Tuesday April 23, 2024

Sea sentinels

By Raashid Wali Janjua
November 22, 2016

Winston Churchill had once conceded that “the only thing that ever frightened me was the U Boat peril”. He was alluding to the peril of the German submarine arm prowling like predators in the Atlantic to interdict the war and merchant ships from the US and Canada to the UK and Europe.

The diabolical peril giving sleepless nights to Churchill that had ultimately accounted for some 3,000 ships including over 2,400 merchant vessels was finally countered effectively through technological breakthroughs by the US and its allies in Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW). The use of U Boats by the Germans was a quintessentially asymmetric tactic employed by a weaker protagonist against a superior adversary at sea, and effectively neutralised the superior naval might of USA and UK.

Pakistan effectively prevented the nefarious designs of a surreptitious sea marauder on November 14, underscoring the efficacy and alertness of our valiant sea sentinels. A German-origin Type 209 Diesel Electric submarine belonging to the Indian navy was detected 40 kilometres south of Karachi while snorkelling at periscope depth to recharge its batteries. The submarine, on a war patrol mission normally ranging from two to three months, was equipped with sensors to gather valuable intelligence about Pakistani maritime environment including CPEC-related sea traffic.

Detecting a submarine in sea is like ferreting out a needle in a haystack. A submarine thrives on stealth and surprise. The sea is quite unforgiving for these underwater predators as a submarine detected is a dead submarine.

That a submarine coasting furtively in our Exclusive Economic Zone (an area of 350 nautical miles extending from our shoreline towards the sea all along the coast) was detected by our aerial Anti Submarine Warfare assets that guided our sea-based assets to the errant submarine is a testament to the technological sophistication of our surveillance, detection and ASW handlers.

Traditionally, the submarine arm of the Pakistan Navy has had a qualitative edge over the Indian navy in the past. In the 1971 war, despite incurring initial losses from the Indian navy’s surface fleet’s attack on our naval and strategic fuel reserves, the Pakistan Navy took the battle to the Indians through submarine warfare. Our intrepid submariners sank INS Kukri, an Indian ASW cruiser besides threatening the Indian navy on India’s eastern coast.

But the maritime threat and response environment in South Asia has changed significantly since 1971. Now the Indian navy is not only trying to become a fearsome blue water navy, buoyed by a burgeoning economy and a newfound relevance as a regional gendarme for the US in the Indian Ocean, it is also trying to display a callous disregard for the sanctity of Pakistan’s territorial waters.

Indian hubris was on full display on November 14, when in blithe disregard of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a submarine was sent on war patrol in our EEZ. Pakistan’s EEZ, with an area of 290,000 square kilometres, needs to be properly defended in order to fully reap the economic as well as strategic dividends. The detection and chasing of an Indian submarine out of our EEZ was one such act of aggressive defence that signalled the resolve of a small yet qualitatively puissant Pakistan Navy to defend every inch of its sea frontiers.

With the Indian current crop of Type 209 and Kilo class Russian origin submarines the news of induction of the latest French Scorpene submarines in the Indian navy threatens to tilt the strategic balance in the undersea naval arm dangerously in favour of India. The Indian submarine threat assumes virulence in the context of future littoral warfare and the past Indian propensity for anti merchant ship warfare. The sinking of Merchant Vessels Cosco Willington and Al Hussain during the 1971 war is still fresh in Pakistani memory. The need, therefore, to safeguard the movement of commercial shipping from Gwadar to Gulf and back assumes top priority in case we wish to make the CPEC dream a reality.

The employment of sophisticated Electronic Support Measures by Diesel Electric submarines and their lesser acoustic noise compared to the long endurance nuclear submarines also makes these submarines ideal prowlers of the shallow waters for littoral operations. Their versatility to conduct littoral as well as sea lanes’ interdiction operations calls for more investment in our submarine and ASW capabilities.

Pakistan, with a land-centric threat focus and a land-lubber mentality, has maintained a 1:3 ratio in land forces while on sea the same ratio has worsened to 1:8 vis-a-vis the Indian navy. It was not just a fortuitous concatenation of events that led to emergence of an Indian submarine snorkelling wantonly in our EEZ. It is in fact the unravelling of a design pegged around the destabilisation of Pakistan and scuttling of the game-changing CPEC.

The strategy that incorporates Indian aggression across the Line of Control and covert operations inside Pakistan has the backing of global actors that seek to defeat the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative of China. The Maritime Silk Road that includes Gwadar and a string of ports at strategic locations like Colombo, Kwaukpyu (Myanmar), Sonadia (Bangladesh), and Maldives is being aggressively countered by US led coalition that includes Japan, India, and Australia.

The need of the hour is to stiffen the sinews of our sea sentinels. The navy needs a shot in the arm both in conventional submarine as well as anti-submarine warfare to address the gaping power asymmetry on sea frontier vis-a-vis India. The navy also has to play a vital, rather the decisive, role in buttressing our nuclear deterrence through second strike capability.

Let there be no doubts that the true second strike capability in the nuclear realm is only possessed by naval forces and not through some residual land-based delivery systems, however dispersed and concealed, to survive first strike by enemy nuclear forces. It is time our navy got the requisite attention it deserves to underwrite the commercial viability of the CPEC as well as the strategic viability of our nuclear deterrence.


The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.