The expected launch of an indigenously-constructed Fleet Tanker at the Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Ltd on 19 August 2016 marks a significant milestone in the history of Pak-Turkey defence collaboration. These two countries have always enjoyed the most fraternal of ties and under its overarching warmth, cooperation at the military, and more particularly the naval, level has continued to blossom. The first time this relationship got formalised was under the Turco-Pak treaty of 1954, which inter alia also dealt with the vital subject of defence collaboration. The Pakistan-Turkey Military Consultative Group(MCG) was subsequently set up in 1988 to give a physical boost to the process.
A decade later, mindful that not much was happening on this front on a practical level, the two naval Chiefs decided that naval headquarters of both the countries should remain in constant communication with each other to enable the points raised during each MCG meeting to reach fruition. It was however during the first visit of the newly-elected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan that a High Level Military Dialogue Group was set up in June 2003 with a view to directly involve the ministries of Defence and Defence Production as well as the Joint Staff Headquarters in the process.
Ties at the naval level have always been multi-dimensional, inclusive of activities under, on and above the sea as well as on shore. The two countries have regularly participated in each others’ operational exercises and conferences. The Turkish Navy is invariably the first to be consulted whenever a major undertaking is being planned. The Turkish Navy’s assistance was instantly forthcoming when its counterpart wanted to set up its submarine squadron. A state of the art Turkish naval base had recently been constructed at Aksaz when Pakistan was considering setting up its own at Ormara and Turkish expertise proved invaluable in taking the process forward. The Golcuk naval shipyard, which for long has been maintaining a number of ex-USN FFG-7 class of frigates, has always responded positively whenever technical help is sought to address any particularly vexing maintenance problem encountered by the sole such warship, PNS Alamgir, operating under the Pakistani flag.
In the early eighties, both navies remained in touch with each other while processing their indigenous destroyer construction programmes. Regrettably, Pakistan kept dithering at all levels on this vital front while Turkey went ahead with the project by signing its first order with a German shipyard, Blohm+Voss, in 1983 for a group of four warships, the last two of which were to be constructed in Turkey. The result was that Turkey followed up this Meko 200TN Yavuz class order with two more, known as Track 2A and Track 2B. Armed with this experience, it progressed on to the indigenous construction of new generation corvettes from scratch, inclusive of design and development. This has been undertaken under a program dubbed MILGEM to reflect a sense of genuine national pride. Pakistan on the other hand kept delaying its own project till 2005 when it signed a contract with China for construction of four destroyers, the last of which, PNS Aslat, was built in-country.
The Milgem corvettes, though comparatively much smaller than the Chinese designed Sword class destroyers, are every bit as capable, if not more so. PN, clearly impressed by its compact design, is currently evaluating a detailed technical-cum-commercial proposal by STM Turkey for joint production. An STM-led consortium has also been found to offer the lowest bid for the Mid Life Update(MLU) of the first of the Agosta 90B submarines, to be followed by the other two.
But the greatest opportunity by far for Pak-Turkish collaboration in the field of defence technology arose out of the Pakistan Navy’s need to replace its aging fleet tankers PNS Nasr and Moawin. The design offered by STM of Turkey met PNs requirements completely. The icing on the cake was the firm’s willingness to agree to a transfer of technology package, inclusive of know-how sharing and provision of a full kit of material, to enable the construction work to take place in a Pakistani yard. At 17000 tons, the proposed fleet tanker is modestly compact comparatively speaking and yet incorporates the most stringent military specifications for operating in an harsh and hostile environment.
Ever since the first sheet of steel was cut on 27 Nov 2013 to mark the formal commencement of the construction process, the pace of work has been relentless. The complexity of the undertaking can be gauged from the fact that over 600 tons of steel had to be cut to fabricate 250 hull blocks plus other associated outfitting items, and each of these blocks had to be methodically woven into the fabric of a 40 metre high structure divided into 12 separate levels or decks. Such assembling work is not as simple as may sound to a Lego enthusiast. Each section has to be seamlessly blended all round to form an unified whole, with strict dimensional controls enforced to ensure that the assembled structure meets the laid-down stringent qualification criteria under the most exhaustive of non-destructive testing techniques, including x-rays, dye penetration and ultrasound. The most tricky area is where the two propeller shafts exit the hull through the stern, for which shaft bulb tunnels have to be erected and so perfectly aligned that hull vibrations, with the engines running and propeller rotating, are minimized to an acceptable level.
The outfitting activity that follows is every bit as complex and intricate in its own way. It includes the laying of over 200,000 metre lengths of cables running throughout the length and breadth of the ship and the installation of about 4000 foundations as well as over 40,000 metre lengths of pipes. The most critical outfitting activity though involves the ultra-cautious lowering of its two 62-tonne engines into the deepest bowels of the ship through an especially hired crawler crane.
What distinguishes a fleet tanker from a commercial one is its enhanced level of watertight and gastight integrity, the availability of greater back-up systems and the ability to replenish and refuel other warships at sea. Stringent checks at every step and at every tier, particularly those by the selected classification society, Bureau Veritas in this case, thus becomes mandatory to avoid even the slightest of missteps getting compounded. Even a process as simple as painting, though to be fair this includes the entire hull as well as the 500 odd compartments and tanks, has to be undertaken with painstaking care using special paints and prescribed procedures, all verified by the paint manufacturers’ checks. After the planned launching on 19 August 2016, major pieces of equipment will continue to be embarked, installed and interfaced onboard till the ship is considered ready for undergoing intensive harbour and sea acceptance tests.
Once commissioned, however, the ship will be formally taken over by the Pakistan Navy and manned by a naval crew. But while proudly displaying the Pakistan Naval Ensign(an oblongish traditional version of the Flag known in naval circles as the Pakistan Standard), the ship will continue to be be a floating tribute to the enduring ties that bind the two navies, and indeed the two countries, which helped piece together this technological marvel.
Note: This article was published in the November 2016 issue of the Asian Defence Journal.