Pakistan’s C4ISR (Part 2): Land and Airborne Surveillance Systems
September 21, 2019

Pakistan’s C4ISR (Part 2): Land and Airborne Surveillance Systems


This is part-two of our series about Pakistan’s C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capabilities. For background on the topic and an overview of what will be discussed in the coming weeks, be sure to check out part-one.

A C4ISR system can be understood as a network to exchange information between assets, which can be aircraft, armoured vehicles, ground stations, surface warships, and even individual personnel. C4ISR is a vitally important area to master. The modern battlefield is a constantly evolving reality; new information has to be identified and passed onto the right respondents. Consider an airborne radar picking up enemy strike aircraft at 200km away from an ongoing ground battle; that information needs to be available (in real-time) to friendly fighter aircraft, air defence assets, and even friendlies on the ground.

As one might imagine, C4ISR is built upon multiple assets, each serving an integral role in building a picture of the battlefield (or strategic environment), and making that picture available to every relevant party. In this article, we will look at the process of actually acquiring information. In terms of C4ISR, and specifically ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], this is a very broad and general idea. New information can come from objects picked up by one’s radars. It could be drawn from high-resolution photos captured by reconnaissance pods and satellites. It could even come from analyzing collected data in order to parse out new facts or to better understand the reality.

Pakistan’s ISR network is designed to acquire new information in a timely manner. The country’s ISR assets include land-based surveillance radars, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) equipped with various electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) equipment, and fighter-borne EO/IR equipment. The sensory information from these assets is used to construct a “picture” of a scenario. This article will begin by taking a look at Pakistan’s land-based and airborne radar surveillance systems.

Origins of Pakistan’s Surveillance Capabilities

In order to fully understand Pakistan’s surveillance capabilities, it is important to take a look at its development of air defence capabilities, which had begun in earnest in the early 1950s. Around this time, the then Royal Pakistan Air Force (RPAF) had begun acquiring various WWII-era surveillance systems from the United Kingdom, most notably the Type 21 radar, which also included the Type 14 surveillance unit and Type 13 height finder.[1]

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PAF acquired a FPS-20 radar and FPS-6 height finder from the U.S.[2] For its time, this was a modern and high-powered solution, and thanks to Pakistan’s deepening ties with the U.S., a large number of PAF personnel were sent to the U.S. for training.[3] However, the 1965 war – and subsequent sanctions by Washington – put a hold on further acquisitions from the U.S., prompting the PAF to acquire radars from other sources, such as Britain, China, and even the Soviet Union.[4]

Reflecting upon the 1965 and 1971 wars, the PAF found that its air defence capacities were acutely vulnerable to enemy operations taking place at night and at low-altitude. Moreover, the increasing importance of early warning surveillance as well as the emerging use of guided surface-to-air missiles (SAM) prompted the PAF to begin raising its air defence capacities, technologically and organizationally.

In 1975 Pakistan Air Defence Command was established. By the mid-1980s, it had become responsible for coordinating and monitoring air defence developments across each of the PAF’s regional commands (i.e. Northern, Central, and Southern).[5] In order to keep pace with the increasingly automated nature of modern surveillance technology, the PAF decided to develop an integrated air defence system. This development program was code-named “Project Crystal.”[6] Project Crystal was initiated in 1976 with the aim of defining the appropriate technical and operational specifications of a modern Air Defence Ground Environment System (ADGES).

In the first phase of Project Crystal, the PAF acquired 45 Mobile Pulse-Doppler Radar (MPDR) systems from Siemens in Germany. Six mobile control and reporting centres (CRC) were also acquired, which would connect to the MPDRs through real-time data-link connectivity.[7] In other words, the radar’s information would be processed in the CRC and displayed on monitors, hence offering early network-centric situational awareness to the PAF. The MPDRs were acquired in three sub-variants, with two mobile types (offering 45km in range) and one transportable variant (with 60km in range).[8]

In Project Crystal’s second phase, the PAF acquired six AN/TPS-43 long-range three-dimensional (3D) air surveillance radars from the U.S.[9] These radars were capable of tracking an object as well as its elevation and azimuth (i.e. direction). With a maximum detection range of 400km, the AN/TPS-43s formed the high-altitude search umbrella of the PAF’s integrated air defence system (with the MPDRs serving as low-level sensors). Like the MPDRs, the sensory feed from the AN/TPS-43s was processed and displayed (i.e. data-linked), particularly to commanding officers in each of the PAF’s three regional commands.[10]

The work done under Project Crystal essentially formed the foundation of not only Pakistan’s current-day air defence system, but its overall C4ISR framework. Look back to part-one of this series, and note how Pakistan had begun utilizing modern C4I concepts and systems by the mid-1980s, such as building real-time situational awareness through the use of advanced sensors and data-link architecture. From the mid-2000s, the PAF had begun to build upon this foundation through a series of high-tech acquisitions.

Long-Range Air Surveillance Radars

The Lockheed Martin AN/TPS-77 is an active electronically-scanned array (AESA)-based long-range air surveillance radar. It has a maximum detection range of over 450km, and it is capable of tracking a target’s range, elevation, and azimuth/direction (i.e. it is a three-dimensional or 3D radar). As an AESA radar, the AN/TPS-77 also possesses a higher level of resistance against enemy electronic warfare (EW) jamming. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) ordered six AN/TPS-77 radars in 2005 for $89 million U.S. The radars were delivered to the PAF in 2008. With its solid long-range performance as well as high serviceability rate, the AN/TPS-77 forms the core of the PAF’s long-range air surveillance network from land.

Besides the AN/TPS-77, there were reports in 2003 that the PAF had taken delivery of five Chinese YLC-2 radars. No specific information had been made available regarding the YLC-2, though some analysts, such as John C. Wise (from Air Power Australia), believe it could be an AESA-based 3D radar with a maximum detection range of 330km. There have been reports that Pakistan acquired other Chinese long-range 3D radar systems, namely the JYL-1 and JL3D.[11] These reports have not been verified.

In 2005, Pakistan had also attempted to acquire the VERA passive surveillance system from the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, the sale fell-through due to U.S. pressure on the vendor. But had the sale succeeded, the PAF would have gotten a long-range (450km) electronic support measures (ESM) sensor.

Unlike a radar, which would need to actively emit radio waves in order to pick up objects in the sky, the VERA would simply ‘listen’ for electromagnetic activity. In other words, it is a passive sensor designed to detect objects based on the object’s own radar activity. In a sense, an adversary’s powerful radar could become in as much of a liability as it would be an advantage.

It is not known if (or how) Pakistan acquired an alternative. For example, ERA (the VERA’s original vendor) had developed a reduced capability version of the VERA known as the “Air Situational and Detection Display” (ASDD), and had hoped to sell the ASDD to Pakistan. In fact, some U.S. officials believed that ERA should be allowed to export the ASDD to Pakistan, under the condition that it is a sufficiently dumbed down version of the VERA.[12] There is no verified transactional record of an ASDD sale to Pakistan.

Low Level Air Surveillance Systems

The German MPDRs still form the mainstay of Pakistan’s low-altitude surveillance net. While these were advanced systems for their time, they – by virtue of their antiquated pulse-Doppler radar technology – are highly susceptible to modern electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) technology.

As discussed in Quwa’s background brief on radars, Doppler radars are vulnerable to EW/ECM jamming, especially digital radio frequency memory (DRFM)-based methods. DRFM-based systems basically record incoming radio waves (from radars), and in turn, retransmit them, thereby confusing the radar that was originally transmitting at that frequency. Even the PAF’s more modern RAC-3D radars (60km range), which were acquired alongside the Spada-2000 Plus short-to-medium range SAM systems, are vulnerable to DRFM-based EW/ECM.

This glaring shortfall in Pakistan’s low-level surveillance capabilities may have been one of the reasons why (from a technical perspective) the PAF was unable to detect the entry of U.S. helicopters into Pakistani air space in May 2011, when American special forces operatives found and killed Usama bin Laden. The apparent “stealth” modifications of the Blackhawks aside, it is possible that the helicopters used in the operation were also equipped with the latest in American EW/ECM technology, which could have readily jammed or spoofed the PAF’s antiquated low-level radars.

It is not known how the PAF will address the low-level gap. The PAF has an extensive relationship with Lockheed Martin, it could simply acquire additional radars from the company’s TPS-77-line of products. One avenue worth considering could be the Turkish firm Aselsan, which is currently producing the KALKAN low-level radar (up to 100km in range). Another option could be the Finmeccanica/Selex KRONOS low-level radar, which was acquired by Qatar in July 2015.

In any case, replacing the MPDR may be an expensive undertaking, especially if top-tier Western systems are being considered. However, given that failure in early warning and detection can cause a response chain to collapse (e.g. scrambled fighters not interdicting an incursion in time), the PAF may be well served to absorb the high cost, for it may offer vital operational gains (and savings) in other areas.

Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) Aircraft

An AEW&C system is essentially a powerful airborne surveillance radar. One advantage of such a system is that it can monitor an area in its entirety. Whereas a high-powered radar would have difficulty monitoring low-level areas, an AEW&C can access the full breadth of the area within its radar range. Even small objects, such as terrain-hugging cruise missiles, could potentially be detected by AEW&C aircraft.

By virtue of being based on an aircraft, an AEW&C is a mobile asset, hence it is capable of supporting air operations away from one’s main operating bases. AEW&C systems also have multiple on-board mission operator consoles. Personnel on-board these aircraft can communicate and coordinate with friendly fighter aircraft, warships and ground personnel (equipped with sufficiently powerful radios).

The PAF understood the importance of AEW&C aircraft in the mid-to-late 1980s, when it had attempted to acquire E-2 Hawkeye aircraft from the U.S. This idea – alongside a purchase of 71 new F-16s – collapsed due to U.S. sanctions on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

In 2006, the PAF ordered four Saab Erieye AEW&C systems from Sweden. It had originally hoped to acquire six systems, but the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir required the PAF to trim its order. Using the Saab 2000 turboprop airliner, the Erieye is an AESA-based radar system with a detection range of up to 450km. Using data-link communication, the Erieye can pass its sensor data to ground-based control stations as well as to friendly fighter aircraft. The Erieye can be configured to communicate with assets using the Link-11 and Link-16 systems; the system can also be configured to communicate on other data-link networks as well.

In 2009, the PAF supplemented its AEW&C fleet with four Karakoram Eagle AEW&C systems. The Karakoram Eagle is comprised of a ZDK03 passive electronically-scanned array (PESA) radar housed on a Shaanxi Y-8F600 transport aircraft. It is not known if the PAF intends to have the Karakoram Eagle upgraded with an AESA radar, such as the KJ-500, though it could be possible as a mid-life update. Though unconfirmed, the Karakoram Eagle may have also been integrated with equipment to enable it communicate on Link-16, which is used by the PAF’s F-16s.[13] Other specifics, such as the ZDK03 radar’s range, are unknown or unverified.

The core mission roles of the Karakoram Eagle are essentially identical to that of the Erieye. Operationally speaking, the PAF’s Southern Command utilizes the Karakoram Eagle in concert with the Pakistan Navy, which contributes to the country’s maritime surveillance net. Unfortunately, the Navy’s surveillance capabilities are confined to tactically-oriented on-board radars, the fleet lacks air defence-focused frigates or destroyers capable of housing high-level radars.

Pakistan’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Systems

Although part-two was supposed to discuss the entirety of Pakistan’s ISR, it was felt that the surveillance aspect could be discussed on a stand-alone basis. It was decided that the ISR discussion would be split into two parts, with part-three focusing on Pakistan’s intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities (and lack thereof in certain respects, such as space satellites).

[1] “The Shield.” The Story of the Pakistan Air Force: A Saga of Courage and Honour. Published by the Shaheen Foundation. Islamabad, Pakistan. 1988. p178

[2] Ibid. p179

[3] Ibid. p180

[4] Ibid. p182

[5] Ibid. p182-183

[6] Ibid. p183

[7] Ibid. p183

[8] “Pakistan Air Defence Ground Environment System.” PakDef Military Consortium: http://pakdef.org/pakistan-air-defence-ground-environment-system/

[9] “The Shield.” The Story of the Pakistan Air Force: A Saga of Courage and Honour. Published by the Shaheen Foundation. Islamabad, Pakistan. 1988. p184

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wendell Minnick. “Pakistan Targets Air Combat – Needs to Protect Air Defense, C2 Early in War.” Originally written for Defense News on 14 July 2008: http://minnickarticles.blogspot.ca/2009/10/pakistan-targets-air-combat-needs-to.html

[12] “Additional Technical Information on Potential Sale of Czech Passive Surveillance System to Pakistan.” Wikileaks: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/05PRAGUE106_a.html

[13] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan Re-equips Squadron with AEW&C Planes.” Defense News. 28 February 2015: http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/air-force/2015/02/28/pakistan-re-equips-squadron-with-new-aewc-aircraft/24140709/