30 March 2016
By Bilal Khan
Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), gave a very interesting and informative interview with PTV on March 23 (mostly in Urdu), shortly before flying over the parade venue himself on a F-16D Block-52+.
It was not very long ago that ACM Sohail Aman brought up the issue of the PAF seeking to replace as many as 190 legacy fighters by the end of 2019. Following up on that statement, ACM Aman said, “we have a lot of vintage aeroplanes, but that’s behind us.” Although the task of replacing 190 aged F-7Ps and Mirage III/5s could be daunting, the JF-17 has afforded the PAF with enough flexibility to not be overly concerned about the issue. With the Thunder in full-scale production and at the center of phasing out dozens of older fighter aircraft on a routine basis, the PAF has set its sights for the next 20-25 years.
ACM Sohail Aman began noting that the F-16 and even JF-17 will eventually be in need of being of replaced as well, and it was on that point that he noted the urgency of conceptualizing a new generation fighter. In fact, the ACM went as far as stating that the development of a next-generation fighter is the most difficult challenge on the horizon for the PAF. One of the main reasons why this is the case is because, according to the ACM, the PAF needs to think in terms of beyond fifth-generation designs, such as the J-20 and F-35.
In that sense, ACM Aman was correct. By the time the PAF’s next-generation fighter comes to fruition, it would not only be an era flush with similar designs, but it would also be in an age of new and more capable air warfare technologies. In other words, the PAF would have to understand the threats of the future, and develop a solution that could harness the advances of tomorrow. However, even the ACM was not shy from recognizing that this would be a truly difficult feat, especially for the PAF.
With the aim of enhancing the capacity of the PAF to interpret the development of air warfare doctrines and technology, especially over the long-term, ACM Aman heavily stressed upon the need for developing the PAF’s “intellectual” foundations. For him, investment in these areas was of significant importance, and he pointed towards the establishment of Kamra Aviation City and the Airpower Centre of Excellence (ACE) as prime examples of stepping stones towards expanding the PAF intellectual capacities. Moreover, he was strongly hopeful that the PAF would learn to connect with the country’s existing academic and intellectual base as a means for mutual growth and development.
ACM Sohail Aman’s statements were certainly on-point, and it was insightful to hear him recognize the challenge of developing a fifth-generation fighter today – i.e. the reality it would be behind when ready. That said, the challenge for the PAF will be in understanding and harnessing the growth in advanced on-board electronics technology. Advances in active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar technology, particularly in terms of detecting stealthy objects and resisting common electronic warfare and electronic countermeasure methods, will require more than just low-detectability airframes and powerful EW/ECM suites. The PAF would basically have to steer itself towards higher level conceptual thinking, perhaps even pursue original ideas, or at least risk heavy concepts.
In the end, the PAF will almost certainly partner with an overseas vendor to help it push its next-generation fighter plans into fruition. Next steps for the PAF could include setting up joint working groups or joint-studies with partners grappling with similar questions. China will likely be the first stop, but given the abstract nature of the issue at present, it may be worthwhile for the PAF to engage with its counterparts in Turkey as well. In any case, the route the PAF seems to be looking at is not going to be as simple nor low-risk as the JF-17; once formally initiated, the next-generation fighter could be Pakistan’s most significant defence program in the 21st century.