22 October 2015
By Bilal Khan
In the backdrop of a possible civilian nuclear energy deal between the U.S and Pakistan (which I intend to write about in the coming days), the U.S government just cleared the sale of eight F-16s to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The sale has been described by the New York Times as an “overture intended to bolster a tenuous partnership” between the two countries. It is not clear if this specific sale is a standalone contract or if it is part of a broader agreement involving munitions and/or additional fighters (as options), but it should not be long before a formal notification is sent to Congress by the Department of Defense.
Given the history, it is not easy to discuss U.S-Pakistani relations at any level, even in the context of what should be a simple arms sale. American arms sales to Pakistan are not simple commercial transactions, but are strategically driven moves by Washington to firmly ensure Islamabad’s cooperation in delivering the former’s vital security interests. On the other hand, high-tech American arms such as the F-16 are viewed by Pakistan as instrumental conventional assets for use against India.
This is the basic idea, and yes, there is a lot more to it than just the above, but for brevity and focus, I am just going to cut ahead to the technical aspects of this deal. Rest assured, I will go in-depth with the topic in a later article, but for now, I want to focus on what this purchase might mean in the coming years.
After roughly a decade long arms embargo, the PAF was able to order 18 new-built F-16C/D Block-52+ from the U.S in a multibillion-dollar order including (on top of the new fighters) a large cache of advanced air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions as well as Mid-Life-Upgrade (MLU) kits for 46 F-16A/B Block-15s, bringing the PAF’s existing A/Bs to Block-52+ standards (in terms of radar, avionics and ECM/EW). The contract also left an option for 18 additional Block-52+, but the PAF did not pursue it (likely due to financial problems, especially during the height of Asif Ali Zardari’s presidency). In 2014 the PAF took delivery of 13 used F-16A/Bs from Jordan, bringing its total F-16 fleet (after attrition) to around 76 fighters.
With the AN/APG-68(V9) radar, Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), ALQ-211 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite (AIDEWS) and Link-16 data-link terminals, the F-16 (Block-52+ and MLU) sits at the high-tech and high-capability flank of the PAF’s fighter fleet. Whereas the JF-17 is a dependable backbone fighter capable of filling all tactical mission needs, the F-16 is the PAF’s main answer to the IAF’s marquee fighters, most notably the Su-30MKI, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000/-5. The Block-52+/MLU is among the most advanced and capable fighter platforms in use in South Asia.
Based on the recently announced deal, I imagine the PAF is looking to build its Block-52+ fleet incrementally by opting to make low-risk and comparatively low-cost purchases over a period of several years. Before the U.S sanctioned Pakistan over its nuclear program in the 1990s, the PAF intended to have a total of 110 F-16A/Bs in service, I suspect the PAF is basically looking to reach that force level (albeit with newer C/Ds and upgraded MLUs). This is a manageable method and is something I expect the PAF will stick to as long as the F-16 production line remains open at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Texas.
If the PAF can secure the AIM-9X High Off-Boresight (HOBS) Within Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (WVRAAM), then 100+ F-16s would be a very capable force (especially when given support by Erieye and Karakorum Eagle AEW&C). In addition to new-built airframes, one should also factor in the possibility of the PAF pursuing surplus or mothballed frames as well, particularly ones suitable enough to take on structural restoration and the Mid-Life-Update (or Common Configuration Implementation Program, in the case of used F-16C/D airframes). Depending on Pakistan’s funds and America’s willingness, the PAF could have a chance at building a fairly sizable F-16 fleet.
There are some major caveats. For one thing, Pakistan’s F-16s come with very onerous end-user obligations, among them apparently having a team of American military and civilian observers on premises, so as to ensure that China or other countries are not given illicit access to sensitive technology. In addition, if Pakistan were to militarily confront India, immediate sanctions from the U.S should be expected, and following the conflict, the long-term longevity of the PAF’s F-16 fleet would be uncertain.
That said, the F-16 is the only medium-weight multi-role fighter available to the PAF (besides the Chinese J-10). In addition, the F-16 is one of the most reliable and mature as well as battletested platforms around, and with the advent of the F-16V-upgrade (which includes an Active Electronically Scanned Array or AESA radar), it is ‘future-proof.’ Furthermore, there is the reality that the PAF already operates F-16s, thus the costs associated with maintenance infrastructure have already been absorbed, thereby making additional F-16s a more financially and technically feasible option than a new fighter type for the PAF.
As far as the PAF is concerned the only thing that has a shot at fully succeeding the F-16 would be a next-generation fighter platform, such as China’s FC-31 Gyrfalcon, which the PAF reportedly expressed interest in buying in the future when available.
I’m not sure how to react to this news actually. But i think that must be the dilemma of every pakistani. Politically it may or may not be good but Militarily, It just boils down to one simple fact that Pakistan really has no other option left to acquire any other western platform. The only other (acceptable to PAF) available choices are Gripen, Eurofighter, and the Rafale; none of which are allowed for sale to Pakistan. That leaves Pakistan with F.16 being the only western fighter cleared/possible for sale. The same is the case with Russia which won’t sell anything extraordinary.
I guess PAF should just try to maintain and extend the F-16 fleet to possible 120 units with mix of block 52 and block 60 (if possible). This will serve as a deterrent in its own to IAF sukhois. I do not know what will be the case should the F-16s be used against India or if PAF will “technically” be able to do that…we are all betting our shares on that…
It still serves as a better plaftorm than the J-10Bs…and untl and unless PAF decides to acquire J-10C, F-16 should be an OK capability.
Post 2020, not too far off, PAF should start moving to 5th gen platforms and acquire the J-31 as its mainstay fighter…I hope once that happens and F-16 is no more idealized as the mainstay of PAF, a number of things will change both politically and militarily…and candy dandling will come to end…
I just see F-16 as a conventional deterrent and a stop gap platform until JF-17 is mature enough with block 3 improvements and J-31 becomes part of PAF.
It’s definitely a bittersweet gain, but what else is the PAF to do? Should it pour money into an entirely new platform such as J-10, but with diminishing returns? Or should it persevere with the F-16s and hold out until the FC-31 comes to fruition? I think it is clear which route the PAF is taking, and even though this is a very restrictive program, the F-16 is PAF’s best present shot against everything the IAF has at hand. If AIM-9X, JASSM and ideally even Legion IRST can be acquired, then all the better.
That said, there is a chance that these F-16s might be V-type fighters, if Jane’s is to believed here:
“These new aircraft will be more advanced than the last batch of F-16s [the contract for which was signed in 2006],” said the Pakistani government official.
hoping they will be v-types block 60s and 10 more will be released so as to complete one squadron at least…from 8 it looks like, USA wants to release new equipment only for FATA ops..the same case with AH1Z…only 14 released…
I think the PAF and PA are intentionally making small incremental purchases, it’s comparatively cheap, low risk and probably being financed using leftover funds from the existing budget. If PAF and PA can keep this up for 5-10 years, then the end amount at hand would be sizable. The PAF did the same thing with its Mirage III/V purchases throughout the 1970s.
The only other (acceptable to PAF) available choices are Gripen, Eurofighter, and the Rafale; none of which are allowed for sale to Pakistan.
wonder from where you got this impression from….rest of the countries always follow USA lead. the only factor is financial, if today Pakistan decides for any of the fighter you mentioned, there is no reason to believe they will not jump into your laps
Okay thank you, and like you said it can be my impression. I don’t claim to be knowing everything. But in that case, would you care explaining why has Russia always declined selling top-notch weaponry to Pakistan AND more recently why did Russia decline SU-35 sale to Pakistan (after initial indications), OR why did France pull out of JF-17 avionics deal back in late 2000s after deal was almost closed, OR why did Sweden decline to sell Gripens to Pakistan, AND for that matter, why isn’t US selling the F-18s/F-15s to Pakistan? Or why did the deal for U214s fell apart with Pakistan navy even while Pakistan had the money? OR in another case, why did France pull out of Mistral deal with Russia? Or why did US refuse to transfer 4 key techs to south korea just recently…?
Money is just one side of the coin. Things are not that simple. Everything is not for sale just because you have money. Otherwise Japan has been asking for F22 for years. There is always international pressure, politics, conditions, and gameplay. What you say might be more realistic in case of other nations, but Pakistan is always bracketed at a special level.
France has virtually shut down it defence business with Pakistan around 2010…And there’s too many countries to convince for Eurofighter…Gripen has already been vetoed…
Given this, I stand by my “impression”. These other platforms are simply not for sale to Pakistan…because of the faltering US-pakistan alliance and growing China-Pakistan cooperation…that neither the US nor the europe appreciates to the extent of selling pakistan high tech weapons…F-16 is pakistan’s best bet and only available western option now…
I disagree with the article. Firstly, the Viper is far from “future-proof”, it is at the final stage of it’s service (air frames are already showing structural cracks in US units, and their refurbishment money was soaked into the F-35 program). The F-16V won’t save it, it will not be acquired by many (if any) nations. The US has sunk all its money into the F-35, and is forcing its allies to do the same, which means “legacy” A/C like the vipers and the eagles have no future, their assembly lines will have to close in order to mainline the F-35.
Secondly, the PAF already knows this, and is most likely acquiring these Vipers because it is obligated to spend American aid, back on American platforms (that’s how “aid” programs work.) This is the same reason we opted for the Zulu Cobras, not necessarily because we wanted more cobras (when Turkish and Chinese platforms are available) but because we had to spend dollars on something made in the US, so we got some more cobras (for now.)
Thirdly, forget about acquiring any American AESA equipped viper upgrade for future-proofing, it’s not going to happen, not unless a titanic shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates, that sees Pakistan allying with the US against China-Russia (which isnt gonna happen.)
With that said, the Viper is still my favorite fighter, but it’s days are numbered… The PAF should stick to upgrading the JF-17 platform for now, and also start looking into the Viper’s eventual replacement…
To be fair the future proof comment wasn’t in reference to old airframes, but the new F-16s reportedly cleared. If equipped with AESA and HOBS AAM, there is no reason why won’t be suitable for future use, especially in the South Asian theatre.
As for not being able to acquire American AESA unless a titanic shift occurs, I doubt I’d go that far. In 2005 the U.S agreed to release the Block-52+ (the most advanced standard export type of the F-16) with the AIM-120C5 and JDAM. The discussion circles at the time limited the PAF’s options to far less, so the actual DSCA notice was a surprise.
At the time we were offered the 52+, the block 60 was already in service with the UAE, with the AESA, wasn’t it? So I don’t think the PAF was offered the best version of the Viper. And I still see no evidence that we will be offered the F-16V, or even that the PAF wants it… The JF-17 fleet equipped with those features will do the job, and a heavier fighter will be better acquired from China if need be, for the current Viper fleet’s replacement instead.
Also, my comment was concerning the use of the “future proof” statement in the original article, based on the release of the F-16V. It’s simply not true. The Viper is done, thanks to the ridiculous F-35 program, which is killing not just the legacy fighters, but the far-superior Raptors as well.
Note I said standard export, not user-specific builds such as the Block-60. The Block-60 is unique to the UAE and a customer looking to take on a similar route would have to contribute towards the development costs. India was such a prospect with F-16IN, but again, it was a user specific option, not the standard production type which were Block-52 and 52+. Now the standard line starts at 52+ and tops off at V.
As for not being future proof, so an F-16 with an AESA radar, up-to-date EW/ECM kit and modern AAM such as AIM-9X and AIM-120C/D can’t hold against other up and coming fighters such as the latest Gripen, Typhoon and Rafale? What do these fighters have that is substantially greater than F-16V?
As for spare parts, the LM aircraft production line will be open for a few more years, and in terms of spare parts, there are no shortage of users with the same engine and subparts in need of keeping their birds operational. 5th gen inductions won’t happen overnight, so I don’t think LM is going to dry out the supply of spare parts given that the U.S, Turkey, Korea, Israel, Egypt, UAE, Morocco, Greece, Pakistan and even Iraq are going to be flying them into the foreseeable future.
I anticipated you would counter with that but im not convinced with that reasoning because we arent being offered the f16V, which is a standard version. So theres nothing to indicate the US wants to equip us with their AESAs past or present.
Secondly, the viper is being phased out so its game over. Now its just a matter of how long it can be kept operational, so we cant claim its future proof. As i said the f35 killed it.
And buying second hand spare parts is never ideal, and its still just a desperate play at keeping it in the air, its not a claim for future proofing… unless the f-16 generates a lot of orders (which looks unlikely) it will be an even quicker death… And as for the new tech, id rather see that on the Jf17 block IIIs.
To be fair we don’t know what’s on offer or not, we’ll find out when the DSCA notice comes through. That said, it doesn’t take away from the point that the V-model is a solid bird. As for F-35, it’s not the only system entering service, especially within South Asia, where we’re not going to see 5th gen fighters of any type until well into the 2020s, especially in full operation.
As for spare parts. Did LM say they’ll stop producing spare parts? Did PW and GE say they’ll stop producing spares for the engines? When there’s an actual market in need of support well into the foreseeable future, including the U.S and three NATO powers, I highly doubt the supply of spares would dry up to cannibalization so quickly. Unless of course this is a policy from LM et al, for which I have y come across any.
Not sure what happened to the reply I posted yesterday, maybe it didn’t submit properly.. Anyways, firstly, I never claimed the F-16V is a bad fighter, I’m speaking specifically to the long-term viability of a platform who’s maintenance future is already an open question, even within the USAF. There was a recent article in Foxtrot Alpha on the F-16V that highlights these problems afflicting the legacy Viper fleet, which have already begun… And we really don’t know how long the fresh spares will be available, and cannibalization will begin globally…
And also, the V is the final upgrade for the Viper platform, and foriegn nations aren’t allowed to upgrade the Viper without authorization, due to restrictions by FMS rules. That isn’t even considering the fact that most Viper operating nations will most likely not even opt to buy this last upgrade (none have shown any interest so far, probably because of the reasons already highlighted.)
So for all of the above reasons, the Viper is definitely not “future proof.” The JF-17, on the other hand, is future proof, so is the J-20 and J-31 platforms. They’re just beginning their life cycles and will continue to be supported and upgraded for many decades to come. The same can not be said of the Viper.
The way I see it the F-16V in of itself is fully capable of tackling current and future threats, especially those up to 20 years down the line, particularly in South Asia. As I argued earlier, there is no reason why the F-16V, which is equipped with an AESA radar, HOBS AAM, etc, would be incapable of handling the Su-30MKI, Rafale, etc. It and these other platforms use the same core set of subsystems.
If you are referring to this article – http://bit.ly/1KIvBd0- from Foxtrot Alpha, then I am going to take issue with your conclusions, especially based on what’s written in the piece:
1. For one thing, Tyler Rogoway seems to be very confident in the abilities of the F-16V to handle the threats the USAF is poised to face today and into the future.
2. Yes, older F-16 airframes are now incurring challenges in regards to their age, but I don’t see why that would be an issue for new-build airframes (which is what the PAF is reportedly seeking). Secondly, aged airframes can be dealt with through SLEP, and while USAF may not be enthusiastic about it (due to the F-35 drain), I don’t see why that would prevent Lockheed Martin from offering it to export customers.
3. We shouldn’t extrapolate what the USAF does upon the export market. LM is a business at the end of the day, and when the likes of Poland, Greece, Turkey, UAE, Morocco, Pakistan, Iraq, Singapore, and Israel operate these general frames, why on earth would LM shut itself out of the business of structurally restoring these airframes? Sure, LM may not be able to work on USAF airframes, but that doesn’t preclude it from working on the airframes of other users.
In terms of upgrading existing airframes, LM already has an order from South Korea, and it expects that Singapore will be next. I imagine it won’t be long before Turkey, Greece and Israel join as well.
As for long-term viability. There are hardly any 5th generation fighters in service anywhere, and in South Asia, we probably won’t see any join the PAF or IAF for at least another 10 years. It’ll probably be around 2025-2030 before we see them operational and ready for combat.
Despite that, the F-16V can still handle many of the aircraft in use on the eastern side, today and in the future (as most of them would still be in service by then). That’s future proof.
1) You’re taking the praise for F-16V/SLEP/CAPES in the FA article completely out of context. They are talking about it as a “complimentary program” for next 15-20 years. Did you forget that the Viper is already slated for replacement? Clearly, the words “future proof” don’t apply to a platform whose replacement is already flying. No claim for “future proofing” is made in that article and the praise is obviously contextual, and not given in the context your applying it in.
I’ll say it very clearly: The idea that the Viper is “future proof” is purely yours (and this article’s author’s), no one else thinks that, and no where else will you find such a statement.
2) I’ve already stated the most likely cause for why the PAF is seeking these Vipers is because they are obligated to spend American cash back on American goods, not because the PAF has any illusions about the Viper being “future proof”, with or without new airframes, since no where besides here does that idea even exist.
3) Evidence? Sure: the US currently comprises more then 50% of the Viper’s global market share, with well over 2,000 units. And the US isn’t the only Viper operator which is planning on replacing it, I think most F-35 partners will have to do the same thing in order to afford the F-35 maintenance, which has already skyrocketed… What’s gonna be left are the few poorest operators of the Vipers, the lowest ARPU base of customers… So actually, your assumption that LM is going to keep supporting the Viper long after the major, high ARPU operators retire it, despite severely diminished returns, that’s what requires evidence, not my claim, which I think is very reasonable and obvious…
Finally, you should also keep in mind that current Russian and Chinese DRFM ECM is problematic even for 5th gen US jets today. The Viper is still great if you have a lot of them, like the US does, and can afford to trade casualties… But it’s not wise for the Viper to operate in small numbers against equal or better opponents, like the IAF operates. The IAF most likely already has DRFM ECM on their MKIs, severely degrading the Viper’s FOX 3s, and lets not forget, MKIs and Rafales also have integrated IRSTs, which the Viper’s don’t…
You can be sure that the PAF knows all of this… Which is why there is a huge push to focus on upgrading the JF-17 en masse, which is exactly what the PAF should be doing. Masses of Block 3s with IRSTs, AESA’s and Chinese DRFMs are an absolute critical project for the PAF.
Firstly, fair, you are right, FA made its point in the context of the F-35 gradually replacing the F-16. Secondly, I should’ve been clearer in my point that it is ‘future proof’, but I meant that until 2025-2030 the F-16V would be a sufficient platform in general (the context of the F-35 induction and all in place), and in particular for the PAF (its programs in mind as well) given the nature of the South Asian context. Beyond that, I am not making any pretentions that it would handle 5th generation fighters, but in terms of a significant portion of the IAF, it can.
In regards to current F-16 and future/prospective F-35 users. I highly doubt that Israel would replace all of its Vipers within the first phase of its F-35 inductions, ditto for Turkey, and I have yet to see Poland, Greece or Singapore commit to a 5th generation platform at all.
As for Korea, LM has already or is on the verge of securing a V-level upgrade, so I don’t see how LM would shut the door when others are likely to do the same. As it stands right now and in the absence of LM outright saying the door is closed, the door is open and will remain open until truly the major F-16 operators (e.g. in NATO) are slotting in to retire them, and with the likes of Poland and Greece using the F-16 Block-52+ as their respective mainstays, I’d be interested in seeing if they would truly make their respective 5th gen programs the entirety of their funding priorities (at the cost of upgrading their F-16s).
I’m glad we can agree on the “future proof” issue, my only concern with the article was that label, because usually such a title would be reserved for new platforms, not upgrades for older platforms already on the chopping block. If we’re talking about 2030, then that is well and good.
As for how long the smaller operators can keep Vipers operational (or will want to) I rather not speculate on… The only concrete forecast we have is that LM will lose the main operator of Vipers (the US) which is by far its largest customer for this line, and probably some of the other high ARPU customers as well. This is will affect the Viper’s business case and the viability of official platform support.
But even that conclusion is based on the present climate… Who knows, maybe the F-35 would be such a huge disaster that the US restarts Viper/Eagle/Raptor production and starts to upgrade them further…
In any case, unlike the scenario painted in that article (massed upgraded legacy fighters alongside F-35s and Raptors), the PAF’s scenario is quite different, and mostly banking on the future of the JF-17 program (as well it should) and the availability of future Chinese options… And the Viper will become more and more irrelevant to that scenario as time goes on.
That I will agree on. It would have been better to say that the F-16s are sufficient for the PAF in terms of ‘holding the fort down’ until the JF-17 is equipped with AESA (+ IRST + HMD/S + better EW/ECM) in strong numbers, and when a 5th gen solution (J-31 or otherwise) comes into operation. The indispensability of the F-16 is valid from now until that point, after that, I imagine it’d be considered the PAF’s next legacy platform (like the Mirage is today).
PS: I am the author of the article. Thank you for the constructive feedback, much appreciated, and please keep up the heat! 🙂
Glad to see we’re on the same page. I’ve only recently discovered this website and am really enjoying the analysis you guys have provided. Keep up the good work.
Viper is closing its assembly line(soon) after it recently built 4500th,the last fighter, but Lockheed Martin support will continue for a very long time and( in all likelihood) Pakistan will end up buying this very reliable fighters for a long time to come.It may even out last us. We have seen pretty much the same with Mirage3/5 with much smaller and shorter production cycle. F16 will be with us for a long time for another 20 years. As far as F16V, not a chance !! PAF will be lucky if it gets a constant supply of used with good airframe life left block 40/45 with all MLU options. Block50/52 , even18 which we are eligible would be a dream come true for our air force.F16! is specifically developed for UAE with UAE money ($4.8B) so they have veto on it.