A general idea of the challenge posed by the Dassault Rafale in the use with India and the issues Pakistan would have to begin examining were outlined in part one of this series.
Hypothetically, should the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) manage to respond with an off-the-shelf acquisition of two or even three import squadrons without a clear methodology as to how that platform – in light of all of its strengths as well as all of its limitations – would decisively address the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s capabilities, it would be a waste of precious resources. Granted, one should not expect the PAF to undertake a grossly ill-informed approach, but the pressure to “match India” is entering the discourse.
To argue against a match acquisition may seem disingenuous at first, but it is vital that one acknowledge certain realities:
First, European platforms are expensive – i.e. $100-250 million U.S. a unit with the requisite maintenance and logistics infrastructure as well as a finite support package.
Second, an import of its nature – while credible from a peacetime deterrence standpoint – will have limited utility in time of war.
Unless Pakistan manages to secure a measure of domestic parts production or a large stockpile of spare parts and even attrition reserves, heavy wartime use will stress the import unit very quickly. If one is to assume the presence of arms sanctions, the utility available with that import unit will decrease with every passing day in wartime.
It is crucial to understand that in war, the fighter platform is not an independent factor. Fighter aircraft are dependent on a supply and maintenance network, which in turn is dependent on labour, materials, and funding, which then is dependent on a state’s industry capacity. An importer such as Pakistan will not have access to the support network in wartime, not unless it actually spends the money to acquire a portion of that network (e.g. production of frequently worn replaceable parts).
However, valuable transfer-of-technology gains are generally not easy to secure. For example, a supplier such as Russia, which may sell the Su-35 for $80-100 million U.S. a unit may simply choose to retain as much of the after-sale support base as possible. The country is in a precarious economic situation and it suits Moscow’s interests to guarantee as much long-term work for Russians as possible.
In fact, even India – which had procured over 200 Su-30MKIs with in-house assembly rights – is only now in the process of setting up a truly dependable support base for the Flanker. In August, Moscow had agreed to establish a logistics hub to stockpile spare parts in a manner that is in line with the IAF’s operational needs, thereby raising the operational availability of the IAF Flanker fleet. Negotiations are reportedly underway for parts manufacturing in India, but it is not known when this will come to fruition.
One can imagine then the difficulty Pakistan could go through as not only a first time buyer of any Russian fighter, but also as one that is disadvantaged on the negotiating table as a result of having limited funds, limited commercial influence (especially relative to India), and in a position of need. Of course, if Pakistan is able and willing to spend more, it could request a larger support package, though Moscow’s economic incentives and overall leverage may be difficult to overcome.
A Typhoon order from the United Kingdom and/or Italy would likely come into the same general price range as India’s Rafale order – i.e. $250 million U.S. (or more) per unit. To put this into perspective, the PAF had bought four Karakoram Eagle airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) for $278 million U.S. from China. Granted, Rafale and Typhoon unit cost includes more than just the fighter, but it is difficult to fathom Pakistan spending that much per fighter – even with a measure of domestic production and offsets – when there are other major priorities, even within the armed forces (much less the country).
The Saab JAS-39E/F Gripen Next Generation (NG) is a relatively more achievable option. Brazil had inked a $4.8 billion U.S. order for 36 JAS-39E/Fs with transfer-of-technology and commercial offsets. It would appear that Brazil will at least assemble 29 of the 36 aircraft in-house, though it may also manufacture certain components. Overall, the Gripen NG program is expected to generate over 2,000 jobs in Brazil.
The Gripen NG has much of the same technology as the Rafale (e.g. active electronically-scanned array radar, compatibility with next-generation air-to-air munitions, etc), and the unit cost of $130 million U.S. (with apparently a decent domestic support package) is attractive. However, with Sweden also looking to enter the Indian defence market, it is unclear if Stockholm would be interested in exploring its market potential in Pakistan (even though the PAF is already a Saab AB customer via the Erieye AEW&C).
Unfortunately, none of the options above solve a critical issue – the need to distribute cutting-edge subsystems into the mainstream fleet. The PAF’s principal objective (in terms of acquisitions) would be to acquire cutting-edge air warfare technology and to diffuse or distribute it within the entirety of its fighter fleet. There is limited value in having contemporary air warfare capabilities concentrated in a small fleet of top-tier fighters. Rather, the capabilities that make those fighters (such as the Typhoon) valuable ought to be embraced and then extended to the PAF’s mainstay fighter platform – the JF-17 Thunder.
This is not to suggest that the JF-17 Thunder is a superior platform to the above, far from it. Rather, what is being suggested is that the JF-17 Thunder – especially one equipped with much of the same technology (albeit at varying or lesser performance) – is the means to build a credible defensive layer against any IAF threat. For example, the provision of an excellent electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite would enable the JF-17 to have a meaningful means to defend against an incoming active-radar guided air-to-air missile, including the MBDA Meteor. Yes, the Meteor will certainly raise the bar in terms the performance and quality expected from the EW/ECM suite, and that will add to the cost of the JF-17, but fleet-wide distribution may not be any costlier than procuring fewer imports.
Whereas the PAF does not benefit from the support network of any import (be it the Typhoon, Su-35, F-16, or Gripen), it does have a measure of control over the JF-17’s support base.
First, a proportion of the fighter’s airframe is manufactured at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC)’s facilities.
Second, spare parts are sourced locally, thereby assuring a constant stream of support for the fighter, even in wartime.
Third, the gradually expanding domestic support and participation in the Thunder enables Pakistan to accrue valuable cost savings, which it would not benefit from should it buy an import. These cost savings include the utilization of local currency (thereby saving on foreign exchange outflows), local labour and to an extent material costs, and in the case of imported materials, it can access a comparatively affordable market in China. Combined, these factors provide the PAF with considerable space in terms of configuring the JF-17 whilst still being in the realm of relative affordability.
Unfortunately, there are technical and other challenges with solely banking on the JF-17 Block-III. These relate to the reality of the JF-17’s airframe itself, which is a lightweight design that may require significant work – and thus time – in order to properly configure next-generation subsystems. In turn, this could drive the need for another platform, but as a means to introduce these technologies into the fleet earlier and to help build quantitative strength ahead of the Block-III, which would come later. This will be explored in greater detail in part three.