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Will Pakistan get the F-35 Lightning II? (Probably Not)
July 22, 2017
Photo credit: U.S Navy via Wikipedia

Will Pakistan get the F-35 Lightning II? (Probably Not)

10 December 2015

By Bilal Khan

The News put out an interesting piece last week outlining the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s plans for the coming years. In addition to officially confirming the PAF’s plans to acquire a 5th generation platform, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman apparently told The News that the F-35 Lightning II, alongside three other options, was under consideration. Bear in mind that The News does not actually have a quote detailing the above information, though ACM Sohail Aman did tell the state-owned television network PTV in September that work is underway to look for a next-generation platform. In other words, while interest in the F-35 is – at best – unclear, work to acquire a next-generation fighter is certainly underway.

Firstly, it should be understood that the primary focus of the PAF at this time is the JF-17 Thunder. The JF-17 is of paramount importance to the PAF as it is intended to form the mainstay of the PAF fighter fleet in the coming years. With about 60 or so Block-I and Block-II fighters already in service, the JF-17 program is heading into a crucial maturation phase. In a matter of a couple of years there will be 100 JF-17s in service, i.e. forming a substantial and central portion of the PAF fighter fleet. With that comes the arduous process of converting many engineers, technicians, pilots, logistical overheads, etc, from F-7s to JF-17s. This will consume resources (financial and human), especially since the Thunder would now form the mainstay of the PAF fleet, in both name and reality. Second, the nearing rollout of JF-17 Block-III. The Block-III is slated to be a substantial jump from the Block-I, especially with the possible addition of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, helmet mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, and possibly even infrared search and track (IRST).

At this point it should be clear that the PAF has its plate full with the continuing induction of the JF-17 and the looming introduction of the Block-III; the entire process of acquiring a so-called 5th-generation platform is evidently in its very early stages. Moreover, while the PAF is serious about keeping up-to-date, it is practically unknown as to what status a next-generation platform would occupy within the fleet. Is this an ‘arrowhead’ fighter that occupies the tip of the force? Is this going to be the next mainstay fighter, perhaps even destined to replace the JF-17? Or is this fighter going to assume a series of specialist roles?

The answer will certainly impact the fighter type the PAF selects as well as the potential timeline. For example, if this platform is to serve specialist roles, such as strike or maritime operations, then Pakistan may be poised to see its next-generation fighter arrive relatively early. If it is to one day replace the JF-17, then this is a far-out and practically irrelevant discussion. It is important to keep these points in mind as one looks at the prospective contenders. Note the following discussion is not a technical assessment of each option, but rather, an evaluation of how plausible each option is for the PAF.

Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E

The rumours and half-confirmations of the PAF’s alleged interest in the Su-35 Flanker-E actually coincided with ACM Sohail Aman’s statements to PTV by a matter of a couple of weeks. Granted, the Su-35 is not a ‘stealth fighter’ like the F-35 or FC-31, but it is a tremendous leap over most of the PAF’s current fighter fleet. Remember, the only verifiable statement from ACM Aman is “next-generation”, not “5th-generation.” IHS Jane’s 360 was able to get a statement from a “senior Pakistani official” that the PAF was interested in the Su-35 for the sake of acquiring a twin-engine fighter that could “fly for a longer range than the JF-17 and penetrate more deeply into the enemy’s territory.”

As one may notice, the discussion in regards to the Su-35 is leaning in the context of ‘assuming a specialist role’ (as stated above). Retired PAF Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail told DefenseNews that the Su-35 would make for a solid maritime operations asset. If one combines the two aspects, it is clear that the Su-35 could – theoretically at least – be acquired to replace the PAF’s Mirage III-based ROSE I and Mirage 5-based ROSE II/III fighters, which take on multirole and strike duties, respectively.

Pakistan’s ability to finance such a Su-35 purchase is a valid question. Granted, Russia is wanting for customers of its defence goods to help support its tenuous economy, but that requires cold hard cash. Pakistan would certainly look to enter a financing arrangement, and unless Islamabad has a guarantor in the form of Saudi aid (like Cairo does), it is unlikely Moscow is going to eagerly underwrite such a deal. On the other hand, the two countries have seen quite a bit of momentum in their defence ties in recent months, so a workable arrangement may be possible, but one should keep their hopes in check.

Shenyang/AVIC FC-31 Gyrfalcon

When the Shenyang J-31 Gyrfalcon made its world debut at Airshow China in November 2014, IHS Jane’s 360 was told by “a senior Pakistani official” that the PAF was in talks with China for 30-40 FC-31s. Between Pakistan’s possible “5th generation” fighter options, the FC-31 would likely be the most accessible and realistic. That said, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) was (as of the 2015 Dubai Air Show) actively searching for an international partner to assist it in developing the FC-31. In other words, the PAF’s reported interest in this fighter is from the perspective of an off-the-shelf acquisition, not joint development and/or licensed production. Although there have been some concerns about the J-31’s performance benchmarks (it is the underlying platform the FC-31 will evolve from after all), the PAF may – depending on its needs – find what it is looking for in the FC-31.

The twin-engine configuration, low-observability airframe, internal weapons bay and integrated electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) would make the FC-31 a solid successor to the Mirage 5 and ROSE-I/II/III fighters in maritime and strike operations, respectively. Although AVIC is planning to equip the FC-31 with Chinese engines, the PAF could potentially request that its version utilize up-rated RD-93 turbofans, thus enabling a level of commonality between the FC-31 and JF-17.

F-35 Lightning II

This might not even be an option at all, but it is worth discussing, so as to identify the core problems and merits of this route. To put it simply, U.S arms transfers to Pakistan are not purely commercial, rather, they mainly tilt towards maintaining America’s long-term interests in the region. At this stage, giving Pakistan a fighter that is marketed as the most advanced system available commercially is not going to sit well with India, who is an increasingly key commercial client of American weapons as well as a key partner for the U.S, particularly in the Pacific theatre against China. And then there is also Pakistan’s relationship with China. Assuming the U.S is willing to transfer F-35s, it is certain that the PAF would have to comply with particularly strenuous and possibly invasive end-user requirements on the F-35s, given their sensitive technology.

TFX (Turkey) and KFX (South Korea)

These two programs are in their early stages, and if the PAF were to pursue either, then it is likely that it would be considered a very long-term project. However, the two programs are laden with an age-old problem (for Pakistan), Western technology. The KFX is a joint-project between Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Lockheed Martin, the TFX is likely to be a joint-program between Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and Britain’s BAE Systems. In this case the PAF would have to choose between American and British suppliers, and each have their peculiar challenges. Between the two it is possible that Lockheed Martin has the upper hand. For one thing, it has an existing relationship with the PAF in the form of the F-16, particularly the Block-52+. Moreover, given that the U.S explicitly barred the transfer of the F-35’s sensor technology (e.g. radar, IRST, EOTS, etc) for use on the KFX, it is likely that the KFX is being geared by KAI and Lockheed Martin to be a commercially flexible program. It is still within the realm of reason to see the PAF order KFX fighters off-the-shelf in the late-2020s.

Conclusion

There is little point in worrying about the PAF’s next-generation fighter at this point, it is not a priority, not with JF-17 Block-III on the horizon anyways. Moreover, most of the plausible options the PAF could pursue are still in the developmental stage; it is unlikely one will see any serious momentum behind this issue before 2020, if not perhaps later.

  • jigsaww

    Two things…
    first, same as what you mentioned. If PAF is offered F-35, it will have to, in return offer a F-16 block 52 type agreement with US to base these birds in isolation.

    The number will not be substantial, around 10-12. Possibly the same as AH-1Z to keep frail political alliance alive.

    • saqrkh

      Yep, invasive end-user requirements (Block-52+) and/or last-minute offers when alternatives were finally found (AH-1Z vs. Z-10). But I think Lockheed Martin understands how limited the F-35 market truly is, hence its investment in the KFX. I do think we’ll see the U.S let LM and KAI offer the PAF the KFX when it is available, assuming there isn’t a critical deterioration in Pak-U.S ties in a couple of decades.

  • Guest

    Can Conformal Fuel tanks be developed for JF17s? I believe it will be a great feature for such a tiny jet with mostly just four hard points available for weapons.

    Secondly why didn’t the PAF ordered AIM-120C7 if not AIM-120D when it for the very first time got a chance to acquire real BVR capability? I mean even a decade behind India it still is going for an older version instead of an improved one. Was it the cost or were they simply not for sale? If it was the cost then in my opinion getting 200 latest missiles would have been better than getting comparatively old Tech.

    • saqrkh

      Honestly, it depends how much more money the PAF is willing to invest in the JF-17. In my opinion, anything already seen on existing platform upgrades, e.g. MiG-35 and Gripen-NG, is theoretically possible on JF-17, but it just depends if the PAF is going to keep developing the platform. I am hoping that the Block-III design (which was frozen in early 2015) was developed to incorporate CFTs, if not immediately then on Block-IV or V.

      As for not going for AIM-120C7 or AIM-120D, I think they just weren’t available to the PAF in 2005 when the PAF was negotiating for the new F-16s.

      Right now I am surprised the PAF hasn’t openly pursued a HOBS AAM for the F-16, be it AIM-9X or the IRIS-T, which is a certified alternative. But then again, not sure how willing the Americans are at this time to transfer top-line munitions. If the gates were indeed open then the PAF would have requested AIM-9X and potentially even JSOW and JASSM for use on the F-16s a while ago.

  • Mohsin E.

    Why is the J-20 missing from this list? As far as 5th gen goes, this bird would be on top of the PAF’s wishlist.

    • saqrkh

      I wasn’t sure if China was willing to offer the J-20 for export, but if it did, then yes, I think it would top the PAF’s 5th gen wishlist as well. It would basically combine the best aspects of the Su-35 (range and payload) with FC-31 (low-observable design).

      • Mohsin E.

        I think India’s acquisition of the FGFA/PAK-FA would be a factor in China’s controls on the J-20. And since talks on that side seem to be getting back on track, the situation on the J-20 will start moving as well, at least that’s my assessment. I could be wrong.

        • blabla bla

          @BilalHKhan:disqus when it comes to Pak China cooperation and defense China can provide PAF with J -20 depends upon how PAF negotiates with them . PLA can get sovereign guarantees .Sending money and resource on J20 makes sense but J-31 even China is not considering it for its air force. J-31 is in the development phase and dont know when its stable enough to compete with F 35 , PAKFA .

  • blabla bla

    @saqrkh @jigsaww:disqus
    Could you draw some comparison on J 20 specification vs PAKFA & F-35 . I am sure PAF would be negotiating with China . What about a Chinese BVR system , payload ? . How much a J 20 is good in dog fight ? .what about its air superiority ? How many J 20 Squadrons would be sufficient to deter IAF ? .
    Second question would the JF 17 block 3 would it be more advance than J 10 B or F 16s or Block 52 ?. Would it be able to challenge SU 30 MKI or Rafaeles ? . JF 17 Block 3 would be considered as a ( Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft )? . How much the speed of a jet play an important role in a dogfight & how much the skills of a pilot matter ?

    • jigsaww

      Hi. I have a very “diverging” take on J-31 and J-20. To me, both of these jet fighters are technology demonstrators – for now. I know that China will eventually make them work, but to what extents they qualify standards of an air force like PAF is an entirely different question. PLAAF does not come on par with PAF in pilot training, quality standards, requirements or even warfare experience that PAF possesses. I believe that before 5 years or so, J-31 or J-20 both should remain out of PAF’s acquisition plans to get Chinese to bring them on decent levels that are acceptable to PAF, and im pretty sure PAF is pursuing J-31 only because it has no other viable choice right now.
      That said, the biggest difference i see between J-20 and PAK-FA or F-35 will be their under the hood capabilities. None of these jets are primary dogfighters, and if any 5th gen fighter is pursued to be a great dog fighter, then its the wrong focus.

      I believe that F-35 will outclass each one of them with its cutting edge sensors and sensor fusion, followed by PAK-FA. J-20 will surely have 5th gen sensors but i’m not sure at this point how acceptable they will be. All 5th gen fighters will survive owing to their superior sensors and EW capabilities.

      I see J-20 has canards, so that will give it high manoeuvrability over F-35 but it won’t outclass PAK-FA in that area. PAK-FA will possibly have best of supercruise. F-35 has limited and J-20, i’m not sure how it will do here – in reality, though it’s said to have supercruise. F-35 is possibly the most underpowered having TWR under 0.8 and for some variants at 0.7 when empty. PAK-FA will have most powerful engines giving it high speeds and TWR. J-20 is also said to be underpowered currently. And it looks true – its a really big plane. Also the canards are not good for stealth. J-31 looks to be worse than all of these in sensor fusion, manoeuvrability, being underpowered and that’s where i want Pakistan to wait and see. If ever, PAK-FA should outclass F-35 and J-20 in dogfight, and J-20 should outclass F-35, and F-35 will be on par or better than J-31 in dog fighter – although none of that matters too much with 5th gen WVR HOBS missiles. PAK-FA is said to be able to guide cruise missiles and other systems to its targets in an aerial battle. F-35 should also be able to do that. Don’t know where J-20 stands here.

      If PAF goes for J-20, then it depends on how many T-50 will india acquire, which will be 100 + in any case. Then PAF should deploy 1 squadron for every 2 squadrons, meaning around 50 jets for 100 jets.

      Second question is a matter of perspective. There are many areas where F-16s block 52 outclass JF-17 block 3 and there are areas where JF-17 will outclass F-16s, primary of these will be its new sensors and weapon integration capability along with local datalink and possibility to be free from GPS dependency and use beidou global navigation instead. Block 52s will still be most dependable asset in PAF. I think J-10 is history now for PAF. It wanted these back in 2010 largely due to MMRCA. That canceled, J-10 has no place in PAF especially when JF-17 has matured and J-31 is coming off age in due time. But J-10B will not be advanced than JF-17, J-10 C with AESA etc will be. J-10 has had a pretty bad crash rate so i do not recommend or think PAF is going to it.
      Sukhois 30 MKI are more of a boogeyman that indians have more faith in than where PAF puts it. Not going into a vs. debate, its enough to say that SU-30 is a very potent weapon in IAF arsenal, but it also comes at big disadvantage of high RCS (over 10m2), low composites, PESA radar with not extremely long range in aerial mode or BVR missiles to support that long range. If PAF can introduce a decent AESA, IRST, and new weapons for JF-17 with composites in block 3, it will be a definite challenge to Sukhois and in due time, you will start seeing these assessments in defence media analysis. I would tread carefully with Rafales, since it will an extremely potent addition to IAF, better than sukhois for its extremely impressive all round capabilities. But i suppose, for Rafale, PAF has a plan in store – though JF-17 avionics will keep getting upgraded too.
      I don’t know if JF-17 will be considered as MRCA. By the looks, it will still not qualify in that league since payload capacity is on light end and i do not think its going to change a lot either.

  • Mehmet Aydemir

    I wish Turkey+Pak+Qatar develop a new generation fighter based on JF-17….

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