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Analysis: The Case for Pakistan Procuring the FC-31 Gyrfalcon


The following is an analysis examining if the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) FC-31 Gyrfalcon, an export-oriented ‘fifth-generation’ fighter platform, is a suitable fit for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). This is an extension of a piece written on Quwa (linked at the end of the article) – Discussion: Could the FC-31 factor into Pakistan’s Next-Gen Fighter Plans? – but differs significantly thanks to new information given to the public by the PAF leadership as well as a different analytical approach. Unlike the Discussion piece, I opted to analyze the FC-31 in direct context of the PAF’s present force organization (e.g. looking at what specific platforms the PAF could look to replace), the actual threats faced by the PAF today and future, and tried to identify how the PAF is viewing the FGF concept as a whole and seeing how the FC-31 can fit.

Project Azm: Pakistan’s FGF

Officially, the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) fifth-generation fighter (FGF) program is being executed under ‘Project Azm’ (resolve). Under the PAF’s long-term plan, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra has been entrusted to manufacture a FGF as well as active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radars. In the inaugural announcement of Project Azm, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman stated, “[the] initiative of Project Azam was thus encouraged, which is the designing of the 5th-generation fighter aircraft.”[1] Ostensibly entrusted with Project Azm is the Aviation Design Institute (AvDI) at PAC Kamra, which – as per the Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) – was established to “spearhead design and development activity … [of] state of the art next generation (sic) aerospace vehicles.” Recently on 07 December 2017, ACM Sohail Aman announced that “Pakistan is engaged with Chinese experts in manufacturing the next generation aircraft,” adding, “it will take five years to initiate the production.”

The PAF CAS did not mention a specific platform, be it the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) FC-31 or otherwise. However, ACM Sohail Aman is known for heavily – and overtly – emphasizing aspects such as “indigenous development” and independence from foreign suppliers. In an April 2017 interview with Bol Narratives, ACM Aman stated: “We are integrating our technology with friendly countries, including Turkey. We are thinking of producing the next-generation aircraft by pooling resources with them. For this, the basic framework and agreements have been made,” adding, “We are also collaborating with Turkey for developing a next generation aircraft.”[2] Again, the CAS did not mention a specific platform, though it should be noted that the Turkish Undersecretariat of Defence Industries (SSM) invited Pakistan to participate in the TFX, though to what extent and for what purpose is unclear.[3] That said, in May 2017 British aviation journalist Alan Warnes, a person in-contact with the PAF CAS, said the TFX, “in near future … likely to figure in PAF”s new generation fighter aircraft requirement.”[4]

However, in neither scenario (TFX or FC-31) did the PAF itself explicitly state its intended avenue. With its overt call for ‘indigenous design’ in mind, there are several plausible outcomes. First, procuring the FC-31 off-the-shelf with a deep level of transfer-of-technology to undertake local manufacturing, including full access to electronic subsystems – especially AESA radar – for unencumbered integration choices. Second, partnering with Turkish Aerospace Industries on the TFX – or specific TFX inputs (such as radar and avionics) –  in-exchange for the aforementioned gains. Third, undertaking an original design with Chinese assistance, which could enable Pakistan to own most of the resulting design (commensurate with and proportional to Pakistan’s funding contribution). Each one of those scenarios could plausibly fit with the CAS’ statements, it will ultimately be time that will provide confirmation.

Despite the ambiguity of the FGF route, the PAF is explicit in establishing the FGF as vital for its long-term requirements. Speaking to Bol Narratives, ACM Aman stated, “However, in future – in the next 10 years down the line – if we don’t induct fifth-generation aircraft, then the disparity will increase.”[5] For the PAF, the core feature-set of the FGF – e.g. AESA radar, low radar-cross section (RCS) design, platform for next-generation electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) and, potentially, payload and range increase – would enable it to close the qualitative gaps it has with India and imbue the PAF with key operational capabilities. In fact, relative to the PAF’s current fleet, an FGF such as the FC-31 would provide (on paper) credible improvement to the PAF’s deep strike and maritime operations forces. Moreover, the CAS’ timeline – i.e. “the next 10 years” – is a time-sensitive requirement for fulfilling in 2027-2030.

Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon

The FC-31 Gyrfalcon is AVIC’s export-oriented FGF program. It is being developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), which is currently the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) source for licensed Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker copies. The FC-31 is a twin-engine design meant to be powered by the WS-13A. It is believed to have a target overall payload of 8,000 kg, of which 2,000 kg would be internal, distributed in 10 hardpoints (six external and four internal). The FC-31 has a combat radius of 1,200 km.[6] Internally, the Gyrfalcon is use an AESA radar coupled with an electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) integrated to the nose of the fighter. Conceptually, the EOTS (based on the F-35 Lightning II) is meant to be a multi-purpose solution that can assist with guiding laser and satellite-guided bombs and image intelligence (IMINT)-based reconnaissance. Basically, an integrated advanced targeting pod. In November 2016 (at Air Show China), AVIC also showcased its technology concepts for a next-generation cockpit, which centered on a single-panel multi-functional display and helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system.

Currently, the FC-31 is undergoing developmental tests through two prototypes. The second prototype was a heavily revised variant incorporating a new forward superstructure and vertical stabilizers. The first FC-31 prototype flew in 2012, with the second prototype taking to the skies in December 2016. AVIC said it was aiming to complete the production model in 2019, bring the platform to initial operating clearance (IOC) by 2022 and then full operating clearance (FOC) by 2025.[7] Provided AVIC fulfills its objectives, then the FC-31 would readily fit within the PAF’s 2027-2030 timeframe. With an ostensibly capable platform nearing availability, it is genuinely difficult to envision an alternative FGF avenue if not for the PAF itself intentionally leaving the door open with its various statements to that effect.

The State of Pakistan’s Current Platforms

The mainstay of the PAF fighter fleet is transitioning to multi-role platforms. The F-16 had started this shift but the bulk of the change is being sustained by the JF-17. As of February 2017, the JF-17 has supplanted all but one Chengdu F-7P unit in the PAF. The remaining F-7P unit is the No. 18 squadron, an operational conversion unit (OCU) equipped with single and dual-seat (FT-7P) fighters for training pilots. While the F-7P is capable of strafing ground targets and releasing general purpose bombs (GPB), it is primarily an air defence/point-defence asset for denying enemy airpower access and control over Pakistani skies. In 2002-2003 the PAF inducted the newer F-7PG (with a double-delta wing-design) to strengthen its point-defence and area-access and area denial (A2/AD) force. The F-7PG will remain in service for the foreseeable future.

The F-16C/D Block-52+ and F-16A/B Block-15 Mid-Life-Update (MLU) are the PAF’s workhorse air-to-air and air-to-ground assets for offensive operations, including offensive counter-air (OCA) operations meant for suppressing enemy airpower (e.g. by attacking enemy air fields and airpower-critical infrastructure). The Block-52+ and MLU are both equipped with the AN/APG-68(v9) radar integrated with the AIM-120C5 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) along with the Link-16 tactical data-link (TDL) and AN/ALQ-211 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite. On paper, the AN/APG-68(v9) and AIM-120C5 is an effective set, but its utility is fleeting in South Asia thanks to India slotting the Rafale (with the Meteor BVRAAM and RBE2 AESA radar) in its acquisition pipeline. That said, even in the Rafale’s absence, the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Mirage 2000H – with comparable radar and EW/ECM equipment – is a credible threat to the PAF’s F-16s (and vice-versa). However, while the F-16s can be an effective air-to-air asset, the strike capabilities of the PAF’s F-16s are limited in terms of stand-off range engagement. This is because the PAF has been unable to acquire stand-off weapons (SOW), such as the Joint Stand-off Weapon or Harpoon Block-II anti-ship missile (AShM).

In terms of deploying SOW and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), Pakistan’s core strike asset is the Mirage ROSE (Retrofit Strike Element). The ROSE-I is capable of being an effective air-to-air asset (the Mirage 5PA can deploy MBDA Exocet AShM), while the ROSE-II and ROSE-III are specialized strike delivery platforms. The ROSE-II/III are equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) pods, which provide the aircrew with an electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) feed of the ground. This assists them in undertaking low-level penetration flights. While the ROSE-II/III do not have radars, their absence would not be missed seeing that low-detectability (albeit through little-to-no electromagnetic emission) is a priority with the ROSE-II/III. The Mirage ROSE can deploy the Ra’ad-series of ALCM, which provide 350 km (Ra’ad) and 550 km (Ra’ad-II) in range as well as the H-2 and H-4 SOW, which offer 60 km and 120 km in range, respectively.

It is worth noting that where the F-16 lacks in strike – be it over land or at sea – the Mirage 5PA and ROSE provide in abundance, and where the Mirage 5PA/ROSE lack in air-to-air defensibility, the F-16 Block-52+ and MLU compensate in strength. Thus, the F-16s and Mirage 5PA/ROSE complement each other as the PAF’s offensive workhorses and are indispensable in their respective roles. Until recently it may have been difficult to conceptualize the F-16s and Mirage 5PA/ROSE as offensively-oriented platforms. However, the JF-17 has provided the PAF with an adept low-cost multi-role asset to supplant the F-7P and Mirage III/5 (non-ROSE) in the A2/AD task, but to do so with marked improvements in key operational areas.

The JF-17 builds upon the F-7P’s air defence value by augmenting within-visual-range (WVR) dogfighting capabilities with the SD-10 BVRAAM. However, the JF-17 also provides stand-off range attack capabilities, namely through the C-802 AShM and Range Extension Kit (REK) guidance kit for GPBs. In the future, the ASELPOD will provide the JF-17 with the ability to guide laser-guided bombs (LGB) – i.e. precision-strike – and a measure of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) value (with the ASELPOD offering EO-based image intelligence capability). Being a multi-role platform, the JF-17 negates the need for the PAF to maintain different aircraft types for local and border-area air and ground-attack operations. In fact, the PAF CAS stated that the JF-17 provides a “core structure, which doesn’t prevent [the PAF] from launching an air campaign.”[8] In effect, the JF-17 – especially when the PAF has 150+ of them in service – provides a credible defensive base, upon which it can reserve higher-end assets for offensive operations.

Although the JF-17 is a lightweight fighter platform (thus shorter-ranged and lighter in ordnance load), its advantages to the PAF rest in its cost, localized production and support, and certainty for incorporating any subsystem or munition the PAF can procure for it. The JF-17 Block-III is currently the first PAF platform slotted to carry an AESA radar and high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBSAAM) connected to a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system. This is the first instance of a backbone “low-end” fighter in the PAF becoming a qualitative driver wherein it introduces new technology in parallel – or possibly before – that of a “high-end” platform. Thanks to the JF-17, the “high-end” and “low-end” split largely becomes less of introducing new technology and more of bringing key performance benchmarks – e.g. increases in range, payload, endurance and power (for higher output radars and EW/ECM equipment).

The PAF’s defensive core is forming as expected thanks to the JF-17, but the offensive element – i.e. the F-16s and Mirage ROSE – is not in an ideal state. First, despite being structurally capable of delivering SOW and ALCM, the F-16s cannot do so unless the PAF acquires U.S. approval for third-party integration or is able to acquire first-party solutions. Neither has happened. Second, the Mirage ROSE are structurally old aircraft. The Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) at PAC has been effective in overhauling and keeping the ROSE airworthy. However, core aerostructure inputs – such as the airworthy wings – are a finite resource,[9] thus placing an eventual deadline until which these aircraft can efficiently operate. Third, the PAF’s F-16 MLUs are also aging, and while Lockheed Martin is working on a service-life extension program (SLEP) for the F-16C/D Block-40/42 and Block-50/52, a SLEP for the F-16 Block-15 that follow-up Falcon STAR (Structural Augmentation Roadmap) and Falcon UP (designed to ensure the F-16 Block-15 reaches 8,000 hours) is not currently on Lockheed Martin’s roadmap. Fourth, even if the F-16s can be structurally replenished (a big “if” seeing that no such program is currently available), end-user restrictions by the U.S. – from deciding what munitions can be used to controlling the supply of spare parts – will limit the F-16’s long-term value as an offensive asset. This is not to say that the F-16s will be going away, but as a mainstay offensive asset another platform will need to take its place.

Recapitalizing the Offensive Edge

It is interesting how the PAF CAS’ timeline of 2027-2030 coincides with the oldest of the PAF’s F-16 MLUs and Mirage ROSE crossing 40 and 60 years of age, respectively. These would be the most tenuous years for operating these platforms, especially against the reality that India will have begun establishing – if not already established – qualitatively superior airpower (via the Rafale and AESA-radar equipped Tejas) and dense integrated air defence systems (IADS) comprising of an array of marquee low-level and high-level systems, such as the Barak-8-based Medium Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MR-SAM) and Almaz-Antey S-400, respectively. These threats not only necessitate fresh airframes, but systems integrated with high-capability AESA radars, next-generation EW/ECM suites, reduced radar and electromagnetic detectability, inherent long-range BVR and high off-boresight (HOBS) WVR engagement and unrestricted compatibility with guided stand-off range air-to-surface munitions.

To be clear, these additions do not necessarily require the FC-31, or even a FGF in general. In fact, since 2015 the PAF had hinted at seeking a 4.5 generation fighter, with the Sukhoi Su-35 being among the widely reported options. However, Pakistan’s shaky ties with the U.S., fiscal constraints and lacklustre prowess in forging strong foreign relations with the U.K. and Western Europe limit the PAF’s options. It is unclear where things stand on this front, but the PAF CAS has recognized the need for another fighter platform, stating, “Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.”[10] It is not for tactically defensive purposes, as that is and will continue to be handled by the JF-17, but for a fresh offensive edge to provide a measure of conventional deterrence and, if need be, “Fight it [the conflict] so aggressively that [we] dislodge the enemy air force in an early timeframe.”[11]

In addition to AESA radars, next-generation EW/ECM and long-range BVR and HOBS WVR, an FGF adds a new dimension of capability – sharply reduced radar detectability (i.e. low radar cross-section or RCS). In general, an FGF would provide the PAF with markedly improved strike capabilities. For example, the PAF can conceal an already low-RCS ALCM in the FGF’s internal weapons bay, resulting in a large strike package confined to a relatively small radar signature. If combined with an EOTS doubling as a FLIR, the FGF can – like the Mirage ROSE – passively survey the terrain while undertaking a low-level flight, potentially with super-cruising (i.e. fly at supersonic speed without the use of an afterburner). The FGF can release its ALCM/SOW – that too a terrain-hugging/low-flying munition – load late and proceed to exit hostile territory before the enemy can counteract. In the maritime environment, an FGF serve as a sea-skimming delivery platform for sea-skimming AShM – like over land, it can look to close in on a high-value target at sea (e.g. an enemy frigate), deploy its AShM load and disengage before it incurs risk from the frigate’s air defence envelope. In addition, its status as a small but fully capable interceptor could make an FGF a deterrence to opposing maritime patrol aircraft or anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

FC-31: Great Payoff if AVIC Delivers

The FC-31 is an attractive prospect provided AVIC fulfills its full operating clearance (FOC) by the mid-2020s promise. With the aforementioned capabilities, the FGF would provide the PAF with a much-needed capability to undertake its offensive delivery in light of India’s IADS and airpower development efforts. If kept to its current assets to manage the bulk of offensive delivery, it is difficult to see how the PAF would consistently and effectively get past the S-400 and MR-SAM to undertake OCA operations.

Granted, the PAF should also extend the range of its ALCM and SOW as well as acquire unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for high-risk missions, especially suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) and destruction of enemy air defence (DEAD) missions. However, for the foreseeable future FGFs provide at least two key capability gains: (1) dual air-to-air and air-to-surface capabilities which can result in combined OCA (e.g. striking enemy air bases) and offensive air campaigns (e.g. countering scrambling aircraft) and (2) an adept maritime operations fighter for countering aerial threats and threatening surface warships. Ideally, one would use an FGF in concert with low-RCS drones, the latter serving as bomb-delivery platforms, decoys, jammers and loitering munitions (i.e. kamikaze drones). Sizable numbers of FGF (and stealthy UAVs) – e.g. 100 to 150 – would amount to a heavy offensive edge, one that can help Pakistan message conventional deterrence and to have India consider shifting its offensive assets away from its northwest regions. This would be an unprecedented threat level considering that for decades the premier PAF fighters have been counted as defensive assets as well. With the JF-17 in place, the FGF would be concentrated for attack.

However, selecting the FC-31 specifically is contingent on AVIC meeting its timeline and the FC-31 being up-to-par from the standpoint of a FGF. The FC-31 must provide markedly improved RCS reduction and, frankly, core capabilities expected of FGFs, such as super-cruising. If Beijing intends to recoup its research and development costs sooner than later, then the FC-31 will also be a relatively expensive solution. The development overhead will add to the direct cost of manufacturing each FC-31, and seeing that it is a very sophisticated program, it is unlikely either will be “cheap” in the absolute sense. The overhead will be an issue if the FC-31 is not adopted by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) or Navy (PLAN). The FC-31’s stated FGF qualities on paper must deliver in real-life.

On the other hand, the PAF might not have a choice but to embrace the FC-31. In the scenario the FC-31 becomes a “project” in that it will continued development to realize its FGF potential, the PAF’s pressing offensive needs could require it to induct several squadrons up-front, perhaps serve as a bridge purchase or quasi-FGF (i.e. a 4.5+ generation platform). In tandem, have PAC slowly integrate itself into the FC-31 production chain and, when a new iteration is available, manufacture it under license in Pakistan. One of the alternatives could be to procure another 4.5 generation platform, e.g. J-10B/C or Su-35, as an interim or bridge and then invest concurrently in the FC-31 or another FGF program. While current 4.5 generation platforms do not provide the low-RCS qualities of an FGF, they are mature and credible platforms, the PAF would not need to be concerned about technical complications ahead of FOC (within the PAF).

The discussion of trade-offs may impact the PAF’s decision in the end, but if the FC-31 is selected, then it would be worth reviewing them. By selecting the FC-31, the PAF will not be giving the Pakistani industry the opportunity (and test) of leading fighter design and development work. Granted, Pakistan’s paucity in human capital and research and development (R&D) infrastructure is not conducive for purely independent work – China will be required as an outside consulting body, much in the same way the Turks are relying on the British to guide them in the design and development of the TFX. However, spending on one’s own program – even while contracting overseas assistance – is akin to spending on one’s own development channels. It is money forces the country to build infrastructure and human capital to design the FGF and, in time, future programs. It is funding for generating proprietary intellectual property.

While the foundational elements will miss out on the FC-31, the after-the-fact production aspects may benefit regardless of whether the platform is FC-31 or otherwise. For example, PAC need not take on the entirety of the FC-31’s production work in Pakistan, it can open the bulk of aerostructure manufacturing and electronics subsystem sourcing to the private sector. This could incentivize the private sector to spend on raising the requisite production infrastructure (freeing PAC of the expense) so as to earn FC-31 work. Selecting the FC-31 would enable the aircraft manufacturing industry to grow without incurring the risk of activating a new research and development cycle for another FGF platform.

The ‘middle’ alternative between an off-the-shelf FC-31 purchase or an original FGF design is to partner in an existing in-development FGF. The Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) TFX has been a subject of public discussion thanks to comments about inviting Pakistan by Turkish and Pakistani officials. Partnering in the TFX would enable for sharing in the intellectual property and workshare. However, these gains are directly proportional to Pakistan’s share in funding the program, which is unlikely to form a substantial amount, and be confined to the areas that Turkey can control entirely. The payoffs in this partnership are unlikely to be as much as an original PAC-led design, but it would be less risky, especially if Pakistan’s share of the investment is at the margins, e.g. 5-15%. Some of that could be spent in Pakistan’s development efforts, thus contributing (albeit in a smaller fashion) to raising human capital and R&D infrastructure. Turkey will also be there to provide launch orders, which will help in scaling the development overhead. The Turkish government and TAI are aiming to have the TFX prototype fly in 2023 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. Finally, based on the PAF CAS’ statements, for the TFX to be a genuine factor, it would have to be one of two FGF programs in the PAF – the Pakistani FGF is being done at AvDI with the support of the Chinese. Currently, this is unlikely.

Finally, there is also the question of whether it makes sense to continue flying aging Mirage ROSE aircraft or heavily relying on the F-16 makes sense when a versatile clean-sheet solution is available on the market, and that too from China, Pakistan’s leading supplier of big-ticket defence systems. If not a complete FGF, the FC-31 could be realized as an effective 4.5+ generation platform, one with significantly improved (at least on paper) capabilities from payload, range, reduced detectability and electronics compared to the offensive workhorses available today.

[1] Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman’s Inaugural Speech of the Kamra Aviation City. 09 July 2017.

[2] “Two fronts – one mission.” Bol Narratives. Interview by Amir Zia of Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman. 01 April 2017. URL: Last accessed: 12 December 2017

[3] MSI Turkish Defence Review. “IDEAS 2016: Turkey-Pakistan Defence Relations go to the Next Stage.” January 2017. Issue # 140.

[4] Alan Warnes. 11 May 2017. Twitter. URL: Last accessed: 12 December 2017

[5] Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017.

[6] Greg Waldron. “Dubai: Customer sought for AVIC’s new stealth fighter.” Flight Global. 08 November 2015. URL: Accessed: 12 December 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017.

[9] Alan Warnes. “Masters of Mirage maintenance.” Air Forces Monthly. November 2017. Issue 356.

[10] Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017.

[11] Ibid.

Related from Quwa:

Discussion: Could the FC-31 factor into Pakistan’s next-gen fighter plans?

Discussion: Pakistan’s options for addressing India’s air warfare lead (Part 4)

TAI & BAE will ink TFX agreement, Pakistan may join as partner

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