PNS Siddique Commissioned: The Virtues of Dispersal
Commodore Lalit Kapur*
On 03 September 2014, Pakistan’s naval chief Admiral Mohammad Asif Sandila commissioned a new air base PNS Siddique in Turbat, southern Balochistan. This marks another step by Pakistan Navy (PN) toward moving its assets away from the congested city of Karachi, a process which began after the Indian Navy’s attack and bottling up of PN units at Karachi in 1971.
Following the loss of Chittagong, Karachi was Pakistan’s only port. Strategic necessity dictated the creation of small ports with berthing facilities for PN ships at Jiwani, Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, with reports of a new base at Khor Kalmat, between Pasni and Ormara, in the offing. Ormara eventually became the site for the PN’s second largest naval base (Jinnah Naval Base), commissioned in 2000. It was again in the news when the PN announced in April 2014 that it will shift its entire fleet of diesel-electric submarines there.
Till end August 2014, the PN had only two active Naval Air Stations, PNS Mehran (at Karachi, commissioned in 1975) and PNS Makran (at Pasni, commissioned in 1988). PNS Siddique, the newly commissioned third naval air station, is named after Vice Admiral Haji Mohammad Siddique Choudri, who took over from Rear Admiral Jefford in 1953 as the first Pakistani Naval Officer to become Commander-in-Chief of the PN and led the service for six years.
Located at Turbat, a relatively small town with a population of below 200,000, it is about 90 kms NNW of Pasni and about 117kms NE of Gwadar. The International Airport at Turbat (IATA Code TUK) is connected by air to Muscat, Sharjah, Karachi, Gwadar and Dalbandian. The town is connected by road to Panjgur and Kalat to NW, Pasni to SE and Karachi to the East. There is no rail connectivity.
Turbat has a runway length of 6000ft (1829m), more than sufficient for P-3C Orion (which requires a runway length of about 4250ft at Max Take Off Weight and below 3000ft at Max Landing Weight), Fokker F-27, Hawker 850 and ATR 72-212A fixed wing aircraft flown by the PN as well as its various helicopters. Not much is known yet about the facilities that have been created or which aircraft will be based there. An indicator may come from the press release, which states, “facilities such as the state-of-the-art hospital and educational institutions etc. at PNS Siddique will enable the local populace access to quality services at their doorstep and set of a new era of prosperity in the region”. The existence of these facilities points to a sizable naval contingent at Turbat.
Which aircraft are likely to be based there? The Arabian Sea is around 75-80 kms away from PNS Siddique. As such, any PN aircraft based there would have to waste at least 150 kms of their total range in transiting just to reach and return from their primary operating area, the sea. This consideration would appear to rule out the basing of helicopters from 333 Squadron (Alouette), 222 Squadron (Harbin Z-9EC) or 111 Squadron (Seaking) there. Not that these helicopters cannot use Turbat as a staging base for disaster relief operations in the hinterland; still it makes more sense to keep them at a coastal base and stage them through Turbat for peacetime operations.
Similarly, Turbat would appear to be unsuitable for anti-ship strike aircraft flown by PN pilots on the Mirage V’s owned by the PAF and currently based at Masroor. The Mirages are to be replaced by Chinese JF-17’s next year, but Turbat is too far from potential operating areas, which would have to be in Indian waters. Given the density of traffic in the nearby Persian Gulf and attendant difficulties in identification, permanent basing of strike aircraft at Turbat is unlikely. This leaves the Orions belonging to PN’s 28 Squadron, the Fokker F-27’s belonging to 27 Squadron and the ATR 72-212A, Atlantic and Hawker aircraft belonging to 29 Squadron. Any of these aircraft could be based at Turbat.
A complicating factor is the destruction of two P 3C Orions (Tail Nos 84 and 87) by Tehrik-i-Taliban terrorists at PNS Mehran on 22 May 2011. The crowded environs of Karachi were subsequently adjudged as indefensible against terrorist attack and reports indicate that the remaining Orions may have been shifted to Pasni. However, Pasni is on the coast and has its own vulnerabilities, particularly to a strike from the sea. The eventual basing of P-3C Orions as well as other long range aircraft at Turbat, sufficiently inland to preclude a commando raid but not so far as to make an appreciable difference in their time on task, would appear to make eminent sense. Certainly any new face in a relatively small town would be easier to identify and track than in a bustling metropolis like Karachi.
Dispersal has certainly complicated the Indian Navy’s tasks, but the induction of new technology and equipment still keeps a successful strike within the bounds of possibility. What is certain is that Indian Naval planners will watch developments at Turbat and PNS Siddique with considerable interest.
*Commodore Lalit Kapur was Chief Staff Officer in Headquarters Offshore Defence Advisory Group, Mumbai, from where he retired in October 2010. He has been Defence Advisor, Embassy of India, Muscat in April 1999, with concurrent accreditation to the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. Commodore Kapur was also First Deputy Assistant Chief of Integrated Defence Staff at the Defence Intelligence Agency. In 2007, he moved to Headquarters Strategic Forces Command as the Principal Director (Systems).
(Article uploaded on September 19, 2014).