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How Pakistan Might Pursue its Future Strike Aircraft Needs

For the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), a critical aspect of Swift Retort — the PAF’s retaliatory incursion against India for its stand-off range attacks across of the Line-of-Control (LoC) — was its ability to demonstrate a reasonable attack capability against predetermined targets in enemy territory.

Granted, the PAF’s F-16s had demonstrated their value as potential offensive counter-air (OCA) assets by locking onto enemy aircraft from across the LoC, but the Mirages had played a quieter, yet equally as vital role in hitting targets at long-range through stand-off range weapons (SOW), such as the H4.

In an earlier Quwa Premium article (from December 2017), it was noted that within the PAF fleet, the F-16s and Mirages are practically complementary. The PAF’s F-16s are not equipped with SOWs, but they evidently possess credible long-range air-to-air capabilities. On the other hand, the Mirages are no longer the PAF’s primary air defence fighter, yet they carry the bulk of its long-range attack duties.

Thus, the two platforms are inevitably poised to function together in a real war scenario, they would need to in order for the PAF to maintain a credible offensive capability. Fortunately, this is not a small force by any means; combined, the F-16s and Mirages could amount to 150-200 aircraft, which is sizable.

Likewise, the Mirages are equipped with contemporary SOW capabilities through the H2/H4-series of heavyweight glide weapons, the low-cost Range Extension Kit (REK) precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit, and Ra’ad/Ra’ad 2 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which offer 350 km and 550 km in range, respectively.

However, the relative potency of the PAF’s force is on the decline due to India’s mounting investments in air defence as well as more modern combat aircraft, most notably the Dassault Rafale.

In terms of possibly countering the Rafale, the PAF would certainly benefit from upgrading its F-16s to the F-16V specification, which would include an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. It would also benefit from enlarging the F-16 fleet, which it had sought to do until the White House cut down on Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Coalition Support Fund (CSF) transfers to Pakistan.

Even if the PAF could qualitatively and quantitatively improve the F-16 fleet, India’s spending in extending its air defence range and increasing its air defence density will still erode the PAF’s offensive capabilities.

As discussed in an earlier Quwa Premium article, Pakistan can mitigate India’s investments (to an extent) by investing in new types of ballistic missiles and by equipping the JF-17 with SOWs, especially ALCMs. But while those additions would help the PAF with mounting strikes from within its own territory, it would be limited in terms of range and reach (likely cover most disputed territory and parts of India’s northwest).

However, India can simply move more of its assets away from the border and, in turn, dare the PAF to try penetrating Indian territory (and face its heavily dense air defence system and wall of multi-role aircraft, such as the Rafale and the Tejas, and potentially another type). Thus, the PAF will still need an offensive capability that can amount to conventional deterrence, and so, it will need new strike-capable aircraft.

It is obvious that the PAF is pursuing this objective through the development of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) under Project Azm. In a 2019 interview, the PAF’s Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan stated that the current Air Staff Requirement (ASR) is seeking a “twin-engine single-seater, boasting the likes of super-cruise and laser weapons.”[1]

So, in addition to a low-observable (LO) airframe (a common trait with FGFAs), the PAF is evidently seeking a larger, twin-engine platform. Thus, it wants a next-generation aircraft that offers more range and greater payloads than its current marquee aircraft, i.e., the F-16 and Mirages.

This is an important point on for a few reasons. First, Pakistan will generally only develop an original solution if it has no way of procuring it off-the-shelf. Second, the PAF has generally wanted a strong deep-strike cadre (since the 1970s if not earlier), but be it due to the lack of funds or access to options, it could not acquire it. Third, an in-house FGFA is arguably the riskiest bet one could take (as it is a very complex program), yet it is possible that Pakistan views it as its only way of acquiring an assured capability.

However, when it comes to deep strike, it might not be prudent to simply focus on just the FGFA. Yes, the PAF is hoping to have an FGFA to ultimately supplant the F-16 and carry the bulk of its offensive load, but there is another less obvious – yet possibly as just as important – part to Project Azm, drones.

Even with a LO FGFA, there is still a risk of aircraft loss (and crewman loss) when flying in enemy territory, especially in contested air space with dense air defence and high-tech combat aircraft assets. However, a drone would allow the PAF to operate in contested air space more flexibly, and (by minimizing the risk of losing aircrew and tier-one assets) take more risks in an offensive context.

When the PAF announced that it was developing a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) under Project Azm, it had taken some observers by surprise. After all, the PAF could simply acquire a MALE UAV off-the-shelf from China or, alternatively, Turkey.

However, a PAF source had stressed to Quwa that the goal of the UAV programs was not simply to acquire UAVs, but to understand the development UAVs from the ground-up. This was further shown in the PAF’s internal high-speed target drone program, which it revealed at the 2019 Dubai Air Show. Yes, it is a basic project, but it has shown to be the starting point to developing loyal wingman drones.[2]

Furthermore, there are ample examples of Pakistan researching drone development across many areas, such as machine learning, autonomous operation, composites, and others.[3]

Obviously, this work does not preclude the likelihood of using the MALE UAV design operationally (e.g., for surveillance or time-sensitive attacks against non-state actors), but the key point is Pakistan’s efforts at learning the technology across multiple areas, including autonomous operation and materials.

In parallel with the FGFA, it is plausible that Pakistan is also working on an expansive drone program, one that can include simple loyal wingman-type UAVs and/or larger strike-oriented aircraft.

First, the development of an attack drone would make sense as it would give the PAF a relatively low-cost and low-risk resource to help carry its offensive missions. Such drones would eliminate the risk of losing aircrew, freeing the PAF to use them more liberally, especially in high-risk scenarios. Should a UAV become compromised in a mission, it can pivot into an ALCM-like role and try colliding with its target.

Second, if the PAF succeeds in acquiring or developing the critical inputs necessary for a manned FGFA, it should have little trouble scaling those same inputs for a drone. It can re-utilize the same turbofan engine (an especially valuable asset if it ends up being a supercruising-capable system, the PAF can leverage the fuel efficiency gains to maximize payload and range), composite aerostructures, electronics, etc. The delta from an FGFA to stealthy attack drone is not as significant as pursuing a drone alone.

For example, the Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik reportedly offers a payload of 2,000 kg and range of 6,000 km. It is powered by one Saturn AL-31F turbofan engine, but can potentially use the AL-41F of the Su-57. But its design cost was reportedly $24.85 million US,[4] though it seems to have drawn from existing technologies in Russia, which could suggest an overall low development cost.

Third, next generation aircraft development efforts around the world (especially in Western Europe) are increasingly tilting towards dual manned and unmanned aircraft development. There is a growing sense that the two types will operate in concert with one another.

Fourth, the scale of India’s airpower and air defence investments will necessitate reliance on long-range attack methods that lower the risk of loss. If India is laden with credible threats to airpower, such as long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM), then LO UAVs are the solution.

Fifth, LO UAVs could be the low-cost complement (in the sense of offensive missions) to the FGFA, thus enabling the PAF to maintain a quantitatively heavier offensive capability. In other words, it could look at simplifying the LO UAV’s design and, in turn, maintain a lower procurement cost than the FGFA. If the PAF cuts down on its annual FGFA production, it can lean on LO UAVs to still shore up an offensive capability.

Overall, it is too early to say if the PAF can achieve any of the above, but the pursuit of a FGFA alongside a LO UAV and, potentially, loyal wingman drone could be the overall next-generation requirement. If the PAF cannot achieve all of them independently, it will draw on external support where required. However, the composition of its future offensive fleet is likely to comprise of FGFAs and LO UAVs.

[1] Alan Warnes. Interview with Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan. Jane’s defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

[2] Garrett Reim. “How jet-powered target drones inspired USAF’s loyal wingman.” Flight Global. 13 September 2019. URL:

[3] National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST). URL:

[4] “In the US, the Russian “Hunter” was called a fiction.” Lenta. 10 July 2018. URL:

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