Setting the Sea Afire – Exercise Seaspark

The Pakistan Navy’s annual war exercise code-named Seaspark is currently underway in the waters of the Arabian Sea. It happens to be the latest in a series of suchlike tactical exercises aimed at enhancing the Navy’s war fighting efficiency. The fleet’s maintenance schedule, in fact, is planned in such a manner that maximum number of ships, submarines, Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters become available for participation. An year of phased work-ups at individual, squadron and fleet levels culminate in this vital exercise.

During the initial phase of the exercise, ships in harbour and at anchorage, as well as naval installations, are required to confront all manner of asymmetric threats stemming from the air, from saboteurs and from mines. Their state of readiness is gauged from the rapidity and effectiveness of their responses. In order to give the exercise a real feel, a wartime environment is simulated to put all personnel as well as the units on which they are borne, through their paces. All ships and establishments can ill-afford to let down their guard in such an unpredictably tense, albeit simulated, environment. In parallel, warships have to be stocked up with rations, stores and ammunition on a war footing and their subsequent needs for emergency repairs, refuelling and casualty evacuation, as they arise, have to be expeditiously met.

While some threats like aerial attacks, saboteur infiltration and offensive minefields evoke a response on the basis of actual physical detection, others need to be simulated to ascertain the efficacy of the defence network. Communication-based exercises and live firing of shore-based AA guns and surface-to-air missiles also form a part of this phase.

With the submarines already deployed in advance, the overlapping tactical phase commences with the ships foraying out of harbour in an heightened state of readiness, all equipment manned and ready. As the ships file out through a specific part of the harbour channel which has been swept clear of mines, they are required to maintain the highest level of water and gas tight integrity. For the purpose of the exercise, all available ships, submarines and aircraft are pre-divided  into two opposing groups, each with its own Commander, and this comes under sharper focus during this phase. All units are under orders to carry out simulated attacks on detection of any enemy unit. A painstaking post-game analysis is conducted on conclusion to establish the validity of all reported detections, attacks and counterattacks.

This hybrid phase, which tests the alertness of the personnel to the limit under a multiple threat scenario, gives way to the firepower demonstration phase, during which all units team up again for carrying out live firing of guns, missiles and torpedoes. Active participation of PAF and Pak Army formations adds to the value of the exercise and enhances the interoperability factor.

Exercise Seaspark has been a regular feature of the PN calendar since 1979, when it replaced the earlier series of the multi-national Exercise Midlink, which folded up as CENTO unraveled. This exercise is invariably preceded by a conceptual wargame in which new ideas are tried out on paper prior implementing them on ground. Exercise Seaspark used to be held annually till 2007, when the advent of a new series of a sea exercise codenamed ‘Aman’ under a novel format was introduced. Barring unforeseen circumstances, each of these exercises is now conducted every alternate year.

Exercise Aman is based on a recognition of the ever-growing importance of maritime coordination amongst regional and even non-regional states with a vital stake in the Indian Ocean region. Realisation has by now sunk in that certain common threats at sea stemming from terrorism, piracy, gun running, narcotics smuggling and human trafficking transcend borders and can only be effectively tackled through joint planning, cooperation and execution.

PN took the vital first step in furthering maritime cooperation by joining up with the multi-national Combined Task Force(CTF 150) set up to counter terrorism-related activities in the Arabian Sea region, including the Gulf, in the aftermath of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When piracy off the coast of Somalia assumed grave dimensions, threatening to derail global trade, a large number of regional and even extra-regional naval units converged on the danger zone to protect their individual and collective interests. When another Combined Task Force(CTF 151), this one dedicated to combating piracy was subsequently formed, PN immediately agreed to become a part of this enterprise to do its bit in countering what was turning out to be a global menace.

This year(2015) has been a particularly hectic one for the Pakistan Navy. Apart from assuming command of CTF 150 and 151 for the eighth and sixth times respectively, it has been engaged in a host of other associated activities of national and regional importance. It hosted an International Maritime Conference in mid-February on the vital theme of ‘Maritime Economy, Environment and Security Cooperation: Bringing the West Pacific and Indian Ocean Closer’, in which foreign scholars from Australia, Canada, China, India Sri Lanka and the US also participated.

The sudden eruption of hostilities in Yemen in March left many foreign nationals stranded there amidst a constantly worsening situation. PN responded to their calls for help by sending in two warships, PNS Aslat and Shamsheer, which managed to safely evacuate 245 personnel, both Pakistani and foreign nationals, from the Yemeni ports of Al-Mukalla and Al-Hodeida respectively.

Floods in Sindh in August brought in their wake a new challenge for the Navy, which set up various rescue sites and relief camps around the flood affected areas of District Shaheed Benazirabad. This operation, appropriately titled ‘Madad’ distributed 54 tons of relief supplies and rescued scores of people, prior venturing further afield to more remote regions.

A little later, in September, PN hosted an IONS(Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) on ‘Information Sharing and Interoperability’ together with a multi-nations preparatory workshop to plan for the Conclave of Chiefs scheduled the following year. Since becoming a member of the IONS in March last year, Pakistan Navy has been actively contributing in furthering its stated aim of regional maritime collaboration.

19 March 2015 can be said to be a red letter day in Pakistan’s history as this was when the 21-member United Nations Commission on the Limitation of the Continental Shelf(UNCLCS), after scrutinising the comprehensive claim submitted by Pakistan six years earlier, accepted it, thereby enabling the country to become the first in the region to have its continental shelf extended from the existing 200 nm to 350 nm. Apart from spearheading the effort since the mid-1990s, PN is privileged to have one of its own elected as member of the prestigious UN Commission, which heard, reviewed and decided Pakistan’s case.

While Exercise Seaspark focuses exclusively on sharpening the Pakistan Navy’s war fighting capabilities, the range of activities that the Navy is called upon to perform goes much beyond that. Most of it, performed at sea, away from the public glare, is still of vital importance, and equally rewarding, none the same.

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