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How Pakistan Could Optimize its Air Warfare Capabilities

In its response to the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) attempted air strikes on Balakot, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) response – designated “Swift Retort” – centered on the delivery of long-range situational awareness, long-range air-to-air missile (LRAAM) deployment, electronic countermeasures (ECM), and stand-off weapon (SOW) strikes. For the PAF, preserving – and ultimately, upgrading — these four capabilities are critical for it to demonstrate a conventional deterrence stature. For Pakistan to deter future Balakot-type intrusions in the future, establishing conventional deterrence – especially through air power – is vital.

The PAF certainly has a long-term roadmap for enhancing the aforementioned domains. For example, the PAF wants a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA). It is hoping for a twin-engine design to ensure that it can deploy heavy payloads at long ranges. The intended outcome is to both replace the Mirage III/5 in the strike role, and greatly improve upon the offensive value currently provided by the Mirages. However, the FGFA is a long-term endeavour. The PAF stated it is looking at a maiden test flight in 2028, which in Quwa’s earlier assessment would be impossible unless Pakistan is rolling its FGFA efforts with those of Turkey or China. In any case, the FGFA will not factor into the PAF’s plans until sometime in the 2030s.

Thus, the PAF still has to look at how to improve its “first shoot” air-to-air capability, SOW inventory, long-range situational awareness, and ECM in the short-term. In this respect, the PAF leadership had signalled an interest in buying another fighter type off-the-shelf. However, the most impactful improvements would occur at a fleet-wide level, i.e., through the JF-17, the PAF’s workhorse multi-role fighter. The PAF is clearly working towards improving the capabilities of its JF-17 fleet across the four key domains.

Long-Range Air-to-Air Capability

With the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III, the PAF is introducing the KLJ-7A active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar to its fleet. The KLJ-7A reportedly offers a maximum range of 170 km against current fighter-sized targets, which may translate to a radar cross-section (RCS) of 5m2.[1] The PAF will certainly pursue a new LRAAM to take advantage of the range improvement over the current KLJ-7V2. However, by setting up an assembly line to produce the KLJ-7A domestically, it seems that the PAF is also planning to retrofit its older Block-II and possibly Block-I fighters with the AESA radar.[2]

Currently, the PAF has 30 Block-IIIs on order. However, it also ordered 26 dual-seat JF-17Bs and outlined that it will upgrade those fighters with the KLJ-7A as well. If the PAF commits to the full 50-aircraft Block-III order, it could potentially build a fleet of up to 188 (i.e., Block-I, Block-II, Block-III and B) AESA-equipped fighters. In the short-term, the PAF could be aiming to maintain relative parity with the IAF in terms of at least having as many AESA radar-equipped fighters in its fleet. Upgrading the JF-17s would be the shortest and cost-effective avenue for achieving that outcome. If the PAF opts for additional JF-17s, this number could cross 200 by 2030, which is a relatively sizable force.

The PAF did not disclose the new LRAAM it will procure. However, a PAF had confirmed to Quwa in 2018 that the JF-17 Block-III would get a new longer-ranged LRAAM.

In addition to a longer-ranged air-to-air capability, the KLJ-7A’s 1,000+ transmit/receive modules (TRM) also provide it with improved electronic-counter-countermeasures (ECCM) capability. In practical terms, the KLJ-7A can function better against radar jammers compared to the KLJ-7V2, thus allowing the JF-17 to operate in contested air environments with sophisticated electronic threats. However, shielding the JF-17 from ECM is only one part of the equation, the PAF should also make the JF-17 into an ECM asset as well.

Fleet-Wide ECM Deployment

Onboard the JF-17, ECM deployment would likely emerge in two forms depending on the specific aircraft variant. The Block-III (and presumably the JF-17B) was slated to have integrated ECM.

Given that the PAF acquired electronic warfare (EW) equipment from Spain’s Indra, there is a chance that the ECM equipment is coming from a Western source. In fact, there are numerous ECM options available from the West that are more immune to U.S trade controls, such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations ITAR (ITAR). However, the PAF did not disclose any specific information about procurement.

That said, the contemporary standard would be to have a digital radio frequency memory (DRFM)-based system. It would allow the Block-III/JF-17B to interfere with enemy radars for defensive purposes (i.e., thwart enemy targeting and, potentially, air-to-air engagement).

The second ECM employment method is through a pod. This is likely the route the PAF is taking with the Block-I and Block-II aircraft. Ideally, the PAF would commission work to add a special mission hardpoint to the Block-I and/or Block-II so that adding an ECM pod does not cost the JF-17 munitions or fuel tanks.

Finally, it is unclear if the PAF will deploy the JF-17 for the electronic attack (EA) role. Currently, it seems that its ECM pods are defensive, not EA-oriented. In terms of EA, the PAF will likely continue relying on its Dassault Falcon-based ECM aircraft. It may look to acquire additional aircraft of this nature, but the PAF will certainly keep its procurement under-wraps for as long as possible.

Additional SOW Integration

In terms of SOW, the JF-17 can deploy the C-802 anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM), the CM-400AKG rocket, and Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK)-equipped precision-guided bombs (PGB).

Though not as diverse as the munition types of other fighter platforms, this inventory covers the majority of the PAF’s air-to-surface use-cases. The C-802, for example, delivers a long-range maritime attack element. The IREK enables the PAF to launch the Mk83 (a 500 kg bomb) to ranges of over 50 km. The CM-400AKG offers a high-velocity attack option that can ingress from a ballistic missile-type arc.

However, Pakistani defence observers have identified that the PAF may be working to integrate a FT-12-type SOW to the JF-17. The FT-12 pairs a Mk83-class bomb to a satellite-aided glide system and a rocket-motor. Together, the FT-12 could provide a range of 120 km to 150 km. There are rumours of the PAF pursuing a ‘REK-III’ for the JF-17, which may be a weapon similar to the FT-12. If accurate, the JF-17 would gain a weapon similar in size and range to the H-4, the marquee strike munition used in Swift Retort.

Thus, the PAF could be working towards greatly lessening the long-range strike load from the Mirage III/5 by fitting the JF-17 with a comparable munitions set. That said, the FT-12/REK-III would work differently from the H-4 in that the FT-12/REK-III will rely on GPS/INS, while the H-4 can also use a manual remote-operable system for terminal guidance. It is unclear if the PAF wants to retain the H-4’s remote-operable capability in the future, or strictly rely on ‘fire-and-forget’ SOWs.

Observers close to the PAF believe that the Ra’ad-line of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) will also make their way to the JF-17.[3] The design changes shown in the new Ra’ad-II ALCM (notably the ‘X’-type tail stock instead of the wide horizontal stabilizers) suggest that the JF-17 will eventually get Ra’ad-II integration. At that point, the JF-17 will have taken all of the conventional-oriented tasks of the Mirage III/5s, though the PAF may continue keeping the Mirage III/5 as additional strike assets.

Situational Awareness

The PAF started improving this domain before Swift Retort. The centerpiece of this program was ordering three additional Saab 2000-based Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. However, the KLJ-7A offers longer ranged radar tracking, so individual JF-17s will be able to see farther. It is unclear if the PAF will pursue a new AEW&C platform. If anything, a plausible near-term goal would be to improve Link-17 so that it can carry more data without compromising security.

That said, Swift Retort may have pushed the PAF to look at other ways to build situational awareness. The first could be a strategic look through image intelligence (IMINT), especially through a satellite. The second method could employ more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Pakistan currently has two medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drones in development. The third area would require proactive thinking, but an improved electronic support measures (ESM) capability could help better understand India’s air defence deployments near the border. Thus, signal intelligence (SIGINT) and electronics intelligence (ELINT) assets should be on the PAF’s near-term acquisition roadmap as well.

[1] Henri Kenhmann. “Airshow China 2016: KLJ-7A, le radar à radar.” East Pendulum. 01 November 2016. URL:

[2] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan’s Roaring Thunder.” Air Forces Monthly. May 2021.

[3] Ibid.

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