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A strong Army Aviation is vital to Pakistan’s CAS strategy
April 30, 2017
A pair of Pakistan's Z-10 attack helicopters flying past a parade venue as part of Pakistan's national day parade on 23 March 2016. Photo credit: Reuters.

A strong Army Aviation is vital to Pakistan’s CAS strategy

 

Although the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s F-16s serve a central role in providing the Pakistan Army with air support in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), it does not seem that fighter aircraft will play a central role in the armed forces’ wider close air support (CAS) strategy.

Make no mistake, the PAF is most certainly not walking away from the work of engaging surface targets. From bringing air launched cruise missiles, glide bombs, anti-ship missiles, laser-guided bombs (LGB), and INS/GPS-based precision-guided bombs (PGB) into service, the PAF has clearly put in a considerable level of investment in improving its strike capabilities.

That said, what is the central aim of amassing this offensive power? When looking at Pakistan’s ongoing counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, it seems the PAF has been called upon to destroy fixed installations, such as ammunition dumps and well-embedded tunnels. Granted, there are likely instances of the PAF closely coordinating with the Army to engage in time-sensitive targeting (TST) missions, which may involve neutralizing moving targets; but it seems the Army’s attack helicopters, such as the AH-1F/S Cobra, are the primary drivers of Pakistan’s low-altitude CAS work.

It is not as though the PAF is fundamentally unable to support the Army at low-altitude. There are a number of aircraft available on the market that could be procured to enable the PAF to offer that kind of support. These primarily include modern turboprop-powered platforms – such as the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano – which could be equipped with laser-guided air-to-ground missiles (AGM) and lightweight laser-guided bombs. But it is evident that the PAF has not pursued that route, preferring instead to focus on providing air support to the Army through engaging distant and/or well-fortified fixed-targets. In fact, it has even avoided repurposing its K-8 Karakoram trainers for the purpose, even though it could (at least in theory) be done by attaching a laser-designation system to the platform.

However, Pakistan still has a low-altitude CAS strategy in place: dedicated attack helicopters. It seems that the Pakistan Army is opting to take on the bulk of its CAS needs on its own, especially in terms of low-altitude coverage. Whether this means providing support to its troops in COIN, or to its armour on the Eastern front, dedicated attack helicopters are going to be essential.

Although a lot has been done to link the PAF and Army, especially in terms of closely coordinating on the battlefield to meet overarching goals, there is value in having the CAS element kept within the fold of the Army. At the end of the day, the Army and Air Force are separate organizations; they must cooperate, but they still have distinct operational mandates to fulfill. If the Army needs a CAS element that can operate in very close concert with its ground forces, and that too with 100% commitment at all times and in all places, then it would be expected that the element would emerge from within the Army itself.

In this context, the Army’s reported interest in the Chinese Z-10 Fierce Thunderbolt and Russian Mi-28NE Night Hunter makes some sense. Yes, it has the AH-1Z in the pipeline, but it seems that Pakistan’s ability to secure that platform – and to build its fleet – is dependent on how well it ties its attack helicopter needs to COIN in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Yes, the attack helicopter fleet is an essential component to COIN, but the Army’s use of such assets will not be limited to such missions. In fact, the Army’s initial impetus to even acquire the AH-1S in the 1980s was to bolster its ability to fight an enemy armour formation. If the Air Force is not going to serve the leading role in supporting the Army’s CAS needs, then it means attack helicopter acquisitions could take on a particularly higher level of importance.

We are not going into the specifics of each platform, but it would be a good idea to lay out some of the core requirements the Army may be looking to fulfill. It will need a platform that is readily capable of being operable in Pakistan’s diverse geography, from deserts to plains, to hills and potentially even high-altitude peaks. It will need a platform that is durable and robust, which could be had in the form of straightforward maintenance as well as the incorporation of armour (especially along the cockpit area).

Furthermore, the platform would need to be compatible with modern munitions, not only laser-guided missiles, but also millimeter wave (mmW) missiles. This is important as mmW radars are not as common on the commercial defence scene as electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) sensors. Either the vendor will need to be amenable to releasing that technology to Pakistan, or Pakistan will need to source mmW radars from a third-party (and in turn, have the right to integrate subsystems of its choice on its serving platforms). Additional considerations, such as asset networking with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) would also need to be raised.

Whether it happens sooner or later, it is evident that Pakistan Army Aviation is gradually becoming much more prominent in its place in the Army. Ten years ago, Army Aviation was reeling from a deficient number of helicopters to effectively support the Army’s COIN efforts in FATA, but ten years from now, it could be a potentially be a comparatively much larger and multi-layered force, one with a sizable attack helicopter fleet. Given Pakistan’s limited financial means, the Army Aviation fleet will need to balance its hopes for an offensive tip with its commitment to effectively support the Army’s transport and utility needs.

In looking at the possible growth of the Army Aviation fleet’s attack helicopter forces, one might ask why the PAF is not going to build its CAS capabilities. It is important to establish that the PAF is not going to leave the Army on its own. This would be an incorrect idea. In terms of its strike commitments, the PAF has a mandate to weaken its opponent through high-level strikes upon key assets, and not to forget, to defend the country’s territorial integrity as well as its sister arms from an enemy’s aerial incursions. This is not a simple task, and a vast proportion of the PAF’s development and organizational preparedness has gone into making the PAF capable of this task. It is not easy to beset it with the task of CAS, which would necessitate allocating valuable resources or perhaps even acquiring new ones. It could be possible in much better economic days, but not today.

For the aircraft that will need to operate closest to the Army’s infantry, armour and artillery, it will be best that those aircraft belong to the Army. The bridges between the Air Force and Army are getting stronger, but it is difficult to surpass the natural proximity of those within the very same service arm – i.e. the units belonging to the Army. That said, the strengthening of those bridges will remain very important, especially in the context of enhancing the Army Aviation’s coordination with the Air Force. The better the two arms are able to coordinate and operate with one another at the tactical level, the more effective the armed forces will be in achieving their collective mandate of safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity. In addition to fine-tuning communication and coordination at the personnel level, strengthening Army-Air Force cooperation could also mean procuring material resources of mutual benefit.

For example, the introduction of dual-mode synthetic aperture radar (SAR)/ground moving target indication (GMTI) sensors could be a natural step forward. SAR/GMTI sensors are basically used to capture highly detailed photos of the ground, with the GMTI element being used to determine moving targets, such as vehicles. Such sensors could be deployed in the form of surveillance pods for on fighter aircraft. Alternatively, very high-powered SAR/GMTI could be integrated onto a VIP or light utility transport aircraft, and further equipped with on-board control consoles, thus resulting in JSTARS-like systems. These systems would basically track an enemy’s formation on the ground from a distance, and then pass that information (via data-link) to friendly assets, such as fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, and even armour.

Another asset of use could be a high bandwidth communications satellite. If one is planning to network a large number of friendly assets from the Army, Air Force and even Navy, then a communications satellite could enable large maneuvers involving multiple service arms.

  • SP

    Some of the older helicopters can perhaps be given to police for aerial surveillance and pursuit of criminals and gangsters. These helicopters could also be used to provide close air support to police officers on the ground. The police fulfil a vital rule and are the first line of defence and need to be offered sufficient resources in order to maintain the writ of the state.

    • MT

      Many problems with such naive approach
      1 You would need to track precise position of aircraft which isn’t accurate if one rely on flight control radar & base station. There is atleast 50-100 meter error in sensor position estimate from your true position
      For the same reason it’s not possible to have autopilot landing without geo augmented navigation system(wrapper system on basis of gps) so eventually u need state of art Inertial navigation system in aircraft to extract precise 3d kinematics position
      2. Then comes problem with line of sight. An aircraft can barely see 40-50 kilo mete .all 4 aircraft has to follow PGM at different angles for accurate spherical intercept
      so there is lot of additive noise from radar data, 3d kinematics coming from actuators/engine encoders, inertial navigation system of aircraft ; various synchronisation issues among aircraft , entire virtual gps systems and pgm
      lately u ll have large systematic bias once your aircraft’s can’t cross the border & aircraft’s have to correlate & extrapolate from very far distances

      • SP

        Funding is not a problem but the problem is in prioritising.

        • Zubair

          Sidhu just wait and U will see Pakistan come winner against your conspiracies in our country. we have just arrested one Lt Cdr and your Govt is screeming foul. Your “investment” in the our MNS will not last forever. Even he with all his love for Modi & India will not be able stop us from cooking your goose–just wait

    • Ashi Sidhu

      first get some sovereignty over ur country from taliban ,chinese troops in POK and US drone strikes killing innocent pashtuns

      • jigsaww

        Man, you hindustanis have some real pakistan hatred deep rooted into you from your childhood. you just cant help ridiculing, abusing, cursing, letting out your hate on every page.
        Now you know your own aukaat and you know i can put you in your place very reasonably, but i’ll just pass today.

        i’m just starting to wonder…is there any hindustani that actually wants the relations to be better or is all sham.

        i think the thinking your guys portray should have pakistan understand the kind of hatred and enmity we are up against with hindustan.

      • Mustafa O

        I am a pushtun from orakzai agency and we tribals know the dirty work raw is doing in Afghanistan. We hate afghan tajiks. Fyi. Get some sovereignty from ashton carter plz.

  • Abdul Rashid

    Bilal, can I suggest you issue some Hajmola digestive aid tablets with each article related to Pakistan’s defence procurement? There are some on here who have a hard time digesting it all, you see.

  • Mohsin E.

    Fair warning, the following post is a rant against the Army, of epic proportions. But note: I only chide the Army, because I love the Army.

    First of all, this article echoes the battle between the USAF and the US Army over the A-10, so I’ll start with that as an example. In my assessment, the USAF isn’t wrong to hate the A-10 and the Army’s dependence on it. It knows that in any engagement with Russia or China, such “CAS aircraft” will be next to useless. Sure the A-10 works great against insurgents, but how well will it fare against modern mechanized infantry brigades, protected by tunguskas and manpads, let alone air cover? So why should any Air Force waste resources on a mission that’s inherently unsuited to Aircraft?

    The Air Force is not a tactical tool, it is a strategic asset, much more so than the Army, which only operates under the cover the AF provides it. It should be obvious, given the military history of the British and American empires, that it is the Naval and Air Arms which serve strategic purposes in the modern world, not the Army. The Army needs to deal with its own threats, out of its own budget, plain and simple. And when the AF is tasked with targeting ground units (besides Strike/SEAD etc.), it should ONLY be for a strategic effect, e.g. an arsenal ship like the B1 taking out an entire armored division with cluster munitions. Leave the rest to Army gunships and UCAVs, because the AF has more important things to do.

    This might sound harsh, but the Army needs to understand and accept its role in the 21st century battle space, because it clearly still hasn’t, especially in countries like Pakistan, which somehow manage to launch entire “secret” offensives without even informing their Air Force! And when the **** hits the fan, they ring 911 for air cover and expect the AF to just magically bail them out on a minutes notice! If I were the Air Force, I’d just reply with: “Sorry, we didn’t get the memo. Have fun getting bombarded from 20,000 feet!”

    Now, with that said, it’s obvious that the Army’s job is (and will always remain) the hardest of all the services. Air Forces and Navies, at the end of the day, are purely technological byproducts, their job, essentially, is pushing buttons in some cockpit or control panel. The soldier, on the other hand, has to stand toe-to-toe with his/her opponent. Their job is the hardest, there is no question, and no one should doubt the gravity of the Army’s burdens. But this does not give the Army a licence to let its bravado and size push around the other services, they aren’t there to cater to the Army’s wishlists.

    …. rant over.

    • Mohsin E.

      Again my post got lost somehow, so I’ll briefly summarize the add-on. Foxtrot Alpha’s recent article on the defense of the A-10 and the Army’s needs misses 2 key details which are relevant here:

      1) It neglects to mention that the A-10 program was basically a result of the USAF killing the Army’s AH-56 program in order to preserve its CAS funding, not because the A-10 is the best option for CAS.

      2) FA’s claim that no other aircraft other than the A-10 can fulfill its role is obviously incorrect, because when the Army wanted to take over the role of CAS, it proceeded to build the predecessor of the Apache, not an A-10 like aircraft.

      • At first I was a bit miffed that the PAF didn’t procure something like the Air Tractor or Tucano for use in CAS for COIN, but writing the article and reflecting upon it a bit, I fully understand the reasoning.

        The best element to have the Army’s back in the air at the beck and call for the Army is the Army, and I think the PAF had been pushing that message.

        It also begins to make sense out of the Army’s interest in many dedicated attack helicopter types, which from the perspective of exceptional need would seem strange. But if you’re going to need to depend on Army Aviation a lot, especially on the eastern front, then having different attack helicopter types for distinct roles has some merit. Of course, I’d prefer we just factor the AH-1Z out and simply depend on Z-10 and Mi-28NE for the medium and heavy departments, respectively.

        • Mohsin E.

          If we take out the older cobras from the equation, Pakistan basically has 35 gunships… 15 Zulus and 20 Z-10s in the pipeline… With regards to CAS needs on the Eastern Front, this force level is so insignificant, that it is practically zero. I think that 60 Havocs plus 180 Z-10s would be the bare minimum requirement to cover the Eastern Front.

          • If we can get to 120 Z-10s and Mi-28NEs I’d be elated, though it is skeletal in comparison to the scale of the Eastern front. Moreover, if the Air Force and Army are serious about joint planning, they need to acquire joint-use ISTAR assets. I think 3 ATR-72s equipped with high-powered SAR radars and control consoles with Link-17 and a TDL for ground forces would be a true qualitative boost for both arms.

  • bla bla

    NEW DELHI:

    HIGHLIGHTS

    France had asked for $12 billion

    First planes will take at least 18 months to deliver

    French firms to invest $3billion in India in technology transfer

    India’s much-negotiated deal with France for 36 fighter jets is final – it will buy the French-made Rafale planes for 8.8 billion dollars, said sources to NDTV. The agreement is to be signed within three weeks and it will take at least 18 months for India to get the first lot of aircraft.

    France initially sought nearly 12 billion dollars for the sale of 36 fighters complete with weapon systems. India has closed the deal nearly 3 billion dollars below France’s asking price.

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to Paris last year confirmed India’s order of 36 read-to-fly jets. Before that, the Defence Ministry had sanctioned the purchase of 120 planes, but the deal was scaled down dramatically after both sides were unable for years to agree on the unit price and the assembling of the planes in India.

    The Rafales are made by manufacturer Dassault Aviation. During PM Modi’s visit, the countries agreed that the deal would be handled between their governments.

    The Air Force has stressed it needs to start replacing its ageing jet fleet from 2017 to effectively check the capabilities of Pakistan and China.

    As the negotiations stretched – and a deal was not reached during French President Francois Hollande’s visit to India in January, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said he is “a tough negotiator” and needed time to ensure a good bargain. The Air Force has repeatedly been asking for its ageing warplane fleet to be urgently modernised.

    Sources say that as part of the government’s push to develop and support military manufacturing at home, in exchange for selling India off-the-shelf Rafales, French companies including Dassault will have to invest three billion dollars in India to help firms here with stealth-capability and radar technologies. France had initially agreed to a 30 per cent offset obligation to be invested in India, while India had sought a minimum of 50 per cent. France has now agreed for 50 per cent offset obligation.

    some comments on this please ?

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