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Should Pakistan Consider Used F-16s?
August 23, 2017
F-16 Block-15ADFs [Air Defence Fighters] in service with the Pakistan Air Force. These F-16s were acquired from Jordan in 2014.

Should Pakistan Consider Used F-16s?

27 January 2016

By Bilal Khan

While the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s desire for new F-16s is widely known, hardly any attention is paid to the idea of it potentially studying used fighters as a means to meet its needs. To be fair, there is no news suggesting that this is the case, but it would be surprising to see the PAF not consider this route as a means to complement its plans for new-built Vipers.

With the ongoing induction of the JF-17 Block-II and development of the heavily upgraded and promising JF-17 Block-III, there is no urgency in acquiring new medium-weight fighters in addition to the F-16s. There was a time, especially in 2005-2009, when the PAF sought the Chinese J-10 to augment the Thunder. But with the listed design aims of the JF-17 Block-III, it is apparent that the potential payoff of the J-10 would not necessarily be worth the added cost of inducting an entirely new medium-weight platform.

To the disappointment of many, the F-16 is still on the PAF’s modernization roadmap. The general reluctance towards the F-16 is almost entirely due to the reality of possible U.S. sanctions. This is a valid concern given the crippling impact American arms embargoes have had on Pakistan, especially during the 1990s when the PAF had 71 new-built F-16s in the pipeline.

Unfortunately, not only did the arms embargo cap the production of those birds to 28 units, but those fighters were parked in Arizona through the 1990s and early 2000s. To make matters worse, the U.S. refused to refund Pakistan for those planes, arguing instead to let a third-party buyer’s payment serve as compensation. However, a new buyer could not be found, and the U.S instead refunded Pakistan in soybean oil, and then proceeded to allocate those F-16s to USAF and the U.S Navy. A lack of attrition replacements and spare parts reduced the PAF’s fleet to 32 fighters (from the original 40) by 2001.

Those sanctions were lifted after 2001 (following America’s entry into the region), and by 2014 the PAF’s F-16 fleet had swollen to 76 fighters. The PAF is looking to enlarge that fleet with eight new Vipers. It is possible that the PAF is looking to raise its F-16 fleet to the originally planned force of 110 fighters (as envisioned in the late 1980s). Purchases of new F-16s in small increments could enable the PAF to build its F-16 fleet without incurring a significant risk. The thinking here being that it is better to lose out on eight planes than seventy one.

However, with a possible delivery time of up to two years, would new F-16s alone be sufficient in meeting the PAF’s immediate needs? The PAF has hundreds of aircraft to retire, and while the JF-17 will replace the majority of them, certain units – such as the oldest Mirages – are slotted for retirement by 2020. With such a short timetable, it is unlikely a handful of new F-16s or even the JF-17 (at the current production rate) would easily fill all operational gaps.

It is possible that the PAF is considering used F-16s as a means to both plug nearing operational gaps as well as steadily building a sizable medium-weight fighter fleet. The PAF has the maintenance infrastructure to operate both A/B and newer C/D airframes, i.e. practically every kind of used F-16 available on the market. It is unclear if the PAF could acquire used F-16s under the Excess Defence Articles (EDA) program, which would limit costs to “packing, crating, handling, and transportation.” In other words, the airframes themselves would be free, or at least very cheap.

If used airframes are acquired, the PAF could then have the option of pushing the F-16s through a service-life extension program (SLEP), which would extend the life of the airframes. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) recently issued a request for information (RFI) for SLEP offers for around 300 of its F-16C/Ds. The SLEP would extend the life of USAF F-16s to 12,000 hours (from the current maximum of 8000).

In terms of upgrades, the ideal situation would warrant the acquisition of the F-16V-upgrade kit, which includes an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar. Based on the package released for South Korea, an upgrade of that level could cost $20 million U.S. per unit. Unfortunately, given the sensitive nature of the technology involved and the ‘concerns’ it could draw from certain quarters in Congress, it is unlikely that the PAF would be able to secure the F-16V-upgrade. A configuration in-line with the PAF’s existing fleet of Block-52+ and MLU is more likely.

If Indonesia’s planned purchase of 24 surplus F-16C/Ds with airframe restoration and upgrades (but no new radar) is of any indication, the PAF could pay around $30-35 million U.S. for each used, restored and upgraded F-16. In comparison to the PAF’s newly-built Block-52+, which cost $80 million U.S. a unit, this would be a highly cost-effective option. Yes, this is not an ideal solution, but it could be a viable short-term replacement for many of the PAF’s ageing Mirages, especially with the 2020-deadline in mind.

However, there are serious caveats. It is unlikely the U.S would release munitions such as the AGM-154 Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) or clear the use of the Harpoon Block-II anti-ship missile, both of which would give PAF’s F-16s stand-off strike capabilities. The AIM-9X within-visual-range air-to-air missile (WVRAAM) would be a welcome addition as well (considering the PAF already has the helmet mounted display and sight system to make full use of it). However, that too is unlikely.

Above all, there is the very real possibility of the U.S completely denying the PAF the chance to even acquire used F-16s. This is keeping aside questions about potentially onerous end-user requirements or the issue of releasing a large cache of spare parts and possibly even reserve aircraft for attrition.

On the other hand, the PAF may not need that many additional F-16s to meet its short-term requirements. Whether new and/or used, it is almost certain that these F-16s would be the last the PAF procures, especially as it looks ahead to not only the JF-17 Block-III, but its next-generation fighter as well.

  • jigsaww

    Good thoughts there.
    I wonder if someone in PAF has even given thought to the fact that PAF’s F-16 fleet could ultimately end up like Iran’s F-14s pushing PAF to start cannibalizing these to keep a handful flying. And this is going to happen sooner or later. All signs point to that.

    F-16s only serve the purpose of a peace-time deterrent for most part. I am not sure how far would PAF be able to use them in an actual cross-border conflict when the very codes for firing missiles are released by US, not to mention the limited possibilities they are equipped with.

    The only real benefit i see from acquiring the F-16s is that PAF continues to gain experience of flying and understanding one of the best aviation technology available to airforces, which impacts everything from its training to psychology and skills. JF-17 owes its success big time to PAF’s experience with F-16s. That is the only practical benefit we acquired from gaining F-16s.

    Eventually, US might clear AESA equipped F-16s also, the only real problem is how far is PAF willing to risk its front end fighters and whole strategy because of risky F-16s. If for some reason F-16V does not happen and PAF continues to fly block 52 standard F-16s, in a matter of 5 to 7 years, JF-17s would be technically poised better to replace F-16s as front line fighters for AESA, IRST, and better goodies.

    It would be better if PAF puts a stop to further F-16s procurement and starts thinking on technical lines.
    Now is the time to start countering the Rafale threat.
    Once inducted by IAF, this is the ONLY real threat i see PAF will find no easy answers to.

    • Absolutely right. But considering bilal’s point, may be the reason behind going for F-16 is to complete its original squadron count of 110 aircrafts. As you pointed out as well, it might be to further invest the technological know how of F-16 into development of JF-17 Block III or possibly even a flanker version of JF-17 who knows.

    • Abdul Rashid

      What?! Even the codes are released by US to fire the missiles? Not to mention their heavy presence on Pakistani bases to oversee “their” military assets. I cannot comprehend why Pakistan would willingly spend so much money on such humiliating terms. Even with my now remote link to Pakistan (British born citizen of Pakistani parents) I feel embarrassed and angry to know this. I would be inclined to tell the Americans where to………..! I say, work with China, save money, ramp up the JF-17 production and capabilities and live and when it comes to it, fight with pride as the situation demands. No asking Uncle Sam for permission and clearance to fire a damn missile!

      • jigsaww

        It is true. I know this from a very credible and close source from the time they were being contracted back in 2008 or so. The public will never know the exact conditions on which these new F-16s were supplied to Pakistan, but they are beyond stringent. Their presence alone in “isolation” from all other bases is sufficient evidence that they are supplied under severe conditions, so much so that PAF cannot really fly block 52’s sorties on its own without having the Americans in the loop. Yes it is humiliating and damaging for PAF in the long run.

        Pakistan should simply forget that US would allow PAF to endanger its growing alliance with India by actually using these jets in an actual battle. On the other hand, these are THE only fighter jets available to Pakistan politically and financially. This is probably the only reason they were procured.

        Consider these tools of peace time. It would be a miracle if PAF is allowed to put them to full use in a battle zone. Same goes for new F-16 block 61’s, if ever cleared.

        The only bet PAF can and should make are the JF-17s block 3 and FC-31 when acquired. It would be better if PAF stays away from GPS GNSS and uses Beidou, local data link and domestic systems. All this intel will be passed on directly to India – and you can be sure of that. On top of that, make the best use of F16s as much possible.

        • Abdul Rashid

          Actually going on your last paragraph regarding intel passed on to India, maybe you can shed some light on an issue bugging my mind lately. On this very site I learnt JF-17 to be fitted with a “Chinese” AESA radar, which is apparently an Israeli model. Exactly the same. I myself am no expert on military hardware but I understand (again from Quwa site) that a key advantage of an AESA is ability to resist detection/ECM. If detailed technical specification of the system were passed on to India by the Israelis, would this enable India to negate some or all of its advantage?

          • jigsaww

            No. We do not have much to worry about that I believe. It is not that simple for reasons of being AESA very robust technology inherently working by switching to different frequencies with every pulse spreading over wide spectrum many times a second, thus making it almost impossible for the counter EW systems to “guess” the frequencies being used even if its specs are known, operating frequencies can never be guessed truly. This is sort of a disadvantage for traditional radar systems that AESA fixes. Also, in a real theatre, it is most likely that radars may just never be switched on and AESA keeps listening on jamming systems to point out their source, and instead rely on IRST for its own detection. It is a pretty robust system at technological level, which is why it also poses great threat.

            As far as Chinese radars being derivative of israeli radars is concerned, it is also not much of a worry since in essence they are Chinese, only built upon reversed engineered Israeli (which is in turn mostly american) or other technology. The technical specs of these systems are pretty much open and known to anyone, as in their ranges, modes supported, and how capable they are, etc but there operating parameters are never revealed. For that matter, PAF also knows exactly the weaknesses and strengths of modern fighters. That is actually the whole purpose of doing mutual trainings and exercises. PAF also flies eurofighters, rafales, F16s block 60s, SU-30s and possibly more, so an understanding is there. I believe PAF’s Combat commanders school does all those threat assessments.

            What my concern here was that by using NATO compatible systems, US GPS satellites for missions, and western datalinks, PAF will be exposing its missions to other parties, hence risking intel leak. This is why Israel being closely US ally never really “trusts” the US and enforces its own solutions on its F-16s and F-15s, even requesting the source code which US allowed to israel (there’s a tussle going on for F-35 source code now). For this matter, Israel was granted special permission to create F-35I. There won’t be critical american tech used on these jets or weapon systems. That is what PAF would want to avoid on its F.16s, but as it stands it won’t be possible, which is why JF-17 gives it this capability at least at a technical level, and i hope they would invest more there to make it a comprehensive alternate to western systems. Biedou integration is critical here.

            I believe as far as JF-17 is concerned, PAF is clear on that. F-16 will always remain a risky mystery.

          • The next big thing Pakistan ought to do is get its own SATNAV and SATCOM network. Doesn’t need to be global obviously, but an investment in this area would have exponential payoffs.

          • jigsaww

            Yes and Sadly i see no focus on space programme that simply died after Musharraf’s era. There is an earth observation satellite Badr 2 slated for 2018, but with next gen wars headed for space, PAF’s has a nonexisting strategy there. Then it comes down to moving these systems to be integrated with chinese sats.

          • Abdul Rashid

            Thanks for your detailed and informative reply.
            In your opinion/best guess how well will Chinese BeiDou compare with US GPS with regard to reliability and accuracy, and when will it be ready for use in military applications? I can of course try and glean a few bits and bobs from the internet but would not necessarily know which sites to trust.
            Oh, and please excuse my lack of knowledge on the subject! You and many other individuals commenting on here seem to have a very good grasp of the subject and apparently access to “inside” sources. My interest on Quwa is primarily to learn and stems from loving all things related to Pakistan. (Quwa is of course more than just about Pakistan).

          • Assuming Pakistan is getting access to BeiDou as a military user, then it is getting access to a fairly good system (compared to GPS and GNSS). But the reality is that depending on BeiDou doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of Pakistan not having its own network.

            When it comes to Chinese platforms such as FC-31 or Z-10, Pakistan at least has the option of buying a huge cache of spare parts (or even the capacity to locally produce spare parts), so in that regard the Chinese have flexibility in ‘cutting’ Pakistan’s supply chain.

            But BeiDou is a whole other area since it is a capability, not a tangible material platform. By letting Pakistan use BDS in war time, it’d be directly complicit in every attack on India. China doesn’t have much choice but to cut BDS access to Pakistan.

            This lack of independence is a critical problem for us, especially as the warfare increasingly depends on this kind of network integration.

          • jigsaww

            With respect, No. I do not believe China would be doing anything of the sort of “cutting” pakistan’s supply chain. It’s a time tested relation pakistan enjoys with china. 26/11 was one event that tested it where even saudia ditched pakistan but china was the one standing and vetoing indian moves against pakistan. i remember that isolation pakistan went under in those times still. i believe PAF is bringing in also spare parts production and has sound guarantees over these things flowing. CPEC will only tie china and pakistan’s interests more with time. it is the single most important project for chinese growth and existence in the 21st century. while china may never openly come all out, it will extend a lot of support to pakistan, because if you will, dont forget that israel was always there for india (kargil, 26/11) and will always be along with US without announcing its support for indian military which is how india pulled off precision bombing in kargil. It won’t be just about pakistan but for entire region and more. if pakistan falls, then china starts taking the heat that pakistan shields it from today. i think china wont allow that-

            second off, pakistan does not have to solely rely on beidou but integrate it only and never announce its integration. i agree completely that pakistan should develop its own space capabilities, at least area centric constellation of 10-12 satellites and domestic network (some of which is in place) but if that does not happen, and chance are it wont in near future, then beidou is the best bet while keeping GPS primary option, not to mention that china is willing to provide access of it to pakistan. at worst case, pakistan needs to launch its own satellites. Without GPS/beidou pakistani inventory will be sitting ducks perhaps except for cruise missiles, so we need two systems here.

            some understanding of this is there in JF-17 program as i see…but alot of stuff may just never be revealed.

          • Abdul Rashid

            How feasible is Pakistan having it’s own network? Technically might not be an issue but I’m thinking financially. The costs involved with setting up and maintaining the network might be very steep I imagine. True, it would assure a degree of independence and security in times of emergency but as Jigsaww points out it might be far safer bet to use the Chinese BDS and continue to develop closer economic interdependence (CPEC) so it becomes unthinkable China would ever cut off access.

          • jigsaww

            In long run, Pakistan must aim for her own space network, just like having own missile and delivery system technology.
            Nevertheless, I can assure you China would never ever “cut off” its support in any way Pakistan wanted. I am not sure how Bilal concluded this but this is NOT happening. And the reason for this are manyfold, starting with china’s own deep strategic interest to India being supported by other countries as well. India is not in a position to win any battle over Pakistan without external support, evident from all previous history. It has always been Pakistan that has not risen up to the call whenever China lend us a hand, only due to our spineless political leadership.
            Next 10 years will only see Pakistan’s China relationship rising to unprecedented heights, along with Russia.
            The decision to use BDS is already taken by both china and pakistan. The system is in use. Military applications will be added with time. This is one reason why JF-17 is being pushed viciously.

          • jigsaww

            It will be a fairly good system of military use. the only problem being beidou constellation is not complete yet if i m not wrong its 20 satellites up there and more are on the way. 35 are planned i guess to cover all. accuracy and reliability is state of the art since its a competitive system. the system is ready and pakistan is using it to some extent.

            at the end of the day pakistan needs its very own constellation. once you have space tech up there you need anti sat weapons as well so the race is never ending but the capability is required.

            appreciate your comments alot. thanks.

          • MT

            1. Chin wont give military access to Pak during war time.. Unlike Pak; India have anti sat capability with decades experience of launching satellites and sending exploratory missions
            2. Pak is decade away from launching polar satellites–
            3. Pak needs to make basic 10 KM SAM before dreaming about anti sat weapons ICBM range SAM

          • jigsaww

            Aray bhai, who asked your opinion (which is irrelevant and more fantasy than an opinion).
            I know your and india’s entire aukaat, so please spare me your unsolicited explanations.

          • MT

            pak needs to first make 2 stroke moped engine..
            There is nothing produced inside pak from internal technology.
            RAad comes from denel dynamics while babur is chinese gift for parceling tomahawk CM for rev engineering.
            sadly even those 55% fuselage which are onky pakistani component in jf17 are made up of imported chinese aerospace graded aluminum alloy

          • jigsaww

            Yeah. Tell me about it when it transports to hell along with your Hindu masters. That is something it will do with high precision.

            The difference between india and Pakistan is that while Pakistan succeeds in developing technology eventually, indians do not even have sufficient IQ to successfully copy/steal/reverse engineer technology. Hence there’s plenty of scrap available at DRDO.

          • MT

            1. Name me 1 technology developed by Bakistani inbred who come out with gr8 iq

            2. Rofl–A country that still buys 1.4 meter diameter shaheen solid rocket engine from china whines about DRDO inefficiency

          • jigsaww

            I’ll tell you when you apes have fully evolved into humans.
            Until then, you focus on your ongoing evolution and i save my energies. It’s just a few million years to go.

          • MT

            Look dude—Indians esp hindus head as CEO of many dozens fortune 500 companies while bakistani are born dumb bcoz of sunni wahabi ideology and cousin marriages…We shia can see difference between hindus and sunnis–
            Hindus respect shia bcoz we contribute immensely in india’s development.
            We have no inbred cult, cousin marriage–An average pakistani sunni in US with Punjabi degree is not at par with Indians immigrants/students

            Look at the patents,Papers published by Indians & compare it with Bakistan!

          • jigsaww

            Yeah yeah, spare me praise for hindus of your enslaved brains. Keep it to your home. Unlike you, we Pakistanis are a free nation. Dont give me “Bhashan” from the hindu Mandir meets that you must attend to guarantee your survival. Like i said, i know you and your whole aukaat.
            I know your whole shia sunni bakwas that you are throwing at me here. You are what you are. India-pakistan has never been about shia sunni, it is your little world of hatred you are imposing on everything and seeing thru which. Being a shia is your personal problem. Even a kid knows indo-pak is not about that. The fact is you are an indian. Period. This is what describes the whole problem. And in that, you side with these hindus to murder, finance and spill blood of pakistani children. You damn well know india is behind the current destabilisation of Pakistan. And you who say whatever you are, are hand in hand with hindus in creating terrorism inside pakistan. If there ever was, you are the living proof of the “inbreds” in muslims who are willing to go to ANY extent for money against pakistan for your little hatred and blood rotting ideologies against pakistan. Lanat on your entire existence and for the kufr of hinduism you stand for supporting blood shed in pakistan of little children and for your little hatred. Don’t give me this garbage. You ppl are diseased with stockholm syndrome and i tell you, you indians have so much hatred in your hearts for pakistan, that even if pakistan was so give up all its military, open its borders, go all out sincerely towards indians, you people will not rest until you spill blood of every pakistani child, woman, and man. such is the level of hate you have in your cursed hearts. Whereas, Pakistan has always talked for rights of indian muslims, but it’s you some of indian muslims (and i’m sure not all are of your lanti breed) that have always opposed pakistan and are now dying to break it in your hatred. I remember musharraf once went to india and talked for indian muslims in india only to be told back by an indian muslim of your lanti breed to not talk for indian muslims. It is you who has the problem, not us.
            I dont live in pakistan and i work with you indians on daily basis trust me. You indians are the most low IQ people ever ive worked with. The only reason you get all the “Kama gayn” call center twisted accent jobs is for the low money you are willing to give the “service” for. The fact is until 1990 there was no indian existence in the world. You are being pampered for a reason. We all know this. And in that, every dog has its day. Enjoy it while you can.

          • MT

            Dont divert from main topic.
            I don’t take pleasures in children death.
            pak has pretty naive humane resources bcoz of religious addictive upbringing.
            pak missile nd space agency havent built a single rocket.
            shaheen is M18 import with majority components being chinese.

            Is there any company in pak that can manufacture inertial guidance system.
            Indian GPS will be operational by mid 2016

          • jigsaww

            Yeah. Grow the guts to confront what you start. That is THE whole topic here which you takfiri minded people are giving a color of shia-sunni fasaad. Let’s face it, you have an indian problem with pakistan. It is your heartily wish to provoke people in the name of shia sunni fasaad by showing yourself as whatever you want. I don’t give a damn what you are. Pakistan has no problem with shia or sunnis. We are one and we love our irani brothers as well as saudis. Which is why pakistan is THE only country trying to diffuse the situation. You are what is described 1400 years ago as takfiris. People of your cursed breed are found in any sect. The tali dogs of hell which pakistan is fighting to get rid of are of your kin and kind, financed actively by the hindus you cant stop praising about. Now you know why they stand against Pakistan in their hatred and will go to all extents working hand in hand with hindus to spill blood in pakistan of innocent kids. It is on your very hands the blood of 60,000 pakistanis and thousands of pakistani school going kids. Everytime you hear news of an attack, your hearts explode in joy. You live and talk like this today, i can guarantee that if you were to be offered money, you’d go to all extents to carry out these attacks in pakistan, oh you just might do it for free for your hatred is enough to fuel it. Say what you must, the fact is, you are pakistan’s enemy and you stand for the kufr of hinduism and hindus in your hatred over Pakistan. That is what you will choose at the end of the day over pakistan, not that pakistan cares about it. It just shows to you where you stand. Whereas Pakistanis still to this day stand for rights of kashmiris and even indian muslims, it’s you who have a problem.

            To hell with your GPS and missiles and all. This is not even worth a discussion with a person of takfiri breed like you. I wish in hereafter you will stand with the people you are standing in this world with, and you shall.

    • It’s important to acknowledge that the F-16 story is in its final arc. Any acquisition of the F-16 from this point on will be to hold the fort down until the Block-III is inducted and harmonized.

      Unlike the F-16, the PAF actually does have the option to integrate the JF-17 with the some of the best subsystems available on the commercial market. For example I was reading a piece on Jane’s that plainly stated that the JF-17 is using an ECM system from Indra in Spain. That company ships one ECM system, the ALQ-500 DRFM-based suite, which includes the ALR-400.

      Begin factoring that in with A-Darter as well as other good OTS solutions, e.g. TopSight-E HMD/S, Vixen (or Chinese) AESA, and even next-gen BVRAAM such as Marlin or PL-15, then the incentive for F-16s dwindles to basically nothing.

      In the long-term the JF-17 Block-III will be the prime air defence asset, and the FC-31 our core strike and long-range BVRAAM.

      • jigsaww

        True that. That just might be it the case for further F-16s until block 3 is placed well to replace it as front line fighter, unless of course the F-16V does happen and the number swells to 18+, then you are back to square one.

        It’s a mental shift in PAF that is needed and what i’m afraid of.

        • There’s inertia and comfort with the platform one knows, which is very unfortunate, but won’t be rectified at a fundamental level until our economy is in line, which in turn requires sincere and competent political leadership. With healthier backdrop of funding, the PAF would gladly take risks.

          • jigsaww

            competent leadership…That’s sadly a dream for now.

  • Mohsin E.

    Pakistan doesn’t really own the maintenance infrastructure for the Block 52s it already has, let alone any future F-16Vs it may acquire. The only Vipers it’s allowed to service on its own (without American contractors) are the Block 15s. I can’t really go into too much detail regarding this, but the idea that the PAF is fully self-sufficient in terms of the entire range of the Viper platform is not inaccurate. There are severe limitations placed on the PAF’s ‘ownership’ of upgraded and newer platforms already. And we’re not even discussing the limitations of integrating non-US weaponry on these Vipers, which is a pretty important issue by itself.

    • Yep and what a shame it is on the F-16 when the JF-17 is on track to get the same kinds of internal subsystems and munitions as the marketed F-16V.

  • SP

    If Pakistan is promoting as JF-17 to the rest of the world and itself searching for second hand F-16s then it does suggest lack of confidence in the plane. It would be better to allocate more resources to JF-17 than buying second hand planes.

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