China Takes Center Stage in Pakistan’s Modernization Plans
December 6, 2023
A Pakistan Navy Zulfiqar Class (F-22P) frigate, one of four bought from China in 2006. The frigates were delivered by April 2013.

China Takes Center Stage in Pakistan’s Modernization Plans

12 January 2016

By Bilal Khan

The idea of China taking a central role in meeting Pakistan’s present and future defence needs should not surprise anyone, especially in light of high-profile programs such as the JF-17 Thunder, which is on-track to forming the mainstay of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s fighter fleet. In fact, China has been a major source of arms for Pakistan since 1965, when a war with India cost Pakistan its access to U.S aid and arms, prompting it to seek out other vendors to meet its defence needs.

However, while China has been a major source of weapons for Pakistan over the past 50 years, the coming years will likely see Pakistan draw upon relevant Chinese export programs as nuclei for its own future needs. In a way, it is not very different from what has been seen thus far, except in the increasingly apparent fact that China has become a preferred vendor.

Before continuing onto upcoming and possible future acquisitions, it is worth looking back at how Beijing began playing a key role in the development of the Pakistani military. With U.S sanctions in place, then Air Chief Marshal Nur Khan oversaw the pursuit and induction of Chinese and French fighters to augment (and in time, supplant) the PAF’s fleet of exclusively American jets, such as the combat proven F-86 Sabre. The Shenyang F-6, a licensed Chinese copy of the Soviet MiG-19, was bought to supplement the F-86 fleet as a workhorse fighter. In 1967 the PAF integrated the AIM-9 Sidewinder within-visual-range air-to-air missile (WVRAAM) onto the F-6.[1] The F-6 went on to fly 650 sorties in the 1971 War, and – according to the PAF – had succeeded in shooting down a handful of newer fighters, such as the MiG-21 and Su-7.[2]

This one example alone offers several lessons on how the Air Force (as well as the Army and, increasingly, the Navy) viewed Chinese equipment. The F-6 was not the paragon of military aviation in the 1960s and 1970s, but to the PAF, it was a viable enough platform worth investing in as a means to build numerical capacity without greatly compromising on quality. With the right modifications and upgrades, the F-6 was capable of effectively undertaking air-to-ground missions alongside serving as an admirably credible air defence fighter (to varying degrees). It is a similar story with the F-6’s successor, the MiG-21-based F-7P, and the F-7P’s replacement, the JF-17 Thunder.

However, there is a major caveat in the last sentence. Whereas the JF-17 was initially a reaction to the sanctions placed on Pakistan as a result of its nuclear weapons program, its continued development (into Block-III) is arguably a distinct shift. With openly stated plans to equip the lightweight fighter with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, and 5th-generation high-off-boresight (HOBS) WVRAAM, the JF-17 Block-III is a sign of maturity in China’s military technology, and the PAF’s willingness to bet on China’s growth in a truly significant way.

Make no mistake, the systems planned for the JF-17 Block-III are not going to come “cheap.” Today, they are exclusively found (especially together on a single platform) on industry flagship fighters such as the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Saab Gripen NG (among others, such as the in-development MiG-35). Even if acquired from China, these subsystems would amount to relatively high costs on a fighter, particularly one that is already capable enough for replacing the PAF’s legacy fighters. Yet the PAF is investing in this platform in a manner that goes beyond simply replacing older jets or even building indigenous capacity (it is already manufacturing a significant proportion of the airframe). It seems that the PAF is seeking to make the JF-17 (via Block-III) a high-tech asset, much more so than the F-6 or F-7, relatively speaking.

Granted, one could argue that Pakistan has no other choice but to take the route of further investing in the Thunder, but this claim overlooks a key point. The PAF could have wrapped up the JF-17 at Block-II (which is capable enough to replace the F-7s and Mirages), and subsequently, put the considerable funding necessary for an AESA radar-equipped Block-III towards a much smaller number of flagship fighters from the West. Yes, Pakistan’s economic situation is precarious, but the French government was willing to underwrite a financing agreement for Egypt in its purchase of Dassault Rafales, and Egypt has serious economic challenges of its own, such as high inflation, lower than expected growth and high debt.

It is a similar story with the Navy’s acquisition of eight diesel-electric submarines (SSK) from China, which is reportedly valued at $4-5 billion U.S, according to the Financial Times. This deal is clearly on the pricier side, at least in comparative terms for what one might want to perceive as a cost-focused purchase from China. Instead, the Navy is seemingly willing to seriously invest in the development of these submarines, such that it is aiming to make them the central part of its modernization roadmap. If new multi-mission frigate and anti-submarine warfare/patrol corvette programs were to emerge (hopefully soon), they will likely follow a similar pattern as the submarine deal.

As for the Army, DefenseNews recently reported that the NORINCO VT-4 did not meet the Army’s next-generation main battle tank (MBT) needs. It is likely a revised build will make the cut for the baseline, and the Army will invest accordingly. From the same article, the Army will also decide whether to proceed with the acquisition and local production of the VN-1 8×8 wheeled armoured personnel carrier (APC). Last year the Army also took delivery of three Z-10 dedicated attack helicopters for evaluation purposes, and while it is officially unclear if the Army will procure the Z-10, an Army official did tell Jane’s that the Army was “looking at further collaboration in helicopters” with China (IHS Jane’s 360).

Every one of the above examples speaks to a vital point, and that is the advances China has made in developing modern military equipment (Financial Times). In numerous cases, such as that of the wheeled APC or even the Z-10 attack helicopter, the gains accrued relative to the significant added costs of acquiring a Western alternative are much more marginal than they were in the 1970s or 1980s. However, the support of non-Chinese vendors may still be sought, especially in the area of specific subsystems or munitions, which in some situations could yield significant gains relative to the added cost. One example could be the A-Darter WVRAAM, which draws from the expertise of South Africa’s Denel Dynamics and Brazil’s Mectron (both of whom the PAF has engaged with over the years).

It is evident from the above examples that Pakistan views China as a preferred vendor for modern arms, and cost-to-benefit ratio is certainly a factor. Nonetheless, a military traditionally disposed to Western technology pivoting to Chinese alternatives in areas as critical as submarines or advanced fighter technology (i.e. JF-17 Block-III) is a significant sight, at least since the days when the F-6 was inducted.

[1] Alan Warnes. Farewell to a Warrior in The Pakistan Air Force 1998-2008: A New Dawn. 2009. Chapter 6: 96

[2] Ibid.