Foreword: This is not a news story, but a piece for the purpose of discussion. The details offered in this article as well as in subsequent parts are not authoritative pieces of information, but rather, perspectives on current events relating to the Pakistan Air Force.
On Friday, the Government of India formally ordered 36 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters from France in a contract valued at close to $9 billion U.S. The first batch is expected to reach India by September 2019, and the order is expected to be complete by 2022. A summary of what is included in the deal as well as how the induction of the Rafale will benefit the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian defence industry can be found on this website. In parallel, the question of how the Rafale impacts the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and what the PAF could do to manage the issue is also coming to the fore.
In light of Pakistan’s strenuous structural economic challenges, there is no straightforward answer. In fact, proposing a simplistic and crudely reactionary approach to the challenge of the Rafale – and the IAF generally – ought to be discouraged. Even if Pakistan and the PAF were to come across some meaningful measure of funding support (e.g. creditors willing to extend loans), a crude response to the challenge will result in the wastage of scarce funding – this is not something to be tolerated.
For Pakistan, it would be unwise to respond to India’s Rafale acquisition with simply a call for a directly equivalent platform. It is essential to understand that a fighter platform – i.e. an expensive and long-term commitment – must never be pursued for its own sake. Rather, it ought to be acquired to fulfill a set of objectives that are vital to the national security interests of the user.
These objectives could range from the need to introduce certain air warfare technologies, build capacity to undertake specific tasks (e.g. long-range air-to-ground strikes), or to perhaps plug operational gaps (e.g. a deficiency in numerical strength). This is not an exhaustive list, but professional defence planners would need to be rational in their efforts to justify multi-billion dollar procurements, and this is especially true in the case of Pakistan where structural economic challenges render multi-billion dollar arms acquisitions a relatively uncommon event.
For India, the Rafale purchase was driven by several core objectives, which are plainly evident in the actual contract it had signed. The first objective was to acquire certain technologies, such as a Western active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar (i.e. Thales RBE2 AA) and next-generation air-to-air munitions (i.e. MBDA Meteor). However, it is important understand that India could also acquire this technology, or at least its analogues, from Israel, Russia, and potentially even the U.S. The technology was valuable, but only in a wider context, namely the fact that the Rafale itself is a very capable and versatile platform and that Paris is willing to economically engage and technically cooperate with the Indian defence industry.
From a physical standpoint, the Rafale strikes an enviable balance with range/radius, payload, operational availability (or holistic ease of maintenance and support), low-detectability/observability, and technology. The Rafale does not possess as much range or payload as the Su-30MKI, but it will be easier to mobilize in response to a wartime or pre-wartime problem. It is not as affordable as the Tejas, but the Rafale has the legs to engage in long-range strikes in enemy territory. This is the value of a solid medium-weight fighter, especially one that can swing into offensive and defensive mission profiles in short order. The Rafale will be a versatile fighter asset, one that the IAF will in all likelihood build into a sizable fleet. The commercial offset and defence industry concessions are valuable as well, but more so in a strategic and developmental sense, one with limited direct short-term operational impact (which is of primary concern to the PAF).
Part two of this series will argue why the JF-17 – especially Block-III – will need to be essential to the PAF’s response strategy, and part three will outline a general idea of how this could be achieved. This does not entirely remove the need for a secondary platform, especially in terms of shoring up numbers and fulfilling specific operational requirements. However, it would be recommended – if not likely – that the PAF take a conservative and rationalized approach to such an acquisition (if it is on the radar).
As a preview to part two, it is worth examining the fact that at this time, the JF-17 is the only platform that is readily accessible to the PAF in not only procurement terms, but also in terms of cost and domestic support. It is the fighter that the PAF can readily depend on in times of war without being put under the strain of a dwindling supply of spare parts (which is a factor with imported fighters). Moreover, its lower cost, as well as accessibility via domestic production and a friendly foreign supplier in China, make it an easier fast jet to replace when inflicted with attrition or losses. There is little reason why the PAF would – especially in terms of scarce financial resources – not prioritize JF-17 development.
This is not an indictment of other fighter platforms, especially in light of the superb technical merits offered by the Rafale, Typhoon, Gripen NG, or Su-35. Rather, this analysis is an attempt to address the threat posed by India’s air power advantage with the mechanisms assuredly available (based on public knowledge) to the PAF and Pakistan’s defence planners. In some instances, there is a clear difference between matching a rival’s acquisitions and actually addressing the threat posed by said acquisitions.