Pakistan’s new ambassador to Russia, Qazi Khalilullah, held a press conference with the Russian media on Monday (05 September, 2016). RIA Novosti’s Tatyana Kalmykov interviewed Mr. Khalilullah, and had discussed a range of issues pertinent to Russian-Pakistani ties, including defence and security.
Khalilullah noted that Russia will be supplying Pakistan with Mi-35 assault helicopters, which Pakistan had ordered in August of last year. It is believed that the Pakistan Army may require up to 20 Mi-35s in total.
When asked about the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s reported interest in the Sukhoi Su-35, Khalilullah stated that the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) was had held “fruitful talks” during his official visit in July, and since then, the PAF had “considered various options for deepening cooperation with Russia.”
Khalilullah concluded that he was unable to offer additional specific details or information in regards to possible or potential arms acquisitions. But in response to an earlier question, the ambassador reiterated Pakistan’s hope to strengthen its defence ties with Russia, be it arms acquisitions or other fields.
Notes, Comments & Analysis:
It has been exactly one year since reports emerged of Pakistani interest in the Sukhoi Su-35. To date, no clear or official confirmation from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has been provided, though several sources have claimed that interest is – or at least was – genuine. For example, a senior Pakistani official apparently confirmed to IHS Jane’s in 2015 that talks between Pakistan and Russia for the Su-35 did take place.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Congress refusing to release Foreign Military Financing (FMF) support for a proposed sale of eight F-16C/D Block-52+, Pakistan’s Defence Secretary Lt. General (R) Muhammad Alam Khattak noted that France and Russia were being examined as alternative sources for new fighter aircraft.
However, the PAF had only confirmed its plans to continue developing the JF-17 Thunder, and in time, to finalize its next-generation fighter requirement. Besides this, used or surplus F-16s from various sources, such as Jordan, may be procured to help fill capability gaps in the short-term.
Although the PAF has not offered any official word on this issue, it would be disingenuous to suggest that there is no value in the PAF having a heavier and longer-range platform to augment the JF-17, at least in the short and medium terms (i.e. before the introduction of the next-generation platform).
For example, retired PAF Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail had argued (via Defense News) that the advent of Gwadar would require the PAF to expand its maritime coverage. With its twin-engine configuration, long range, and heavier payload, the Su-35 would fit that role.
In another sense, one could also position the Su-35 as a capable strike fighter, one the PAF could heavily arm with stand-off range weapons and even air-launched cruise missiles. Comparatively infrequent and specialized roles such as strike or extended-range patrol suit the platform type of the Su-35, which would generally have a longer turnaround time between flights, a lower availability rate, and costlier operational costs than the JF-17 or F-16.
If configured with a powerful radar and robust electronics warfare (EW) and electronics countermeasures (ECM) suite, the Su-35 could also act as a force-multiplier agent, one that could even operate in concert with the JF-17 (by providing long-range air-to-air coverage; serving as a quasi airborne early warning or AEW platform; or engaging as a stand-off jamming platform).
It could be the case that the PAF has established contact with United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), Russia’s overarching aircraft manufacturing vendor. However, the best case scenario at this stage would be one of cursory interest and preliminary discussion. Irrespective of media or even official government claims, the PAF is, ultimately, the most authoritative source for information on its plans, which have yet to mention the Su-35 (or any other fighter besides the JF-17, F-16, and next-generation platform).