An undisputed lesson of military history is that a nation’s power is projected not as much by its army as it is by its prowess at sea. It has been so since the Phoenician era (1500-300 BC). The Spartans had a powerful army but the Athenians’ strength at sea neutralized that advantage. Likewise, at their peak, the Romans, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish, the British and the Japanese – all first secured sea lanes of communications for trade advantage before expanding their influence beyond their shores.
This lesson is not lost on Russia which is recovering from the pains of its breakup to emerge as a strong power. The U.S. has declared its intentions to ‘pivot’ east in the 21st century due to geopolitical and economic reasons. The Russian Navy’s sortie into the North Arabian Sea, and before that of the Chinese Navy, can accordingly be seen as part of their larger schemes of not abandoning this important sea stretch uncontested.
U.S. naval interest in the east, and especially in the South China Sea, is intriguing since although a signatory, it has not ratified the United Nations Conventions on Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) on the pretext that doing so would be tantamount to relinquishing control over its adjoining seas. How the U.S. can expect others to accept what it does not wish for itself – more so as the global natural resources are shrinking and galloping technological advancements raise expectations of littoral states for discovering valuable economic resources under every reef and rock – literally.
It is therefore not surprising that the U.S. pivot to the Pacific Ocean region is seen with suspicion by Russia and China. This year alone, Russia has carried out joint naval exercise with a number of countries including China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Iran. Further exercises with the Indian and Japanese navies are to be conducted in 2015. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which gives it the Black Sea Fleet access to the Atlantic, is significant as it provides a seaboard for guarding its national interests from the west.
In the last few decades, there has been a tectonic shift in the global naval balance and maritime powers are positioning themselves for a changed
environment in the 21st century. The recent naval exercises between Russian and Pakistan navies in the North Arabian Sea are a part of this re-positioning strategy and its agenda was set by Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Viktor V Chirkov with his Pakistani counterpart when he visited Islamabad in April this year.
The relatively elementary nature of drills and evolutions in the joint exercises, which included counternarcotic exercises involving personnel from the Russian Federal Drug Control Services (FDCS) – an activity generally associated with the Coast Guard units all over the world – should not be pooh-poohed since its broader geopolitical context is of much greater significance. It was for the first time in the post-Cold War era that the two navies were exercising jointly.
This new development of Russia reaching out to Pakistani waters raises the obvious question of its impact on regional politics vis-a-vis India. Equally obvious would seem to be the answer as the Indo-Russian strategic relationship has undergone a major change after the breakup of the Soviet Union. India’s clear and unambiguous re-orientation towards the west for a greater nuclear collaboration, acquisition of major weapon systems and closer diplomatic relations to seek a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, has placed it firmly in the U.S. camp. Any last hopes for Russia to keep India in the strategic ‘marriage’ were dashed after it lost out on the multi-billion dollar Indian tender for medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) which was awarded to France.
Although Pakistan mainly fulfils its defense requirements from western sources, there has also been an increasing inflow of Russian origin weaponry in its inventory over the years, most of which has come through China. But there is now a discernable trend for direct deals with Russia. Pakistan and Russia, for example, are engaged in the sale of Mi-35 combat helicopters to fight ‘drug-trafficking’– something which Sergei Chemezov – head of Russia’s Rostec Corporation, a high-tech industrial producer and exporter of Russian equipment – confirmed in July this year.
Interestingly, he also added that while India is Russia’s strategic partner in military co-operation, however, ‘expanding the activities to other countries in South and Southeast Asia has always been on the agenda and Pakistan is no exception’. The Mi35 helicopters, it may be recalled, were winning the war for Russia against Afghan mujahedeen until Senator Charlie Wilson prevailed in Washington and shoulder fired stingers made their entry into the conflict.
The footprints of Russian military technology are visible in Pakistan in the form of Al-Khalid and Al-Zarrar, the main battle tanks of the Pakistan Army. On the face of it, these are based on Chinese T-90-II tank but the T-90 is a licensed production of Soviet T-54/55 design and transfer of its technology to Pakistan has obviously been with Russian consent. The Pakistan Army’s anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) are based on Chinese Red Arrow ATGMs which in turn are extensively influenced by Russian 9K11 Malyutka. The 76.2 mm caliber main gun on Pakistan Navy’s Chinese origin F-22P Frigates is the redesigned version of the Russian AK-176M with only some stealth features added for reduced radar cross section.
The Chinese built RD-93 engine on JF-17 Thunder is a close variant of Russian Klimov RD-33 or Mig-29 aircraft. Significantly, after losing the MMRCA tender to France, Russia dropped its objections for the sale of 150 RD-93 turbofan engines from China to Pakistan. The Mig-29 is the mainstay of the Indian Air Force and Russia must have factored this in its decision to allow the sale. This has given a major boost to Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder Block II project with bright prospects of export to Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. The Y-8 type aircraft in the PAF’s inventory with ZDK03 Karakoram Eagle Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) radar installed atop its dorsal fin is based on the Russian AN-12 aircraft which is operated by the IAF.
There is a strong case for further strengthening and expanding of military relations with Russia. In the changed global milieu, any Indian objections in this regard are unlikely to be taken seriously by Moscow. This argument gets weighty due to our current state of economy which cannot support any major modernization program of our armed forces, especially the navy, where its gap with the Indian Navy is widening.
One area which could be seriously considered is the possible acquisition of smaller submarines where Russia has a good range of capable vessels like the Piranha-T SSW, P-550 SSW, P-650E SSW and P-750 SSW midget submarines. This new generation of Russian submarines offers costeffective solutions for countries like Pakistan for their coastal defense as well as retaliatory strikes against the enemy. We have the desired infra-structure to support midget submarines operations aggressively but the project has been hitched unnecessarily for decades without any benefit whatsoever.
The P-750 SSW, for instance, is fitted with 533mm torpedo tubes which can launch both torpedoes and cruise missiles in shallow waters. It can be armed with 24 seabed mines in outboard containers as well as four vertical launchers with cruise missiles including Club-S-3M-14E missiles designed to hit coastal targets up to the range of 300 kilometers, thus keeping within the parameters of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). They are manned by smaller crew and installation of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system together with its advanced weaponry puts it at par, or even superior in some case, with the endurance of conventional submarines which carry a much higher price tag.
Back in the 19th century, U.S. Admiral A T Mahan had predicted that whoever controls the Indian Ocean in the 21st century will control the world. The U.S. expects to be self-sufficient in its energy needs in a not too distant future, largely due to revolutionary advancement in technology but the Indian Ocean will continue to be the ‘Energy Highway’ of the east. The U.S. fleet is shrinking from its 600 ships target in the Regan era to about 230 in the near future. Other aspirants are rushing in to fill the vacuum. Pakistan should be a part of that process for the sake of peace and tranquility in the region and use of oceans for the benefit of all.