Strange Bed­fel­lows

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Taj M. Khat­tak The writer is a re­tired Vice Ad­mi­ral of the Pak­istan Navy.

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.

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