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Analysis: Why is Pakistan Pursuing the TF-X Kaan Fighter? (Part 2)

In August, Turkey’s Deputy Defense Minister, Celal Sami Tüfekçi, said that Turkish officials will visit Pakistan to discuss the latter’s potential entry into Turkey’s next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) program, the TF-X KAAN. Moreover, Tüfekçi revealed that nearly 200 Pakistani engineers were already involved in the KAAN (likely through Turkish Aerospace’s [TAI] local office in Pakistan). Inviting Pakistan into the KAAN could yield challenges and opportunities for both sides, however, as discussed in part-one of this analysis, an effective policy leadership on Turkey’s part could steer such a partnership in the right direction.

In part-two of this analysis, Quwa will examine the potential operational benefits of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) inducting the KAAN. Overall, the impetus of pursuing the KAAN – or some other comparable design – is not just the need for an NGFA in of itself, but certain technical capabilities that the PAF never had the benefit of leveraging, until potentially now. Basically, the KAAN could be the PAF’s avenue for acquiring an effective strike capable platform with enough range and payload to drive offensive operations.

Traditionally, the PAF had always recognized the value of a strike platform; however, it rarely could access or afford the platforms most suited for the role. In the mid-1970s, Pakistan had negotiated with the United States for 110 Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) A-7 Corsair IIs. For its time, the A-7 was a capable dedicated attack aircraft as it had a relatively high payload capacity and a robust avionics suite comprising of an integrated navigation system, terrain-following radar, and head-up display (HUD).

Unfortunately for the PAF, the U.S. ultimately acted on its concerns about Pakistan potentially pairing the A-7s with nuclear payloads, and, in turn, asked Pakistan to freeze its nuclear program before greenlighting the sale. However, Pakistan did not agree to those conditions and, thus, the deal was scrapped. While the A-7 was once again available in the 1980s, the PAF opted to pursue the multirole F-16, likely envisioning a future where the F-16 would form the mainstay of its fleet.

Since then, a platform designed for strike was either unavailable to the PAF, or unaffordable (if not in itself, then due to more urgent priorities needing funds). However, in the late 2000s, the PAF began investing in air-launched cruise missiles, glide bombs and other stand-off range weapons (SOW), thus giving its lighter aircraft – namely the Mirage III/5 and JF-17 – long-range strike capabilities. Those capabilities were put to the test in 2019 during the brief two-day skirmish between Pakistan and India.

The PAF’s response – i.e., Swift Retort – likely reopened the Air Headquarters’ (AHQ) interest in a more strike-capable platform. The H-4 glide-bomb and Range Extension Kit (REK) precision-guided bomb (PGB) had played a key role in the ground-attack aspect of Swift Retort. However, the PAF relied on its lightweight fighters – i.e., the Mirage III/5 and JF-17 – to deploy them. The Mirage is aging, while the JF-17s – though capable of deploying those munitions – may not be optimal when the PAF needs to go farther and/or carry heavier payloads. Likewise, the PAF could also be interested in leveraging more sensor types for its target acquisition work, e.g., electro-optical tracking systems (EOTS) and more powerful synthetic aperture radar (SAR). The JF-17 was not designed to fully leverage these subsystems, hence its ability to lead a dedicated strike capability is limited; however, as Swift Retort had shown, the PAF needs that capability.

Basically, demonstrating the capacity to carry out long-range precision-strikes could help build Pakistan’s conventional deterrence stature. Up to this point, Pakistan had relied on its nuclear assets to deter India’s aggression, but the Balakot episode (and India’s other doctrines, like Cold Start) put those assumptions to doubt. India is willing to test Pakistan, at least up to a point (e.g., limited cross-border air strikes). It is not sustainable for Pakistan to keep pointing to its nuclear threshold as a deterrence; it needs another means to deter India, hence the need for building conventional deterrence.

In this sense, Pakistan would want to demonstrate that it can engage in extensive retaliatory strikes, even deep within Indian territory, without relying on nuclear warheads or their delivery vehicles (i.e., ballistic missiles). For its part, the Pakistan Army (PA) is investing in guided artillery (e.g., Fatah-I/II rockets), while the Pakistan Navy (PN) is steadily adding longer-ranged cruise missiles to its inventory. For the PAF, having longer-ranged SOWs – from air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) to air-to-surface rockets to glide bombs – unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), and large strike-capable platforms are critical.

Shortly after announcing Project AZM, the PAF leadership had spelled out its NGFA requirements. In 2019, then PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, said the ideal NGFA would be a “twin-engine single-seater, boasting the likes of super cruise and laser weapons.” Thus, the PAF sought a large twin-engine design from the onset of its NGFA requirements.

Not only would working with Turkey unlock a pathway to acquiring a large strike-capable aircraft, but UCAV and other unmanned air systems (UAS) – e.g., loyal wingman drones, decoy drones, and loitering munition systems – as well. Thus, moving forward, the PAF’s goal would be to acquire an entire ecosystem for driving offensive operations, but the fighter platform would be the centerpiece.

Even in its current form, the KAAN offers significant potential for the strike role. In terms of its dimensions (i.e., length, wingspan, wing area, etc), it seems to be comparable in size the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Its payload capacity is not known, though the initial KAAN block may be on the relatively lighter side, at least in terms of its internal weapons bay capacity. However, as the Turkish Air Force also requires a strike-capable platform (in lieu of the F-35 Lightning II), TAI will develop the KAAN’s strike capabilities.

When paired with its low-observability (LO) design and large airframe (enabling it to carry a powerful radar and electro-optical sensor suite), the KAAN would make for an ideal strike platform.

Should a Pakistani KAAN program come to fruition, the PAF will likely lean on it to gradually supplant its F-16 fleet, especially the F-16A/Bs, most of which date back to the 1980s and early 1990s. However, the role of the supplanted squadrons would change as, traditionally, the F-16 played the role of a workhorse multi-role fighter. In the coming years, the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-III will take on more of those duties, which will free certain squadrons to take on more specialized roles, such as deep strike.

This NGFA fleet would form the nucleus of the PAF’s offensive capabilities, and will likely be supplemented by UCAVs, loyal wingman drones, decoys, and loitering munitions. In fact, beyond the KAAN, one can see the PAF collaborate with Turkey across each of these areas. Ideally, however, the PAF would use this as an impetus to take ownership of some aspects, such as UCAVs. Though complex, UCAVs would still be simpler and less costly to design, develop, and build than a manned stealth fighter. Yet, it would still be an essential piece to a future offensive air combat capability.

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