN used to train alongside US Navy SEALs and undertook 'wet' training with Saudi special forces. During more recent times, however, the SSGN has conducted joint training with Iranian Islamic revolutionary guards (Pasdaran) which has significantly enhanced the latter's operational skills.
Pakistan has more experience in submarine warfare than many other Third World countries. During the 1971 war, a Pakistani submarine torpedoed an Indian frigate (INS Khukri), the very first prey of a submarine after the Second World War and the only one other than the sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano during the Falklands war in 1982.
Beside having the largest and best trained Third World submarine fleet, the Pakistani Navy employs a number of mini-submarines. These are small units very well suited for underwater special operations. Five boats of 75 t displacement entered service in the mid-1970s. Built by the Italian firm Cosmos, the submarines played an important role in the aggressive development of underwater warfare in Pakistani special operations.
The mini-submarines were tasked with the transportation of four to six combat divers each. The divers were then required to swim to the target directly or to use swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs). During several years of continuous operations, one of the original five boats was lost with all crew in an accident, and another reached the end of her operational life; the latter vessel has become a well-known monument in a Karachi square. Although the other three boats should also have been laid up, it is believed that at least two have been handed over to Iran for evaluation and training.
The mini-submarines have now been replaced in the Pakistani Navy with three new 110 t boats, also built by Cosmos. They are much more capable in terms of endurance and payload. The submarines, armed with two torpedo tubes and capable of minelaying, could be used to establish choke points or create barriers, especially in shallow waters. Combat swimmers also can operate from the boats. The submarines' small signature and dimensions make them a perfect instrument for this kind of activity. A very small crew (usually up to six men), coupled with the relatively low unit price, gives a further advantage, especially for small navies. In the Iqbal base, the mini-submarines are usually kept in dry hangars for maintenance. They are lifted into the water by cranes only for when operational required.
Interestingly, Pakistan's most likely opponent, the Indian Navy, recently obtained three mini-submarines of almost identical design. The procurement of these new three boats included the technology to establish an autonomous building programme. To date, however, this capability has not been developed as it would require local industrial resources which are in scarce supply as well as expertise which is currently lacking.
To be truly effective, the mini-submarines must be considered not as smaller brothers of a fleet of larger boats but just as dedicated special operations crafts, manned by special forces personnel and under the direct control of a special operations command. The Pakistani Navy has done just this and, as far as it is possible to ascertain, it possesses a very good operational capability with skilled personnel. It should be assumed that, even during normal peacetime, covert operations are routinely conducted in, or very close to, foreign waters.
The capabilities of the Pakistani SSGN represent an important factor in the military balance of the Indian sub-continent. Two countries, both with a nuclear capability, face one other directly. Strong tensions are present, generated both by religious intolerance and border claims; these could all too easily lead to military engagements. In this scenario, the covert intelligence and raiding capabilities offered by a naval special warfare unit are considered invaluable.