Skip to content Skip to footer

February Skirmish: Stand-Off Weapons & Long-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (Part 2)

On 26 February 2019, India announced that it had conducted a precision airstrike against what it called a  Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.

Besides involving 12 Dassault Mirage 2000H multi-role fighters of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the airstrike’s marquee aspect was the IAF’s use of a stand-off range weapon (SOW), the Rafael SPICE (i.e. Smart, Precise, Impact, Cost-Effective). The IAF attack unit deployed its payload from within India.

The SPICE is a precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit meant for extending the range and improving the accuracy of general purpose bombs (GPB), such as the Mk-80-series. It combines a satellite-aided inertial navigation system (GPS/INS) with an electro-optical (EO) seeker. The SPICE reportedly has a range of 100 km.

India claimed that it had killed 300 militants in its airstrike, but Pakistan disputes the casualty claim as well as India’s claim that the attack hit its intended targets. In fact, Reuters interviewed nearby locals, and one said: “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died.

Reuters also asked the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ East Asia Non-Proliferation Project director, Jeffrey Lewis, who said: “The high-resolution images don’t show any evidence of bomb damage.”

The IAF has reportedly given its own satellite images of the area to prove that it had struck its targets, but to the Indian government. In other words, this information is not yet openly verifiable.

Without doubt, this specific encounter triggered an air battle between the IAF and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which had resulted in the confirmed loss of one IAF MiG-21bis. Both the IAF and PAF are claiming additional kills for their respective forces, see Quwa’s earlier article for more details.

However, it will be worth seeing how the encounter alters skirmishes of these two countries.

A New Challenge to Managing Tensions

Starting with the point of India using a SOW and Pakistan seemingly using a BVRAAM, the nature of these weapons is such that, in theory, neither side needs to cross the Line-of-Control (LoC) to fire at the other.

This is a significant issue. On the one hand, the two can claim that they are only fighting from behind the LOC, but the potential damage capability of a 1,000 kg SOW or a land-attack cruise missile (LACM) is much more significant than a volley of artillery strikes. In terms of SOW, India has set the precedent that it could be used in times of heightened tension, as has Pakistan with regards to BVRAAMs.

Does an exchange of this nature (without actually crossing the border) amount to an act of war, or is it an escalated form of the cross-border artillery skirmishes already occurring between the two countries? Will the two sides need to come to an accord to limit the kinds of attacks they can carryout? If said limitation is not in place, then there is a massive risk of escalation (which both sides will claim to be defensive).

However, that is a foreign relations issue.

The technical and procurement side of this conflict should direct Pakistan to invest in three areas: (1) the procurement of longer-range SOW, (2) longer-range AAMs, and (3) a long-range interdiction and intercept capability, potentially through new surface-to-air missiles (SAM) but additional fighters as well. Note, part of the third area – i.e., interdiction/interception – should also involve the Pakistan Army.

Long Range SOWs

Cruise Missiles

The Pakistan Army (PA), Pakistan Navy (PN), and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) already have mature long-range SOW programs through their respective cruise missile systems. Between the Babur, Ra’ad, and Harba, the strike ranges are between 350 km and 750 km. This covers the bulk of India’s northwest, which, in theory, means that Pakistan can conventionally strike most high value targets (HVT) of significance to it.

In terms of cruise missiles, Pakistan has every reason now to invest in building turnkey manufacturing for every component, such as the miniature turbojet or turbofan engines.

Pakistan’s cruise missile capability will not be a credible threat until it can establish that it can field them in significant numbers and, just as importantly, replenish its stocks at will. Be it air, surface, or sub-surface-launched, the core subsystems of each type do not need to be different; Pakistan can build a common core input (e.g., engine, electronics, etc) chain to support different types of cruise missiles.

If the PAF can push for turnkey fighter manufacturing, then for Pakistan, cruise missiles (arguably a simpler aircraft application) should not only be doable, but a logical intermediary step.

Glide Bombs

Thanks to low-altitude, terrain-hugging capabilities, cruise missiles can achieve their full range potential no matter where or how they are launched. Other munitions, such as glide bombs, lack this flexibility, but Pakistan may not use cruise missiles in a skirmish unless India chooses to set that precedent.

It does not seem as though Pakistan is willing to set an offensive precedent in the region. However, by using the Rafael SPICE, India did set the precedent of using air-launched glide-bombs.

With the Global Industrial Defence Solutions (GIDS) Range Extension Kit (REK) and H-2 and H-4, Pakistan has analogous SOW capability. The GIDS REK is the closest in concept to the SPICE. Like the SPICE, the REK is a refit for general purpose bombs (GPB) wherein it extends the range and improves its accuracy through an INS/GPS system. Depending on the launch altitude, the REK has a range of 100 km.

A Video of the JF-17 Launching a REK 

While the PAF can deploy the REK from its JF-17s, the PAF’s Mirage ROSE aircraft could deploy the H-2/H-4, which are also glide bombs. However, the H-2/H-4 rely on electro-optical (EO) guidance and the longer-range version, H-4, uses a rocket-booster. The H-2 and H-4 have ranges of 60 km and 120 km, respectively.

One advantage of the H-2/H-4 over the REK is that the H-2/H-4 can be equipped with fragmentation and penetration warhead, enabling the end-user to employ the SOW against reinforced targets.

It is unclear if the PAF will equip the JF-17 with H-2/H-4. The advantage of the REK route is that it is likely less costly than the H-2/H-4 because it only requires the production of the guidance and wing-kits. On the other hand, the H-2/H-4 is a complete integrated kit, similar to the Ra’ad. The additional warhead options are not to be discounted, but the operational impact might be marginal relative to the added cost.

For high-impact strikes, the PAF could look at adapting the REK to the 500 kg Mk-83 and 1,000 kg Mk-84 GPB. The goal would need to be to manufacture the enhanced REK at a sufficiently low cost and, in turn, leverage the PAF’s existing Mk-83/84 stocks. The latter can also be manufactured in Pakistan.

Finally, investing in the REK would mean equipping the JF-17 with a low-cost precision-guided long-range munition. For the PAF, it would mean gaining 150+ aircraft that could undertake a Balakot-like precision-strike from within Pakistan’s borders at any time. In addition, new Chinese solutions, such as the Stand-Alone Weapon and Fire Control System (SWFCS) could, in theory, enable the PAF’s F-16s to use the REK, C-802 anti-ship missile (AShM), and Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).

Long Range Air-to-Air Missiles

First, be it the LKF601E or KLJ-7A, the PAF will integrate a new active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar to the JF-17. The extended targeting range will require a new, longer-range air-to-air missile (AAM) system to exploit the additional range.

Quwa had asked Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) at IDEAS 2018 about the issue of a new, longer-range AAM. PAC did not disclose a specific plan or long-range AAM, but it had stated that it could both be integrated and, above all, is to be expected. With BVRAAM proving its efficacy and, above all, with regional dynamics demanding longer-range AAMs, it would be surprising if the JF-17 does not get a new AAM.

Second, one of the draws of the LKF601E is that it is a low-cost/low-complexity retrofit option, which could see the PAF extend AESA radars to at least its 50-60 Block-IIs as well.

The JF-17 provides the PAF an affordable platform through which it can contemporary technologies and capabilities, so the prospect of it building a fleet of 200-250 fighters is plausible, especially if the majority of those fighters get AESA radars and can deploy long-range AAM and SOW.

Third, Quwa has and will continue to maintain that the right route for the PAF is to develop and produce a long-range AAM domestically. Partnership options exist in China, Turkey, and South Africa, and scale is not an issue seeing that the PAF will need to equip 100-200 fighters. The benefit of AAM development is that some of the core technologies, such as dual-pulse rocket motors can be applied to SAMs as well.

Surface-to-Air Missiles

Regarding the LoC incident, a long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) may not have been enough to thwart the IAF. Not only can the IAF fly low (i.e., exploit the long-range SAM’s dark spots), but the mountainous terrain around the LoC could help the IAF mask and hide its fighters.

In this case, saturating transit points with short-range SAMs, especially those with fire-and-forget seekers such as imaging infrared and active radar-homing, could be a starting point. Repurposing a new long-range AAM and a 5th-generation high off-boresight (HOBS) AAM into a dual medium and short-range SAM suite is an option worth studying. In fact, that is the very concept of the Israeli SPYDER.

A long-range SAM, especially one that protrudes into the other country’s border, could push the attacker to use low-level strikes (i.e., fire from low-altitude). However, this may inhibit the range potential of glide-bombs such as the REK and SPICE, forcing both sides to fire near the border, if not cross it. This would put both at risk of the other’s short and medium-range SAMs as well as fighter interceptors.

India is moving in this direction with the S-400 and Barak 8-based MR-SAM, while the Pakistan Army had bought the HQ-16 from China. There are reports of Pakistan showing interest in the FD-2000, which is the export version of the Chinese HQ-9. The FD-2000 has a range of 125 km.


For Pakistan, a successful intercept of an attack would offer significant foreign relations cache. First, it will raise the threat of material and personnel loss a real factor for the aggressor, and second, greatly reduce the incentive to repeat it. However, with funding a challenge one cannot expect much investment in new deployment platforms. Pakistan will need to leverage what it has, such as the JF-17, and focus on at least acquiring credible munitions such as new AAMs, SOWs, and SAMs to extend its platforms’ effectiveness.

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment