Multinational AMAN naval exercise comes in wake of closer US-Pakistan ties

By Zarak Khan

US patrol ships USS Squall and USS Whirlwind visit Karachi in January 2021. [US Embassy in Islamabad]

US patrol ships USS Squall and USS Whirlwind visit Karachi in January 2021. [US Embassy in Islamabad]

Pakistan's AMAN multi-national naval exercise this month comes on the heels of months of growing co-operation between Pakistan and the United States.

The Pakistan Navy has been holding the AMAN biennial exercise since 2007.

This year, the AMAN-23 exercise will take place from February 10-14 in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Karachi, with the aim of promoting security co-operation and combating maritime terrorism and piracy.

The exercise will "develop synergy between participating naval units to tackle maritime security challenges by enhancing interoperability between regional and extra-regional navies at different levels of technological prowess", Adm. Muhammad Amjad Khan Niazi, Pakistan's chief of naval staff, told China's Global Times on January 9.

US and Pakistani naval officials pose for a photo on October 9, 2022, after the arrival of US Coast Guard ships Charles Moulthrope and Emlen Tunnell at Karachi. [US Embassy in Islamabad]

US and Pakistani naval officials pose for a photo on October 9, 2022, after the arrival of US Coast Guard ships Charles Moulthrope and Emlen Tunnell at Karachi. [US Embassy in Islamabad]

"There are a number of non-traditional threats that prevail in the wider Indian Ocean region such as terrorism, piracy, drugs smuggling and arms trafficking," Niazi said.

"The vastness of the oceans makes the maritime arena an attractive avenue for illegal activities, and no country has the capability to singlehandedly counter these challenges," he said.

Collaborative maritime security has thus evolved as an established norm and the Pakistan Navy is actively involved in international and regional efforts, he said.

The AMAN-23 exercise is divided into two distinct phases -- harbour and sea.

The harbour phase will be held February 10-12 and includes the hoisting of flags of all the participant nations to mark the beginning of the exercise.

"During the harbour phase, participants from all the countries visit each other's ships and Pakistani officials hold meetings with senior foreign naval officers to share experiences on contemporary maritime security challenges and co-ordinate the modalities of sea exercises," a Pakistan Navy official involved in organising the event said on the condition of anonymity.

The sea phase, which will be held from February 13-14, consists of "exercises by warships, helicopters and other aircraft" as well as special operation drills, gunnery firings, anti-piracy demonstrations, replenishments at sea and flypasts, the official said.

'Strong and enduring' ties

This year, 110 navies have been invited to take part in AMAN-23.

"The increase in the participants in the AMAN exercises shows the eagerness and enthusiasm of regional countries to support Pakistan's ongoing regional and international initiatives for strengthening maritime security in the Indian Ocean region," said the official.

In 2007, 28 countries took part in the exercise.

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, that number grew to 43 countries by 2021.

The US Navy in particular has been shoring up co-operation with Pakistan in recent years.

In October, two US Coast Guard cutters -- USCGC Charles Moulthrope and USCGC Emlen Tunnell -- visited Karachi as part of an ongoing series of joint exercises and technical exchanges between the US 5th Fleet and the Pakistan Navy.

The US Coast Guard ships were forward deployed with the US 5th Fleet to help ensure maritime security and stability across the Middle East, said a handout from US Naval Forces Central Command last October 9.

The US 5th Fleet's area of operations encompasses approximately 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million square km) of water and includes the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. The expanse comprises 20 countries and includes three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb at the southern tip of Yemen.

The port visit reflected "the strong partnership between the Pakistan Navy and US 5th Fleet", US Coast Guard Capt. Eric Helgen, commodore of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, said at that time.

"Our ties are strong and enduring, built on staff exchanges and joint exercises to enhance co-ordination and co-operation," said Helgen.

Other ships that conducted port visits to Karachi last year included the USS Gridley, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, and the USS Squall and USS Whirlwind patrol ships.

Recent moves by Washington, such as a visit to Pakistan by a top US Air Force officer and the approval of a potential sale of F-16 fighter jet support to Pakistan, are also evidence of a growing relationship between the militaries of two countries.

Policing international waters

Hosting the AMAN-23 drills continues Pakistan's many years of work helping navies police the seas.

The Pakistan Navy participated in International Maritime Exercise (IMX) 2022 in February that year in the Gulf of Oman.

"IMX/CE 2022 provided a unique opportunity to navies from across the globe, maritime organisations and communities to demonstrate global resolve to preserve the rules-based international order," said Pakistan Navy Cmdr. Vaqar Muhammad, deputy commander of the exercise, in a US Central Command statement.

In 2004, Pakistan joined the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a 34-nation coalition that "exists to uphold the International Rules-Based Order ... by countering illicit non-state actors on the high seas", according to the CMF's website.

The CMF protects "approximately 3.2 million square miles [8.3 million square km] of international waters" and is headquartered at the US naval base in Bahrain.

Pakistan participates in two of the CMF's four task forces: CTF 150, which protects maritime security outside the Gulf, and CTF 151, which fights piracy.

Command of the task forces rotates every four to six months. The Pakistan Navy has commanded each task force several times.

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