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Footprints: Sea sick, are we?

Footprints: Sea sick, are we?

ON BOARD PNS ZULFIQUAR: The dot in the distance starts taking the shape of a speedboat as it approaches the ship en route to Balochistan. On the bridge of the F-22P frigate PNS Zulfiquar, Pakistan Navy officers are trying to make contact with it but to no avail; the boat chooses to ignore the signals. Left with no choice, the captain of the ship orders to engage fire which proves helpful in deterring the approaching vessel. It changes direction and vanishes for a while only to reappear after a few minutes from another direction.

That’s when the missiles on the ship are aimed at it. Following some action and excitement you hear the word ‘splash’ meaning the speedboat is in clear target and would be sunk in a few seconds.

The speedboat in this case is PNS Zarrar and no, the 33-metre-long Multi-Role Tactical Platform (MRTP33) hasn’t really been sunk by the warship. This is just a drill being carried out on Tuesday to show how naval ships defend themselves against approaching threats.

The sea, the most economical route for trade, is under constant threat from smugglers and pirates. PNS Zulfiquar then, playing the role of a defenceless merchant ship, becomes part of a Helicopter Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (HVBSS) demonstration where special force boats patrol around the ship in trouble as Special Services Group (Navy) commandos drop down on the deck from the American twin-engine anti-submarine warfare Sea King helicopter, to search the ship and capture the unwelcome visitors. More excitement follows as the Chinese Harbin Z-9 helicopter, part of the Pakistan Navy’s Air Arm, demonstrates several landings and take-offs from PNS Zulfiquar.

But the manoeuvre drills, no doubt impressive, do not provide answers to the several scathing questions regarding the meagre allocation of budget for the Pakistan Navy. As India concentrates on building a blue-water navy, acquiring more warships, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines to build up its fleet and exercise sea control at wide ranges, the Pakistan Navy with only a per cent of the defence budget to its name, even struggles to run its day-to-day operations.

Till the 1960s Pakistan had a lively ship-making industry thanks to the Karachi Shipyard but as Commander Pakistan Fleet Vice Admiral Syed Arifullah Hussaini rightly points out, a shipyard requires constant upgrading for it to remain relevant. “Our shipyard was revived by the Pakistan Navy some 10 years ago and putting it back on the right track also helped the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation,” says Vice Admiral Hussaini.

He adds, “To run a shipyard you need to run it like the corporate sector. The Karachi Shipyard stood on its own legs after it got the Navy’s contract for building destroyers. We want shipbuilding to progress here but even though the Karachi Shipyard is doing better, it is not deep enough to build bigger sea vessels. A shipyard at Gwadar Port and Port Qasim would have more scope. For years and years everything to do with prosperity has been linked to shipping and the sea.”

Apart from the nine Pakistan Merchant Navy carriers, the country relies on foreign flag carriers for trade purposes but the foreign ships may or may not carry the cargo in war-like situations. Therefore, Pakistan also needs to build on its merchant navy fleet.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $46 billion mega project, with a 3,000-kilometre network of roads, railways and oil and gas pipelines from Gwadar Port to Kashgar city in China, has the potential to change the face of Pakistan as it becomes the biggest recipient of China’s outbound investment. But what about the safety of the maritime silk route, the passage from where the ships would reach Gwadar Port?

Navy’s Director Public Relations North Commander Zakir Hussain Khan, also on board PNS Zulfiquar for the exercise drills, wonders if the Navy would be in a position to provide the security needed for the kind of sea traffic expected in the region by 2020.

“Although the Pakistan Navy doesn’t want to get into the arms race, we want credible deterrence. We want to be able to guard our national interests,” says the Commander Naval Fleet.

Still, looking at the Navy’s budget as compared to the amount being spent on developing land infrastructure makes one wonder if the government is biased against the sea.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2016

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