ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - When Pakistan lost U.S.-supplied surveillance planes in a Taliban’s raid on a naval base in Karachi, its ability to guard its coastline and participate in Western-led maritime counter-terrorism activities was weakened.
Two P-3C Orion patrol aircraft were destroyed in the May 22-23 attack at Pakistan Naval Station Mehran, when between four and six attackers stormed the base, starting fires, setting off explosions and fighting pitched battles with security forces, killing 10 people and wounding 20 more.
Pakistan still has three Orions, Army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said.
A vital ally to the United States in its war against militancy, Pakistan uses the anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft to assist the U.S.-led operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Security analyst Imtiaz Gul, said the attack has caused more psychological than tangible damage for Pakistan. But the Pakistan Navy has lost some of its ability to patrol its coastline at long-range.
“The surveillance aircraft were not being used for strike capability. It was more for surveillance, and now Pakistan loses that sight over the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea,” Gul said.
Former army general and columnist Talat Masood said the aircraft’s long-range abilities were key.
“They are very important in the sense of maritime security,” he said. “They are the eyes and ears of the navy.”
The aircraft are also part of Pakistan’s role in the Combined Task Force-150, the maritime component to Operation Enduring Freedom, the operation name for the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan. CTF-150 covers the Arabian Sea from the coast of Pakistan to the horn of Africa.
Pakistan’s aerial maritime surveillance is carried out from PNS Mehran and the surrounding base. Since 2003 Pakistan has spent $507.6 million in Foreign Military Finance grants given by the United States on purchasing and upgrading seven Orions.
Pakistan purchased two Orions in 2006, with the United States delivering two more upgraded aircraft in 2010, estimated to have cost around $35 million each. Intelligence firm STRATFOR said the aircraft “substantially enhanced the Pakistan navy’s maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.”
Pakistan’s combat ability against India has also been dented by the planes’ loss, former general Masood said.
“For instance, they would be striking the Indian submarines in the case that there is hostility and open war — they would be in a position to attack them with torpedoes,” he said.
“They are part of the naval weapons systems so the loss in a way is a significant loss,” Masood said.
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Alex Richardson