Pakistan fine-tunes its maritime perception

Pakistan is strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman with the port of Gwadar only 250 miles from the Straits of Hormuz. The Gulf region contains 66% of the world's proven oil reserves and over 30% of the gas wealth. Because of obvious economic interests, this area is the focus of attention for world powers and shall continue to remain so in the foreseeable future.

Culturally, Pakistan also enjoys a central location amid four distinct civilisations (Middle East, Central Asian Republics, China and South Asia). This central location, coupled with a sea front of approximately 1,000km, provides Pakistan with an opportunity to play an important role in the maritime affairs of the region.

The proximity of Pakistan's southwestern shores to the only approach to the Gulf of Oman, entrusts an obligation to maintain freedom of navigation in the sea lanes. Any disruption of the shipping traffic to and from the Gulf would disturb the region's economic equilibrium, with serious repercussions for Pakistan's national interests and international trade.

At the national level, about 97% of Pakistan's trade is carried via the sea. As a result, the nation considers itself to be a de facto island state. This may not be geographically true, but the analogy is based on a comparison of trade patterns of other island states like the UK, Australia and Japan, whose sea trade figures almost match those of Pakistan. Seaborne trade includes vital imports like crude oil and petroleum products, which makes merchant shipping a life-line for Pakistan. In this light, a balanced navy is not only a prudent option but a strategic compulsion for Pakistan.

Due to the heavy bias of continental strategy in the past, insufficient attention was paid to the maritime sector. Consequently, Pakistan's maritime interests did not flourish commensurate with the development in the region. The dynamics of the post-Cold War era have forced us to adjust our maritime perception; the present government has taken a decision to rapidly expand the maritime sector by enlarging Pakistan's merchant fleet, increasing the number of ports and investing in exploitation of sea-based resources.

In this context, the merchant marine service is receiving additional incentives: construction of a deep-water port at Gwadar has been approved; the fishing fleet is being modernised; and offshore exploration has been stepped up. These measures will provide an impetus to the development of the maritime sector and the economic activities related to the sea.

It is a strategic imperative for Pakistan to operate a potent navy to safeguard maritime interests. Upon gaining independence, the Pakistan Navy (PN) consisted of a couple of old frigates and training establishments. Ever since, the PN has made quantum leaps in operational capabilities. Today, it has transformed itself into a modern, three-dimensional force, with the ability to effectively operate in and monitor Pakistan's areas of interest.

Navies are capital intensive organisations, making it difficult for a country like Pakistan to maintain a large force. The fleet has therefore decided to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. The result has been a balanced development of the PN's combat capability. Today it operates suitably modernised ships, advanced aircraft and submarines - all with state-of-the-art weapons and sensors.

The PN has been pursuing an indigenous naval production capability for 15 years. It started initially with construction of support craft, coastal tankers, floating docks, tugs and gunboats. With this experience, the navy graduated to building missile boats, midget submarines and mine hunters, culminating in the construction of modern submarines. The next two Khalid-class submarines are under construction at Karachi with French collaboration.

The PN is also preparing to undertake construction of frigates in the near future. With this programme in place, the PN's future platforms and acquisition programmes are moving closer to being fully indigenous.

Strategic management has been another focus for the PN. In order to enhance quality of manpower and improve efficiency, the navy is conducting a review of the organisation for restructuring where required.

The PN has also commenced operations from a new naval port at Ormara, 150km west of Karachi on the Mekran Coast. This infrastructure will provide strategic advantage to the Pakistan Navy in terms of operational flexibility. A study is also being carried out to expand this port into a commercial harbour complex.

The PN is following a defensive strategy of guarding sea frontiers and keeping the sea lines of communication open. However, the fleet is also capable of conducting offensive operations as and when required. The PN seeks to maintain optimum combat readiness and power. Today, the navy is a force with good sea denial capability and hence cannot be discounted in the regional calculus.

In order to enhance regional stability, the PN has enhanced co-operation with a number of regional players. Attempts to avoid 'untoward' incidents have also come under discussion with extra-regional players.

Overall, the PN is striving to achieve a stable environment in the North Arabian Sea. In consonance with the analogy of an island state, Pakistan needs and maintains a balanced navy that can and will play its role effectively and efficiently in the region.