Thursday June 13, 2024

PN Task Force-88’s task of defending Gwadar

By S.m. Hali
October 19, 2020

The strategically-located deep-sea port of Gwadar is the lynchpin of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Whereas Pakistan Army’s Strategic Division has been entrusted with the responsibility of defending CPEC, the onus of keeping the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) open and protecting Pakistan’s coast as well as the ports of Karachi, Bin-Qasim, Ormara and Gwadar rest with Pakistan Navy (PN). A special organization known as Task Force-88 (TF-88) has been created and assigned the duty for the seaward security of Gwadar Port and protection of associated sea lanes against both conventional and non-traditional threats.

TF-88 comprises 400 Marines, who specialize in defending marine assets both onshore and seaward, against threats emanating from sub-surface, surface and aerial. The Task Force has been equipped with suitable platforms comprising gunboats, frigates, Fast Attack Craft, aircraft, and drones as well as other electronic surveillance means.

The two-way defence takes care of harbour defence dependent on the marine force, shore based anti-aircraft artillery, fast patrol craft and surveillance system comprising radars, drones and aerial surveillance systems. The seaward defence can tackle threats emanating from both conventional and non-conventional hostile elements.

TF-88 operates in close coordination with the Pakistan Army and Air Force. The Army’s air defence assets as well as the Air Force high powered radars work in close conjunction with TF-88, sharing the maritime air picture and distributing surveillance watch responsibilities. The seaward defence has the capability and capacity to escort merchant vehicles as well as counter threats from irregular forces, including conducting asymmetric operations.

Detractors of CPEC have exposed their malicious intent and PN’s TF-88 has its task cut out to protect Gwadar. Readers may recall that on 14 November 2016, according to an official report, PN, ever alert and using its extreme professional skill, had prevented an Indian submarine from entering Pakistani waters. Reportedly, the unsuspecting submarine was detected, localized south of Pakistani coast and forced to flee. Apparently, the IN sub was detected when it came up to the surface to recharge its batteries which may have become exhausted. Subs are required to rise up to periscope depth to recharge their batteries.

It is no coincidence that the IN sub was caught lurking in Pakistani waters on the same date that the first cargo ships were setting sail from Gwadar, carrying a shipload, which had been brought in the shape of a convoy from Kashgar. The event marked the accomplishment of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) pilot project.

On 4 March 2019, another IN submarine was detected by the ever-vigilant PN maritime surveillance aircraft P-3C Orion, which localized and blocked the would-be intruder from entering Pakistan’s maritime zone. The submarine could have been easily engaged and destroyed had it not been Pakistan’s policy to exercise restraint in the face of Indian aggression and to give peace a chance to prevail. However, the submarine was kept under watch along with monitoring of other Indian Navy units. The detected submarine was one of the latest submarines of Indian Navy.

Since the Port of Gwadar is located adjacent to the sea lanes of communication from where more than 35 percent of the world’s oil flow is shipped, the US too is apprehensive that with Chinese presence in Gwadar, the oil supply line leaving the Port of Hormuz can be choked.

PN’s TF-88 is a comprehensive Coastal Security and Harbour Defence Organization which has the capabilities to ensure gapless monitoring of all coastal waters and respond to arising contingencies. Although, the Gwadar Port is primarily a commercial port, PN has also established a separate Naval Base at Gwadar to house its assets to ensure the security of this important port and its seaward approaches. This Naval Base is used by PN and units which are deployed for security and defence of Gwadar Port. The Naval Base will not be used by any foreign navies, albeit naval ships from all countries are welcome for berthing at the port, while on port call to Gwadar as per normal practice. PNS Siddiq at Turbat is geared to provide air surveillance and defence cover for Gwadar and Ormara sea fronts. On 05 July 2018, the Pakistan Ministry of Defence Production signed a deal with Turkey’s Military Factory and Shipyard Corporation (ASFAT A.S.) for the purchase of four customized MILGEM Ada corvettes for the Pakistan Navy (PN). The PN is slated to receive all four ships by 2024, with the first due in 2023. PN is also planning to acquire four MILGEM class corvettes from Turkey, eight submarines from China, Azmat-class Fast attack crafts and a new fleet tanker to supplement the defence of Gwadar deep-sea port.

The success of the CPEC and the Gwadar Port project is linked to the safe and secure maritime environment in the Indian Ocean region in general and the Arabian Sea in particular. The PN has adopted a multipronged approach to deal with the prevailing challenges such as beefing up security of Gwadar Port, conducting security patrols and coastal exercises, enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness and engaging in Collaborative Maritime Security with regional and extra-regional navies. It is pertinent to mention that security of Gwadar port, its infrastructure, Chinese personnel working within port and harbor defence responsibility have been entrusted to Pakistan Navy.

PN has deployed a Force Protection Battalion (FPBn) of Pak Marines along with requisite assets and equipment, both afloat and ashore, to ensure security of the Port and the Chinese personnel. This deployment will be further augmented with the proportionate increase in trade and associated activities in the Port.