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How Policy Culture Derailed Pakistan’s Next-Gen Fighter Efforts

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had voiced its interest in one day acquiring a next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) as early as 2016. However, contrary to analyst expectations (of collaborating in a foreign project), the PAF undertook a domestic fighter program, which it dubbed “Project Azm.”

Overall, Project Azm was beleaguered with ‘red flags’ from its inception. For starters, Pakistan lacked (and still lacks) the core industries necessary to source critical inputs, such as engines, aerostructures, avionics and others. Granted, Pakistan could have taken the alternative route of sourcing the inputs from abroad while carrying out the design work internally. However, Pakistan lacked the in-house experience to carry out fighter design, development, testing, and integration work as well.

Quwa discussed these various deficiencies over the past several years and, in turn, provided outlooks on how Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) could resolve these issues.

Though PAC gained some experience in manufacturing fighters via the JF-17 program, it never developed the expertise and capacity necessary to develop an NGFA. Basically, once one looks into PAC’s capabilities in detail, they will notice the lack of original projects relating to advanced composite materials, complex flight control systems, producing aircraft-grade steel, wind-tunnel testing, and so on.

One could have gained considerably more confidence in Project Azm had PAC shown a history of original projects in key inputs of an NGFA in the lead up to the flagship project. In contrast, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) did develop experience in all of those areas through the Tejas. Granted, it took longer than anticipated for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to accept the Tejas, but that was a cost India paid to generate a great wealth of knowledge and capacity across flight control systems, composites, and electronics.

Thus, HAL’s NGFA programs – i.e., the Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) – sit on a firm aerospace R&D grounding that, simply put, is not present at PAC.

Logically speaking, the most appropriate next step for PAC should have been to gradually build upon the experience of manufacturing aircraft. Basically, at one level, this should have involved a step-by-step plan to building in-house expertise across key technology areas, like flight control systems and composites. But this programming should not be done for a NGFA; rather, PAC should have pursued simpler projects.

In fairness to PAC, it seems that it had tried this approach through its in-house drone program. However, this drone project evidently did not succeed considering how the PAF opted to import Turkish aircraft in its place. Quwa argues that the failure was not due to any inherent technical deficiency, but rather, it was a result of deeper structural and organizational problems.

Simply put, Pakistan’s defence R&D is not led by the country’s R&D experts. A longstanding culture of just parachuting in senior military officers – along with rigid military practices – weakened the R&D potential of entities like PAC. Likewise, a lack of connectivity with academic research is also a problem.

These factors likely contributed to Air Headquarters’ (AHQ) decision to seemingly ‘skip steps’ by pursuing Project Azm instead of a more realistic alternative, i.e., collaborating on an existing overseas project, such as the Turkish Aerospace (TUSAŞ) TFX/MMU.

Türkiye had officially invited Pakistan to participate in the TFX/MMU as early as 2016. In the seven years following that invitation, TUSAŞ rolled out a prototype of its NGFA. By consciously missing the window of joining the TFX/MMU at an early stage, Pakistan likely missed out on the most valuable benefits.

Basically, had Pakistan joined the TFX/MMU at its earliest point (i.e., 2016), it could have wielded enough leverage to extract a favourable workshare agreement, transfer-of-technology and expertise, and perhaps other benefits, like Turkish investment in the Pakistani private sector.

In other words, Pakistan could have used the TFX/MMU to evolve its domestic industry base. This project could have been a vector to start developing in-house expertise across flight control systems, composites, electronics, and more, but under the guided handed of Türkiye. This aspect matters because Türkiye is invested in the success of such programs (as it would contribute to the TFX/MMU).

There was an opportunity to create the foundation of an aerospace consortium with Türkiye. It would be disingenuous to argue hindsight on this issue. To the contrary, not only was Türkiye’s offer to Pakistan to join the TFX/MMU publicly known, but the PAF had chosen the far riskier and failure-prone alternative by pursuing Project Azm. It basically skipped the most sensible (albeit high-risk) option in favour of the least sensible alternative; thus, one must question why such a decision was made.

Unfortunately, the answer to such a question leads one to an uncomfortable fact: The current situation is the result of Pakistan’s military leaders wielding public policy power. Pakistan’s defence industries are the product of public funding; yet, their management is not open to public scrutiny. Hence, Pakistani military leaders can make strategic policy decisions, but without the accountability for making mistakes. Not only that, but there are no mechanisms to enable credible outside, non-military voices to provide input.

In contrast, Türkiye manages its defence industry in an entirely different manner.

For example, Türkiye’s top defence industry czar, Dr. İsmail Demir, is from an R&D background. Dr. Demir has a master’s degree in applied mechanics, a masters in aircraft engineering, and a PhD in mechanical engineering. Prior to his official appointment, Demir was a faculty member and research follow in the United States, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. Dr. Demir was also the general manager of THY Teknik A.Ş, the maintenance and repair center of Turkish Airlines.

Overall, not only was Dr. Demir of an R&D background, but he previously managed one of Türkiye’s major industry entities. However, the fact that Dr. Demir is also a publicly appointed official who is accountable to the Turkish government as well as various Turkish institutions. In fact, even the decision to potentially allow Pakistan into the MMU/TFX will be scrutinized and, in turn, Dr. Demir would be accountable.

This culture permeates at every layer of Türkiye’s defence industry, including its state-owned enterprises, like TUSAŞ, Aselsan, Havelsan, and others. In addition, the Turkish government fosters close collaboration between its defence industry and academia, and it promotes the growth of its private defence suppliers.

If not the technology, Pakistan at least had the opportunity to learn from Türkiye’s experience in evolving its defence industry. Clearly, Türkiye’s journey brought it to a point where it could develop a full-fledged NGFA; thus, there is value in learning and emulating that journey.


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