The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has formally announced it will commence development of a 5th-generation fighter, medium altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and munitions under the banner of “Project Azm” (i.e. resolve or determination).
In his speech for inaugurating the Kamra Aviation City initiative, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman outlined the program objectives of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), the newly established Aviation Design Institute (AvDI) and Air University’s Aerospace and Aviation Campus.
“Our engineering and operational staff have indigenized few core capabilities which are truly high-tech … [the] initiative of Project Azam was thus encouraged, which is the designing of the 5th-generation fighter aircraft, [MALE] UAVs – which are [in the] final stages of design, development of advanced weapons – few of them already produced – and other key projects…”
Air University Aerospace and Aviation Campus Kamra is an expansion campus of Air University Islamabad, which was founded in 2002. ACM Sohail Aman stated that the campus will “provide the desired impetus for cutting-edge indigenization programs, strengthen the local industry and harness the demands of foreign aviation industry by reducing … imports and promoting joint research and production ventures.”
In its 2015-2016 yearbook, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) states that AvDI was formed “to spearhead design and development activity … [with its] working model [hinged] on leveraging existing National Human Resource and facilities (sic).” The MoDP adds that AvDI will manage the design of “state of the art next generation (sic) aerospace vehicles.”
ACM Aman added that the Aviation City initiative will provide valuable economic opportunities for local industry entities, and in turn, support the growth and value of Pakistan’s aviation industry.
ACM Aman’s recent statements follow his earlier commitments to localizing the PAF’s supply channel – at least in terms of its 5th-generation fighter – by assigning a significant amount of the design, development and production work of the 5th-generation domestic sources.
Notes & Comments:
From the onset, PAC’s AvDI has been responsible for three marquee aviation programs under Project Azm: the 5th-generation fighter, a MALE UAV and munitions development. ACM Aman stated that the design work of the MALE UAV is in its “final stages”, suggesting that the UAV is a relatively near-term factor.
In February 2017, Global Industrial & Defence Solutions (GIDS) said that it was considering developing a MALE UAV, but AvDI had been tasked to undertake the program. Moreover, Pakistan did not act upon the availability of MALE UAVs in China and Turkey, such as the Wing Loong-series and Anka, respectively. This is despite the prior industry ties formed with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) over the CH-3-based Burraq and Anka, respectively (in 2013 TAI contracted PAC to produce parts for the Anka).
However, Pakistan opting for an original design instead of an off-the-shelf acquisition does not preclude it from seeking collaborative support from outside parties. Pakistan’s suppliers have supply opportunities at several key stages, be it the airframe, propulsion, electronic subsystems (e.g. electro-optical and infrared sensor turrets) and potentially weapons. But the PAF’s emphasis on localization implies that many of these systems will eventually be sourced domestically, though that could leave the room for co-production partnerships (which appears to interest Pakistan).
The other near-term – or rather, already active – program is advanced munitions development. The complete systems the PAF ACM mentioned likely refer to the Range Extension Kit (REK) glide-bomb, which was cleared for use from the JF-17 in March and the Ra’ad II air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).
The PAF requires munitions for current and future platforms, which provides ample opportunity for the industry, especially in the realm of air-to-air missiles (AAM) and guided air-to-ground munitions (AGM). Potential off-the-shelf purchases, such as the Denel Dynamics A-Darter AAM, could be sought from South Africa under transfer-of-technology and co-production terms. However, new munitions are also being developed domestically. In its 2015-2016 yearbook, the Pakistani MoDP listed the development of several new munitions, such as “multi warhead bombs” and “anti soft-avionics bomb.”
AvDI’s long-term endeavour is clearly the 5th-generation fighter program (FGF). In the past several years, several factors emerged which analysts thought would shape the PAF’s next-generation fighter pursuits, most notably the rise of the AVIC FC-31 Gyrfalcon. While the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) is clearly progressing in developing the fighter, it is unclear if the PAF will pursue it. If not the FC-31, then realistically only two other alternate courses remain: the TAI TFX and an original design.
Pakistan has been billed as a prospective partner in the TFX, Turkey’s next-generation fighter effort. On repeated occasions since 2016, Turkish government and industry and Pakistan MoDP officials confirmed the link. However, the Pakistan MoDP’s statements regarding the matter had only verified Ankara’s invitation, but it was unclear if the approach was commercially oriented (akin to PAC’s work in supplying Anka parts) or in relation to possible PAF procurement.
The PAF itself did not comment on TFX, but aviation journalist Alan Warnes (who is directly in touch with the PAF) reported in May that the TFX is “likely to figure in the PAF’s new generation fighter requirement.”
While the TFX could be a factor, it is unlikely that it could be considered a truly independent and sanction-proof solution in as far as the PAF’s unique interests and realities are concerned. Fundamentally, the TFX will be a Western fighter, and while that could be an attractive option to begin supplanting the F-16s from the 2030s, British and European technology protection and costs would limit the TFX’s relevance to PAC, at least in comparison to a Chinese or original design.
The alternate scenario would be an original design. In some respects, the PAF’s messaging regarding the FGF, AvDI and the Kamra Aviation City seems to point towards an original design effort. However, unless the PAF wants to repeat the arrangement in place for the JF-17 (such as China being responsible for engine integration and testing or manufacturing JF-17 prototypes), it would need to make capital investment in aviation development infrastructure in Pakistan. Besides cost, time will also be required to build requisite human resources – e.g. engineers and technicians – to undertake the continual development work.
Although the Kamra Aviation City has ambitious goals, Pakistan will likely seek overseas support, and this would be a factor in any originally designed fighter. Given the political and economic realities, Pakistan’s principal partner in this endeavour would be China.
In fact, Pakistan realistically has no other industrial and technology source, especially with comprehensive competency in aircraft manufacturing, to partner with for the FGF other than China. Granted, the likes of Turkey, South Africa and Ukraine could provide support in specific areas (e.g. subsystems), but none of them can compensate for the support of a whole aviation powerhouse such as China. China has built the technology infrastructure and human resources base to develop two 5th-generation fighters and, with the right compensation, is broadly willing to support Pakistan’s defence development requirements.
However, acquiring Chinese support need not mean acquiring the FC-31. Pakistan could be interested in partnering with another Chinese firm such as the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG), with whom PAC is already partners with for the development and production of the JF-17. This bilateral familiarity can also be a factor in the PAF’s next-generation fighter plans.
The PAF could consider drawing upon CAIG’s success in the J-20, but for a lightweight and lower-cost application. In fact, a clean-sheet approach could also reflect the PAF ACM’s statements from 2016, where in regards to the FGF, he said the PAF was thinking in terms of “beyond” fifth-generation design elements. China itself could also be thinking along those lines (and paying attention to Europe’s Future Combat Air System), which could provide AVIC incentive to engage in another program.
On the other hand, Pakistan could simply concentrate on an existing and nearing program and gradually build its aviation industry infrastructure around that program. This would be a risk-averse option, but one that could happen under the pressure of financial constraints and urgent requirements.
The PAF and the Government of Pakistan are also aspiring to have Kamra Aviation City be a home to civil aviation development. Pakistan’s Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal had expressed hope that Kamra will roll-out next-generation fighters as well as jetliners. Quwa will discuss this aspect as well as the PAF’s goal to strongly link defence, industry and academic endeavours in a subsequent article.
Visit Quwa for background on ACM Sohail Aman’s earlier statements regarding the FGF and its importance to driving indigenization and the PAF’s hope to see active electronically-scanned array radars produced in Pakistan.