Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) not only enjoy deep-rooted fraternal ties, but also share historic maritime traditions. Pakistan Navy (PN) has the unique honour of having extended training to Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) officers and sailors in their formative years. The current commander of the RSNF, Vice Admiral Dakheel-Allah Bin Ahmad Bin Mohammad Al-Wakadani, is also a graduate of Pakistan Naval Academy and reserves a special place for his alma mater.

The RSNF has now come of age and taken its rightful place in guarding the maritime interests of KSA. Despite its exposure to naval exercises with the most advanced navies of the world, the RSNF holds PN in high esteem. Naseem Al Bahar (NAB) is a biennial exercise, which was evolved as manifestation of the unique Pak-Saudi interpersonal relationship and mutual resolve to enhance bilateral cooperation in facing the common challenges.

Ever since its institution in 1993, the exercise has developed in the shape of an advance level maritime exercise, providing a formal opportunity for both navies to learn from each other’s experiences, enhance interoperability and share and refine tactical doctrines. It is a matter of personal satisfaction for this scribe, being involved in the inception of the exercise during posting as Naval and Air Attaché at Riyadh (1991-95).

To-date nine exercises in the NAB series have been held, each being refined in the light of lessons learnt from previous encounters. In the last decade, regional security in the maritime domain in the rapidly evolving geopolitical environment has added a new dimension to the challenges being faced by both navies, prompting the planners to include counter-terrorism and convoy protection in light of the onset of maritime piracy, in addition to anti-air, anti-submarine, mine counter measures and intelligence based operations conducted in a multi-threat environment.

Set for executing naval manoeuvres in the North Arabian Sea, the tenth exercise in the series is being launched from the Jinnah Naval Base at Ormara for the first time, adding a significant milestone for PN in its overall quest for operationalisation of the western sea board.

Scheduled from January 12 to 22, 2013, the joint exercise is not merely based on physical manoeuvres of various surface, aerial and sub-surface naval platforms, but involve the entire gamut of maritime operations; planning, executing and drawing lessons from NAB-X. The tempo of the exercise will be built progressively, with seminars on maritime strategy, followed by tactical war games, conducted during the harbour phase at the PN Tactical School for rehearsing the tactical procedure before entering the sea phase. Every major exercise entails extensive planning activities and practice, including the determination of safety parameters to accrue maximum tactical/operational training values as well as maintain safety and security, while operating in a realistic environment, including the shadow of ‘Electronic Warfare’.

Beyond the pale of the planning segment, the sea phase will be conducted in two parts: workup phase for tactical training; and war at sea phase for operational/tactical training; culminating in live weapon firing display by both navies involving a wide array of weaponry from their arsenal, witnessed by VVIPs from both nations. Simultaneously, PN marines and their Saudi counterparts will conduct a joint counter-terrorism tactical exercise in the Ormara Hills.

All in all, NAB-X is designed and planned to assess operational readiness of participating units, improve inter-operability and tactical proficiency in the execution of combined operations, and conduct defence of port infrastructure, including anchorage against an asymmetric threat and draw pertinent lessons.

A major consequence of the defence diplomacy being demonstrated by flag showing of international navies in Pakistani ports is belying the impression that Pakistan in general and Karachi in particular are unsafe for a visit. The recent safe port of call by Japanese and Chinese naval ships to Karachi in September and November last year, amply added to the reassurance of international callers to Pakistan despite rumours to the contrary by Pakistan’s detractors.

Defending a 960 kilometres’ long coastline stretching to 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and keeping Pakistan’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) open because 95 percent of its trade and 100 percent of its oil imports are being transported via the sea route, make the maritime sector the bedrock of its national economy and define the role for PN. Joint exercises like NAB and the forthcoming multinational Aman-13 in March will go a long way in adding to the operational readiness of PN in meeting various challenges, in a multi-threat environment operating in collaboration with a multitude of allied navies.

The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and host of programme Defence & Diplomacy on PTV. Email: sultanm.hali@gmail.com     Twitter@nairangezamana