For the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), ‘Swift Retort’ – i.e., its response to India’s air strikes on Balakot – is serving as a template for its modernization plans for this decade. In the PAF’s view, the ingredients that made the 2019 air operation successful were: situational awareness, long-range air-to-air missile (LRAAM) usage, electronic countermeasures (ECM), and stand-off weapons (SOW). The key to driving all of those elements was the availability of capable combat aircraft. In an isolated incident, the PAF was able to field enough aircraft with experienced aircrew and supporting operators. In this context, the PAF deemed Swift Retort a success, but can it replicate that impact in a full-scale conflict?
One potential reality of a full-scale conflict is that the PAF may need to undertake Swift Retort-level strikes in multiple locations, and potentially, undertake those strikes simultaneously. If the PAF is able to achieve that type of capability, it may be able to establish a sense of ‘conventional deterrence.’ Basically, if India perceives that Pakistan can inflict significant damage (especially within the opening hours or days of a full-scale conflict), it may not pursue Balakot-type adventures. However, achieving ‘conventional deterrence’ is an expensive proposition, and for a fiscally constrained country like Pakistan, achieving it in every area is unrealistic. Thus, Pakistan – and especially the PAF – will have to focus on specific areas.
Returning to Swift Retort, the PAF sensed that it accrued the greatest payoff from the four key areas this article listed above, i.e., LRAAMs, ECM, SOW, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). But in an earlier assessment, Quwa ascertained that the JF-17 would be the centerpiece of driving the bulk of these capabilities. However, based on recent reports and observations, the JF-17 might only play one part of the PAF’s fighter procurement goals for the 2020s and early 2030s.
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