Farhan Bokhari in Quetta and Charles Clover in Beijing
The most expensive Chinese arms export deal in history appeared set to go ahead on Wednesday after Pakistan’s government approved a deal to buy eight submarines from Beijing.
Although officials from Pakistan’s navy neither gave a price tag nor revealed the types of submarines being pursued, they confirmed a decision “in principle” during a hearing of the defence committee in the lower house of parliament in Islamabad.
China’s Song class submarine
A former senior Pakistan navy officer with knowledge of the negotiations told the Financial Times the contract could be worth $4bn-$5bn. “China has agreed once again to step in to fill a major strategic gap,” he said. “It was about time we placed an order.”
However, Chinese analysts valued the deal at less than half that amount.
The estimate of $4bn-$5bn is on par with the estimated cost of six French submarines bought by India in 2005, which cost $4bn-$4.5bn when they were delivered in 2010, according to Siemon Wezeman, an expert on the international arms market at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Mr Wezeman said the Pakistan deal was likely to be China’s biggest arms sale, eclipsing a deal for 50 JF-17 fighter jets bought by Pakistan in 2010 for more than $1bn.
Islamabad has long been Beijing’s top arms customer, driving China’s emergence as a major exporter of military hardware. Pakistan bought more than 40 per cent of China’s arms exports over the past five years, according to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
China’s arms exports surged 143 per cent over the same period, making it the world’s third-largest arms exporter, behind only the US and Russia.
Defence analysts in Islamabad say Beijing may have agreed to the submarines deal to help counter the perceived threat from India, amid fears the country is building its navy to claim a presence in the Pacific.
“China has its own strategic reasons to help Pakistan in this area,” said Ali Sarwar Naqvi, a former senior Pakistani diplomat. “As India prepares to head in to the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese are looking to head in to the Indian Ocean.”
Ian Storey, a security expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, agreed that there was clear strategic rationale for the deal.
“India has been modernising and expanding its navy for over a decade now,” he said. “While Pakistan can never close the gap between its own and India’s conventional armed forces, submarines would provide the Pakistan Navy with a credible deterrent.”
Other senior navy officers say Pakistan’s current fleet of five French Agosta submarines, including two ageing vessels built in the 1970s, will by the next decade be insufficient to meet the challenge posed by the planned naval expansion of India, Pakistan’s neighbour and main foe.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani military expert, cautioned that it was too early to say the deal marked a deepening of Beijing’s already strong defence and security ties with Islamabad. “At this stage, we don’t know the exact financial terms and unless we know the financial terms we can’t be certain about the significance of this order,” he said. “Still, it’s an important contract for Pakistan.”
Song Class background (See photo)
The Song class or Type 039 is the latest and most advanced diesel-electric attack submarine type to have been designed and built by indigenous Chinese effort. Conceived as the successor to the Chinese navy’s ageing force of obsolescent Ming class (Type 035) and wholly obsolete Romeo class (Type 033) submarines, which have constituted the core of the service’s conventionally powered submarine arm for more than four decades, the Song class is based in design terms on certain Western concepts. These include a low-drag hydrodynamically profiled hull and sail, new cylindrical bow-mounted sonars, a powerplant centered on the use of four German MTU diesel engines (16V396 units rather than the 12V493 units originally considered), and a new anti-submarine torpedo of Russian origin.
Another major enhancement contributing to the type’s capability for offensive as well as defensive operations is the provision for an anti-ship missile capability. This is in the form of a tube-fired YJ-82 (submarine-launched version of the ship-launched C-801) missile, which can deliver its 165-kg warhead to a range of 40 km with the aid of an inertial platform and active radar terminal seeker.
In overall terms, the Song class reveals a technological standard generally similar to that of Western submarines built during the 1980s.
The first boat, No. 320, was laid down in 1991 and was launched on 25 May 1994 at the WuHan Shipyard, but was not commission until June 1999 after the implementation of an exhaustive trials programme to assess the capabilities and, as it turned out, limitations of the design.
It was at this trials stage that the Chinese navy postponed further construction to allow the rectification of serious performance and design problems, and thus create the inertial full-production variant known as the Type 039G. This boat is characterized most obviously by a sail without the stepped-down forward section that in No. 320 accommodates the bridge with the forward hydroplanes under it.
Production was resumed at the Wuhan Shipyard in 1995, and the first Type 039G boat was launched in November 1999 for commissioning during April 2001 as No. 321. By 2003 another three units had been completed. Currently at least 12 boats of the Song class are in service with Chinese Navy.
Slightly shorter but beamier than the Ming class submarine it is designed to succeed, the Song class boat has a length/beam ratio at 8.91/1, which is slightly less than the 10/1 ratio of the Ming class submarines but of decidedly superior hydrodynamic shape. The Song class submarine is propelled through the water by one large seven-bladed propeller, and the primary machinery is located on shock-absorbent mountings for reduced vibration and therefore minimized underwater noise radiation. The stealthiness of the design is further enhanced by the use of anechoic tiling similar to that of the Russian Kilo class submarine.
The Song class submarine has a multi-role combat and command system which provides all the data needed for control of the boat and for the firing of torpedoes and missiles. The system is possibly an updated derivative of the combat and command system used in the Ming class submarines, and is probably of a standard equivalent to that installed in Western submarines in the 1970s.
As far as weapons are concerned, the Song class is armed primarily with anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes. As noted above, the YJ-82 missile is the submarine-launched variant of the C-801 launched underwater from the 533-mm torpedo tubes. Boosted by a solid-propellant rocket until it has emerged from the water, whereupon the solid propellant sustainer takes over, the missile approaches its target as a sea-skimmer and impacts under the guidance of its active radar seeker, the shaped-charge warhead being initiated by a delay-action impact fuse. The six 533-mm tubes, all located in the bows, have a maximum of 16 to 20 Yu-4 (SAET-60) passive homing and Yu-1 (Type 53-51) torpedoes. The total being reduced when the YJ-82 missile is shipped. As an alternative, the submarine can carry tube launched mines.
The Song class is fitted with an integrated sonar system comprising an active/passive medium-frequency spherical bow-mounted equipment and passive low-frequency reach arrays. The countermeasures suite comprises just the Type 921-A radar warning receiver and directional finder.
The diesel-electric propulsion arrangement provided to power the Song class submarine comprises four MTU 16V396 SE diesel engines, four alternators and one electric motor, the last powering a single shaft.
More units of the Song class, probably to a standard improved to reflect the lessons operational experience with the current boats, may emerge in time.