Pakistani armed forces face an imminent threat from the Islamic militancy in addition to the ever-existing Indian threat which it expects to counter through reinforcing ties with China and acquisition of nuclear weapons. Report suggest that Pakistan army was forced for a strategy change after the gruesome incident of December 2014 in Peshawar when Taliban militants stormed a school in Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar and killed more than 140 students.
Since becoming an ally in the US-led ‘war on terror’ following the 9/11 twin terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Pakistan’s top generals virtually paid no heed to Western concerns against the terror networks harbouring on the Afghanistan border. A mounting pressure to launch an offensive against terrorist sanctuaries in the North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan was of no avail.
The Peshawar attack changed the army’s strategy and compelled the army to step up the counter-terrorism campaign in the area, which according to analysts say exposed almost a third of the more than half-a-million-strong army to active combat duties at any given time. The campaign came after the revelation of links between the Peshawar attackers and supporters of their cause in North Waziristan surfaced.
For decades armed tribesmen on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border regularly crossed freely and the common occurrence of intermarriages between families from the two sides further reinforced tribal and familial relations. In recent years, however, the resistance to attacking the region could be attributed to the concerns over a violent reaction if the army launched a full offensive.
Almost two years after the Peshawar attack, senior army officers say that the Taliban has become weak and their sanctuaries destroyed. However, according to independent analysts the campaign has resulted in paradigmatic shift in the Pakistan Army’s narrative towards accepting a challenge on dual front Apart from the North Waziristan campaign, deployments against India, from the mountainous terrain of Kashmir to the plains of the Punjab region and onwards to the desert of Sindh, remain the Pakistan Army’s main front line of action and rank on the top of its priority.
Pakistan’s frontier with India is one of the most diverse faced by standing army faces contemporarily.. The long-term Indo-Pakistani conflict over the division of the mountainous state of Kashmir in 1947 has resulted in three wars and countless skirmishes between the two countries. As a result, both countries have invested heavily towards building up their land, naval, and air forces.
After Pakistan joined the US-led campaign on terror in 2001 the focus of the Pakistani army regarding the defence of the border to the east, facing India, has begun to change. In the aftermath of the 2014 school attack and launch of the ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ campaign in North Waziristan, the army is now confronted with a long –term task of fighting terror and militancy within the country’s borders while also keeping up its deterrent measures against India.
US officials have been urging Pakistan for long to exercise its clout to force Islamist militant factions in Afghanistan, notably members of the Haqqani Network, to step back from fighting the elected Afghan government, now led by President Ashraf Ghani.
The United States has frequently claimed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is a regular supplier of arms to Haqqani Network militants through which they carry out regular attacks. These claims have been continually denied by the Pakistani officials although according independent observers militants from the group still routinely cross over to Pakistani territory to convalesce in between attacks in Afghanistan.
For Pakistan the threat from Afghanistan poses two clear dimensions. First, continued fighting in Afghanistan creates fallout for Pakistan, most notably Islamabad being accused of fuelling the Afghan war. Second, more than 2 million Afghan refugees remain on Pakistan’s soil and pose a continuing threat to the country’s internal security.
After the Peshawar school attack, Pakistani politicians have repeatedly said that they have begun documenting and monitoring Afghan refugees to curb their ability to become involved in militancy. Privately, however, many officials say that this task is impossible, given that the flow of refugees dates back to 1979 and the fact that Afghan refugees are scattered all across the country.
Meanwhile, according to Pakistani officials, the Taliban in Afghanistan have toughened their position on negotiating with the government in Kabul following a number of battlefield successes. “Pakistan’s ability to help end the Afghan war is often exaggerated. We can only advise various factions to come to the negotiating table; we can’t force them,” said a senior foreign ministry official in Islamabad who deals with Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials also say that the killing of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack in Pakistan in May has weakened the Taliban leadership and has made the militants apprehensive of participating in peace talks overseen by the United States and Pakistan.
Despite the withdrawal of the major part of US forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban are unlikely to repeat their victory of the mid-1990s, in which they seized control of Afghanistan. Taiiban will continue to suffer on account of two related handicaps. First on account of factionalism and periodic infighting, Afghan Taliban will fall short of their past cohesion under late leader and founder Mullah Mohammad Omar that led them to a conclusive victory. Further to that the United States has retained its air power, notably its armed UAVs, in Afghanistan to attack targets such as Mullah Mansour. This means the Taliban will likely gain ground in parts of Afghanistan but fall short of militarily taking over big cities such as Kabul or other major population centres. For Pakistan, the risk from Afghanistan will continue to pose a frequent challenge to its military policymakers.
Since 1998, when Pakistan carried out its six maiden nuclear tests, analysts observed that the country’s achievement of a proven nuclear asset and continued development of delivery systems will feature as a part of the defence planning for the near future. In September 2015, Pakistan’s National Command Authority (NCA), the body having the final responsible for the country’s nuclear policy, publicly mentioned that Pakistan now employs a policy of “full-spectrum deterrence”. This followed Pakistan’s long-term rejection of a ‘no first use’ policy with respect to its nuclear weapons. This has led the Western analysts to infer that Pakistan puts a greater degree of emphasis on producing tactical nuclear weapons.
Pakistani officials have continually said the country will never allow a repeat of the ‘Bangladesh situation’ of 1971, when an Indian military intervention in the former province of East Pakistan led to the creation of Bangladesh. As India continue to remains Pakistan’s number one military threat, a general inference is that Pakistan would be willing to use its nuclear weapons in the case of an Indian military incursion in the country.
The development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has been justified by senior officials as a response policy to India’s much larger stock of conventional weapons. India’s plans for further investments in the development and modernisation of its forces, notably its air force and navy, have impelled Pakistani officials to warn of a growing threat from its next-door neighbour. Given Pakistan’s constrained financial ability to match the planned expansion of India’s conventional forces, the development of nuclear assets therefore looks to be a more plausible policy option for Islamabad’s defence strategists.
As per Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates, in 2015 Pakistan had 110-130 nuclear warheads deliverable by aircraft, ballistic missiles, and sea-based systems. Samar Mubarakmand, a prominent retired nuclear engineer, gave a rare insight in 2014 into the development of delivery systems. “Pakistan has over 15 types of nuclear weapons, from large weapons that can be carried on fighter jets to small ones that can be loaded onto ballistic missiles and even smaller warheads for cruise missiles and tactical nuclear weapons,” he said.
One of the most important expansion plans for Pakistan’s armed forces, revealed by a senior Pakistan Navy officer in August, is a contract the service has signed with China to purchase eight new submarines by 2028. The first four boats will be built in China and delivered by 2022/2023, while the remaining units will be built at the Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW) with Chinese assistance and are planned to be completed by 2028.
The contract value of this programme has not been publicly disclosed by either China or Pakistan, but Western officials with long-term experience of tracking Pakistan’s naval developments say it could be worth between USD4 billion and USD5 billion. While Pakistani officials have refused to comment on the type of boats being purchase, it is expected that they are likely to be a derivative of the Yuan-class (Type 039A/B/C) submarine.
Many Pakistani and Western defence sources have mentioned that Pakistan’s planners are actively engaged in establishing a triad of delivery systems for its nuclear weapon. While nuclear delivery systems have already been established for seagoing surface platforms, Pakistan aims to arm at least one of its submarines with a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability. It is also widely speculated that Pakistan is looking to acquire at least one nuclear-powered boat, although a timeframe and the extent to which Pakistan will succeed remains unknown.
The new submarines, at any rate, will significantly enhance Pakistan’s underwater capabilities. Currently the Pakistan Navy possesses three French Agosta 90B (Khalid-class) attack submarines purchased in the 1990s and two older French Agosta 70 (Hashmat-class) boats dating from the late 1970s. All three of the Agosta 90Bs are equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP), which has significantly enhanced their endurance. Pakistani defence sources say that the Chinese submarines will all be equipped with AIP systems, but have refused to divulge more details.
Meanwhile, the expansion of surface platforms in the Pakistan Navy over the past two decades has also mainly been driven by Chinese acquisitions. The first major contract was for China to supply four Sword-class (F-22P) frigates, which were delivered between 2009 and 2013 at a total cost of USD700 million. According to sources, the two sides are negotiating the sale of another four surface vessels to Pakistan, the construction of which will be shared between China and Pakistan.
A further progression of the military-industrial relationship between China and Pakistan is the Pakistan Navy’s Azmat-class missile-capable patrol boat acquisition. KSEW launched its third Azmat-class missile-capable patrol craft in September. A total of four vessels are on order, with construction being undertaken in collaboration with China under a technology-transfer arrangement.
The Azmat class is based on the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) Houjian-class (Type 037/2) missile boat design. Its offensive capabilities include eight (two quad) launchers that are capable of deploying the C-802A surface-to-surface missile, a twin 37 mm gun mounting in the forward section, and a Type 630 30 mm close-in weapon system for defence against aerial threats.
Pakistan has stepped up its plans for equipping its navy-run Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA) with six new patrol vessels, also to be supplied by China. In a June 2015 contract signed between China Shipbuilding Trading Company (CSTC) and Pakistan’s government it was determined that four of the vessels will displace 600 tonnes and two will displace 1,500 tonnes. Although the Pakistan Navy has tried to widen the co-operation with Turkey, China remains the chief supplier of new naval platforms.
These developments clearly indicate Pakistan’s intent to place a growing emphasis on improving its naval capability: an area that has traditionally lagged behind the army and the air force. Related to the Pakistan’s naval strategy is China’s plan to build the flagship project ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC): an ambitious network of highways, oil and gas pipelines, train networks, and electricity generation plants that will link China’s predominantly Muslim western Xinjiang province to the China-funded Gwadar port in southern Pakistan on the banks of the Arabian Sea. This is eventually meant to enhance Chinese trade with the Middle East through a much shorter route than the current supply line through the South China Sea.
Pakistani planners are also keen for an increased presence of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels in the Indian Ocean: an area of little maritime interest to China. Pakistan’s interest in luring the Chinese navy to the Indian Ocean derives mainly from its long-term conflict with India. It is uncertain whether China would be interested in assuming a more offensive posture against India, as it is already engaged in disputes relating to the South China Sea, although its choice will partly rely on the extent to which India joins the United States in countering China’s rise in Asia.
The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF’s) planned retirement of 190 fighters by 2020 will be the first time such a large number of its aircraft are up for replacement. The platforms to be retired include older Delta-winged French Mirage IIIs and 5s as well as Chinese-manufactured F-7s. According to independent analysts, by 2020 the PAF-run Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) at Kamra, north of Islamabad – the main facility for manufacturing fighter aircraft – will likely achieve its target of producing up to 150 of the JF-17 Thunder fighters that the country is jointly manufacturing with China.
Pakistani officials say that producing up to 250 JF-17s remains the PAC’s target, although this could undergo a change under two conditions: firstly, success in finding export customers for the JF-17 would bring in revenue that the PAF could use to purchase other fighters; secondly, a significant improvement in Pakistan’s economic outlook and availability of funds could be used by the PAF to purchase more advanced fighters while reducing the number of JF-17s to be produced.
For now, PAF officials look to be content with the JF-17 as they look towards closing their first export deal: probably a Nigerian order by the end of the year. The first twin-seat JF-17 is slated to fly by late 2016 or early 2017, giving a major boost to the programme.
In the long run, the PAF is seeking to purchase a reliable frontline fighter that is ideally equipped with twin engines, as opposed to the single-engined JF-17. Moreover, the PAF is also looking for a reliable supplier for the long haul, especially after fresh uncertainty was triggered this year over the future of the F-16s that the PAF has flown since the 1980s. In 1990 deliveries of older F-16A/Bs were terminated by the United States on the grounds that Pakistan was working to produce nuclear weapons. The supply of F-16s was resumed after Pakistan joined the US-led war on terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001.
In May 2016, however, the US State Department told journalists that Pakistan would have to put forward its own funds for the purchase of eight F-16C/D Block 52 models for a total price of around USD700 million. This was a departure from an earlier understanding under which Pakistan was required to pay USD270 million, with the remaining USD430 million to be funded by the United States under the Foreign Military Financing programme. Pakistan has refused to accept the eight F-16s unless subsidised by Washington as previously agreed.
The PAF currently operates 33 F-16As, 25 F-16Bs, 12 F-16Cs, and six F-16Ds.
The episode with the proposed purchase of the eight latest F-16s has raised serious question marks over the creditibality of the United States as a supplier. Senior PAF officials mention that that they have considered the Chinese J-10 and the Russian Su-35 as an “intermediate option” for purchase and induction by the 2020s, with anywhere between 30 and 40 platforms to be purchased.
Over the longer term Pakistan has silently begun considering Chinese aircraft, notably the J-20 and the J-31, for future buys to keep up with India. These two platforms are in their early stage of development, however, which is why purchasing J-10s or Su-35s is likely over the medium term.
The areas that Pakistan’s army has paid attention to for the development of its weapon systems have notably included its tanks and helicopters. The tanks remain central in the strategy to any future conflict with India in the plains of the central Punjab province and the desert along the southern Sindh province, both of which border India. The helicopters, meanwhile, have become vital to continuing the campaign against militants in the rugged terrians and semi-autonomous tribal regions along the Afghan border. The army’s artillery units also remain central to its strategy, notably in the divided state of Kashmir, which remains at the centre of ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan.
The Pakistan Army’s armoured corps operates about 400 Al Khalid and 600 Al Zarrar main battle tanks (MBTs) manufactured by Pakistan’s Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT). The Al Zarrar is a variant of the Chinese Type 59/59M. The army’s tank inventory also includes Chinese Type 85-IIAP and Ukrainian T-80UD tanks.
The Al Khalid is powered by a Ukrainian 6TD-2 power pack capable of achieving a maximum power of 1,200 bhp. It also features an active threat protection system and a battle management system. HIT is currently working on a new improved variant, to be known as the Al Khalid I. The newer version will host additional features including a larger engine and the ability to fight at night. According to Western defence officials who closely follow the Al Khalid programme, HIT is working together with China’s Norinco on the new variant.
Pakistan will receive nine Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters by the end of September 2018, according to a US Department of Defense (DoD) contract notification announced in April. However, while Pakistani defence officials were earlier happy at an agreement for the sale of these helicopters, relations recently cooled after the US withdrew a planned subsidy for the sale of eight F-16s following objections from Congress. It is uncertain as to whether the sale will still include the 15 helicopters originally requested by Pakistan, or just the nine notified by the DoD.
Pakistan has also requested to purchase 1,000 AGM-114 HellfireII air-to-surface missiles for precision strikes. The army looks to replace its existing 32 AH-1F Cobra platforms.
In addition to the AH-1Zs, Pakistan has also signed a contract for four Russian-built Mi-35 ‘Hind’ attack helicopters. The Pakistan Army has also received three Chinese-built CHAIG WZ-10 attack helicopters for trials. The Pakistan Army is believed to have flown these platforms on counter-terrorism missions. If Pakistan opts for Chinese helicopters, there is a great degree of possibility that a deal will be concluded in view of close ties between the two countries. However, that option will only be exercised in the condition where Pakistan would not be able to receive more helicopters from the United States.
Pakistan’s two-front challenge contains both a risk and an opportunity for the country’s defence strategists. On the downside is the pressure that Pakistan’s armed forces have taken on with their prolonged exposure to militants at home, which has markedly concerned the army, backed by air force attacks on terrorist locations. The battle within it has also been divisive across the predominantly Muslim country, where many continue to be sympathetic to hardliners. However, Western officials with long-term experience of tracking the evolution of Pakistan’s response to internal militancy say the country’s army officers and soldiers have gained valuable battlefield experience that has boosted their fighting capacity.
Meanwhile, India’s increasing defence expenditure as compared with that of Pakistan has obligated the country to accept the need for enhanced military expenditure, especially to strengthen the navy and air force, and Pakistan’s long-term ties with China continue to help the country meet its needs. In addition, China’s commitment to invest more than USD51 billion in Pakistan under the CPEC is viewed by Pakistani officials as signs of a further deepening of an already-close relationship. For Pakistan’s defence forces a deeper Chinese footprint in economic relations with Islamabad will likely continue to consolidate this defence relationship.