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It looks like Pakistan bought a Chinese spy ship. What does it do?

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ISLAMABAD — It appears Pakistan’s Navy has acquired a Chinese-built spy ship, according to open-source intelligence analyst Damien Symon, who reviewed commercially available satellite imagery.

The intelligence gathering platform, dubbed Rizwan, is described as an “offshore supply ship” by online shipping monitor MarineTraffic. Pakistan reportedly acquired the vessel from China last year with no fanfare, and the ship was spotted during a stopover in Jakarta, Indonesia, in June 2023, while sailing home.

It is a compact vessel some 87.2 meters long, with two large radar domes on the stern, which along with other sensors point to an intelligence gathering role.

Neither the Pakistan Navy nor the Ministry of Defence Production, which handles military acquisitions, would discuss the ship’s role and capabilities when asked by Defense News.

However, a source with knowledge of Rizwan’s operations, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic, confirmed to Defense News it is an “information gathering ship.” The source declined to provide further details.

Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies think tank, said Rizwan appears to be an affordable and flexible design.

He told Defense News that the ship is based on the hull of an offshore support vessel, which makes “economical sense,” and that “aside from the huge radome that should serve as the electronic intelligence array, the platform might be able to accept varying mission modules if necessary.”

The ship looks to be dimensionally comparable to Norway’s intelligence gathering vessels Eger and Marjata, Sweden’s Artemis, or Germany’s Oste class, he added.

But Koh doubts Rizwan “has the onboard power capacity for telemetry missile tracking, like those found on the Chinese Yuan Wang series.” Instead, he explained, Rizwan is likely focused on gathering electronic and signals intelligence thanks to “onboard signals processing and analysis capabilities.”

He also said Rizwan’s modular configuration could support mission-specific equipment for hydrographic and oceanographic activities such as undersea gliders that can be launched from the stern deck.

Pakistan probably bought Rizwan in response to recent Indian acquisitions, as the two nations are archrivals, Koh added. And due to the relatively small size of Pakistan’s Navy, a dedicated electronic and signals intelligence platform will reduce the intelligence gathering burden on the service’s aircraft, ships and submarines, he explained.

These platforms would have mainly used electronic sensory measures to capture electromagnetic emissions, but “would have little or no capacity at all to process and analyze the signals,” he said. As a dedicated platform, Rizwan could therefore better monitor Indian naval activity “while freeing up the fleet combat assets for their primary duties.”

Rizwan’s acquisition should be seen in the broader context of Sino-Pakistani relations — specifically Beijing’s support for Pakistan’s military modernization efforts and attempts to keep India occupied in the Indian Ocean rather than beyond that area, said Pakistan analyst Mansoor Ahmed, an academic at Australian National University.

Alongside indigenous development as well as acquisition and production programs with the Dutch and Turkish governments, Chinese help is instrumental in advancing elements of Pakistan’s naval modernization plan. Such support is seen in Pakistan’s Hangor II submarines, long-range unmanned combat drones and anti-ship missiles.

“These and other projects will help plug gaps in fleet air defense, battle management, [electronic warfare], and [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] for a potent [anti-access/area denial] capability through three surface task groups operating in the Arabian Sea,” Ahmed said.

They will also transform Pakistan’s Navy into a “regional maritime force and will significantly reduce the overall asymmetry with the Indian Navy,” Ahmed added. It will also help keep India’s Navy “effectively engaged in ways that it will not be able to spare a large part of its assets for deployment beyond the [Indian Ocean region].”

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