Security columnist and analyst Rear Admiral Vineet Bakhshi (Retd) highlighted the Pakistani industry’s collaborative effort with Beijing.
The Pakistan Navy commissioned its first indigenous Fast Attack Craft Missile FAC (M) PNS Haibat. Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) issued a statement announcing the commissioning of the country’s indigenous vessel: “PNS Haibat is the first project designed by Maritime Technologies Complex and constructed by Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW) without any foreign technical assistance.”
The indigenous aspect of this development and its regional and global significance seems to be a divisive subject. Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies is of the opinion that the commissioning of PNS Haibat is not particularly geopolitically worthwhile, given that that requires the weapon systems and the electronics to be indigenous. “In this case, the guns seem to be Turkish, the missile seems to be Chinese and the propulsion seems to be Franco-German. So, the possibility of re-export or rather export-export using a re-export licence-from these three suppliers seems unlikely,” he stated.
The Chinese involvement seems to have cast an ominous shadow on the development, too. In a scathing review, Captain DK Sharma (Retd), a former Indian Navy Spokesperson, notes that “Pakistan on its own cannot make anything. So now it is a kind of proxy accretion of assets positioned by China; they are slowly and steadily building up their force. Over the past few years, they have been giving them submarines, including the latest AIP submarines. Four are being built in China, and four are being constructed in KS&EW. They have also given them the latest frigates. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is being augmented by various J-10 series nomenclature.” Capt. Sharma believes that the building of this craft points towards Beijing making a “colony”, following the trend it set by laying a debt trap for Sri Lanka.
However, analysts based in Pakistan view the development differently.
“The ship will enhance the coastal defence capability of the Pakistan Navy. Armed with locally developed ‘Harbah’ Anti-Ship and Land Attack cruise missiles, this Fast attack craft will play its part in coastal defence. This ship is completely designed and manufactured by the Pakistan Navy,” noted Umair Aslam, Founding Editor of Global Defence Insight (GDI) – a Rawalpindi-based strategic affairs think tank. “In the current geopolitical context, Pakistan appears to be concentrating on its naval capabilities. China is supplying it with new frigates. Turkey has also been supplying Milgem class corvettes and other naval vessels. PNS Haibat’s induction is also one of Pakistan’s naval modernisation goals. This indigenisation effort will enable the Pakistan Navy to pursue more advanced programmes in the future, such as frigates and corvettes,” he commented.
Referring to indigenisation of Pakistan’s defence industry, Syed Ali Abbas Bukhari, Co-Founding Editor of GDI said that “the country is already working on it, having developed state-of-the-art fighter jets like the JF-17, Super Mushak training jets, and Khalid Main Battle Tanks, to name a few.” Bukhari also noted that the Pakistan Navy has taken this significant step, “demonstrating its trust in its own capacity” to carry out such initiatives.
Miguel Miranda, an independent observer of the South-Asian defence industry and founder of 21st Century Asian Arms Race- an online defence industry resource- was in agreement. “For Pakistan to assemble and launch its own surface combatants is mainly a win for its local maritime industry. It’s further proof that in many small but important ways, what I call the ‘military-industrial sector’ is thriving and now sits on the cusp of huge success this decade.”
Iyer-Mitra also noted the significance of the development in terms of maritime capabilities pointing out that ship design and integrating systems is “quite a skill”. He said that this “shows you that Pakistan has come to the level where it can manufacture a more complex system- like a ship. So this is definitely a very significant milestone at least in the Pakistani psyche, and definitely for Pakistani industry.” While he acknowledged that there is little that is currently known about the inside of the craft and its level of systems and electronic integration, he still stated that “both in terms of morale and industrial capability and defence capability, it is a big jump. Specifically in terms of defence capability, why it’s a big jump is that these kinds of small fast attack crafts- they can be extremely potent. A large fleet of these going around very fast, very easy for them to avoid missiles fired at them because of their small size.”
Aside from impacting in-battle capacities, the FAC (M) is also set to have an effect on the capability of the Pakistani defence industry.
Joseph P Chacko, author of Warring Navies – India and Pakistan, and Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm told this writer, “PNS Haibat enables baby steps to Pakistani warship development capabilities. The country has also tied up with Turkish manufacturers to build higher class warships in Pakistan. These experiences will bolster the country’s shipbuilding in the future.”
Aslam also opined on the relationship between the defence industry and this particular craft. “Pakistan has necessary infrastructure, resources and political will to realistically achieve its goals. Recently, KS&EW underwent an expansion program for the manufacturing of new warships and submarines. Under Transfer of Technology (ToT) contracts with Turkey and China, Pakistan will manufacture modern warships and submarines at home,” he said.
Is PNS Haibat An “Indigenous” Threat?
Security columnist and analyst Rear Admiral Vineet Bakhshi (Retd) highlighted the Pakistani industry’s collaborative effort with Beijing. He noted that the vessel appears to be a continuation of the Azmat class with upgrades and modifications. “This by itself requires a fair amount of design work, modelling and subsequent water tank testing,” he said before adding that this “would have been done by China Shipbuilding Corporation and Xingang Shipyard, the partners for the project with Pakistan. These vessels are not Blue Water vessels, and more for an inshore role.”
Capt. Sharma also mentioned China, albeit taking a vastly different stand. He believes that Pakistan is devoid of an indigenous defence industry. “Just look at the other parameters of the country’s growth- nothing! So suddenly, how is the money being pumped there? This is not their money; it is proxy money that Pakistan will have to pay dearly for, maybe by giving up their sovereignty at some stage. Defence is not a small thing, and you can see our indigenisation struggle here. Where’s the money? Where’s the technology and the wherewithal? Where is the ecosystem?” he probed.
The Indian side is also concerned about the offensive abilities of the craft. While Chacko does not see any significant technology enhancement as the armaments are expected to be uniform with other ships of the class, Iyer-Mitra believes that there is a good chance of the platform causing some serious damage, provided it is deployed in a certain bulk. He backed this statement with an example: “You can see that Ukraine for example uses Russian weapons and they’re using it very effectively against the Russians. If you look at the similar tech level where we mostly use Russian weapons and the Pakistanis are using Chinese weapons, you might find that the technology really isn’t all that backward.
“The question is how you deploy it. How you deploy matters as much as what you deploy, in fact, more so than what you deploy.”
RAdm. Bakhshi spoke about the vessel’s compactness and some details of its munitions. “With its small size and low draft, it can anchor in many of the creeks on the South Western Coast of Pakistan. The Harbah, with its stated range of 450 km can therefore reach many strategic targets in Gujarat and perhaps North Rajasthan. These missiles would invariably be using the Chinese Baidou Military GPS.”
Experts on Exports
A new addition to Pakistan’s defence inventory inevitably raises questions of India and its neighbour duking it out in the global market, and perhaps on the battlefield too, amongst
Iyer-Mitra is sceptical of India and Pakistan competing for the export market. “India’s defence prospects are extremely limited,” he said. “Where they exist, are in collaboration with Russia. You saw what happened with our ALH in Ecuador. It was a one-sale success and nothing really happened. The other is where we have gifted some ships to Mauritius. The first big, proper breakthrough has been the sale of the BrahMos to the Philippines and remember, that is only because the Russians have signed onto that deal. The missile is fundamentally Russian and we’ve added a certain technological complexity to it, but we cannot export the same without a Russian OK. Pakistan similarly cannot do the same without re-export licences from everybody, and specifically from China. So when you see JF-17 vs Tejas in the international market, it’s not technically Pakistan vs. India, but India vs China– and China is way ahead.”
RAdm. Bakhshi is in agreement. He noted that the vessels have a Chinese heritage, and a large component of weapons, sensors equipment which comes from China. “Consequently, it is highly unlikely that they would enjoy an export market. The potential customers would rather source the ships directly from China.”
There are other nuanced considerations at play, too. Miranda talks about these, stating that “it’s not just about rolling out products. Diplomacy and reputation also matter. Having friends matters more. India’s emergence as an arms exporter is only worth measuring versus China, whose arms exports are overshadowed by its immense capacity to mass-produce advanced weapons and other military equipment.”
Beyond the competition, there are common challenges both the countries are facing. There are common trends in terms of exports, too. Bukhari notes that there are certain changes that have taken place for both the industries. “Pakistan, for example, has been successful in exporting fighter jets to Nigeria as well as training jets to a number of countries. Similarly, India’s Dhruv Light Helicopters and BrahMos missiles have been exported to Mauritius and the Philippines, respectively. So, I believe both countries are trying to sell their defence products, but both are having problems, either technological or in terms of gaining a foothold in the international market.”
Before signing off, he insisted that this latest achievement should not be viewed in solitude, but as a part of a larger effort that Pakistan has been making for many years. “It’s a good indicator for a country with a shaky economy to acquire the capability and capacity for more local defence production,” he said.