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IDEAS 2018: Is Pakistan Prioritizing New Munitions Development? (Part 1)

According to UkrOboronProm, which is Ukraine’s state-owned parent company overseeing the country’s various defence vendors – such as Antonov – Pakistan and Ukraine agreed to collaborate on developing munitions. In a statement, UkrOboronProm stated:

It was discussed the terms and conditions for the start of joint Ukrainian-Pakistani production of high-precision missiles of various classes. The parties confirmed their readiness to start joint research and development work in the coming months.

In addition, there was also a news report about Turkey’s Roketsan A.S. ‘assisting’ Pakistan with “air-to-air, air-to-ground and anti-tank UMTAS and OMTAS missile technology.” Collectively, the reports suggest that Pakistan is now prioritizing the development of new munitions for its land, naval, and air platforms.

For Pakistan, this is not a new course.

Currently, the Pakistan Army (PA), Pakistan Navy (PN), and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) field domestically-built stand-off range weapon (SOW) designs, most notably the Babur and Ra’ad-line of cruise missiles.

Although these SOW systems can be used for conventional operations, they are mostly meant for non-conventional or strategic objectives. This is a rational course seeing that the supply of strategic – especially 300+ km (i.e., non-MTCR) range munitions – is limited, if non-existent. For Pakistan, domestic sourcing is the most assured method of acquiring and sustaining this capability.

However, when it comes to conventional munitions – such as air-to-air missiles (AAM) – Pakistan mostly, if not entirely, imports proven solutions from abroad. Pakistan’s leading suppliers in this regard have been China, the US and Western Europe, but with a few exceptions on the margin (e.g., Brazil and South Africa for anti-radiation missiles and long-range glide-bombs, respectively).

For Pakistan, relying on off-the-shelf solutions was a rational move. Previously, Pakistan did not anticipate building sufficient economies-of-scale for certain munition types to sustain domestic production.

Pakistan does manufacture certain conventional munitions, especially ordnance such as artillery shells, small-arms ammunition, and general-purpose bombs (GPB). But one will notice that these munitions draw on strong economies-of-scale and require limited continual development.

Why the Pivot?

While the method is unclear, the PAF intends to build an independent supply-base for its next-generation fighter, i.e., Project Azm. The PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan stated that the fifth-generation fighter (FGF) is “indigenous” nor tied to “western or eastern partners”.

It would follow that the FGF’s munitions would also be indigenous. However, while that explains the new policy outlook, it does not explain why Pakistan (or at least the PAF) has pivoted from importing munitions.

There is no one single reason, but several, namely: acquire complete agency or control over where and how munitions are integrated to key platforms; guarantee the supply of conventional munitions to readily replenish stocks; ensure access to current and emerging munitions technology; and build economies of scale by standardizing across different platforms.

Control Where & How Munitions are Integrated

This is arguably the most important reason.

Though Leonardo was among the candidates for supplying an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar for the JF-17 Block-III, it was always unlikely that it would secure the contract.

One of the major obstacles to a Leonardo Grifo-E-equipped JF-17 was that Leonardo nor the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) would share their respective source-codes to make radar-to-AAM/AShM integration possible.[1] Though the Chinese AESA radars are certainly credible options, the imposed constraint was something the PAF would be best-served avoiding through the long-term.

From pairing AAMs to combat aircraft to equipping SAMs to surface ships to loading AShMs to submarines, there are no shortage of scenarios how each of Pakistan’s service arms (PA, PN, and PAF) could equip and deploy their respective platforms. However, indigenously manufacturing those munitions and having the source-codes to pair them to any sensor would be a critical gain.

Guarantee Munition Supplies

Be it due to armed operations, exercises, or shelf-life expiry, munition stocks are not static. In cases where Pakistan does not use its stocks, it will need to devise a plan to refurbish or extend missile shelf-life.

This is not an ideal situation considering a relatively large number of munitions may be bought upfront at high cost (e.g., the PAF ordered 500 AIM-120C5 with its F-16s) to ensure that enough missiles are available to sustain combat operations. However, in lieu of those operations, existing stocks would either need to be replaced or refurbished so as to maintain a credible defence posture.

Furthermore, Pakistan is currently left with procuring munition stocks with each major platform purchase. When the platform purchases were relatively limited in scale, it made sense to bundle munitions with the platform’s spare parts and training. However, with the JF-17 and Project Azm fighters, Hangor submarines, and other platforms poised to be mainstay assets used in comparatively larger numbers, importing their respective munitions in sufficient numbers may no longer be cost-effective.

It is likely a better use of funding to localize the supply of AAM, AShM, ATGM, and other munitions and to feed the armed forces’ requirements gradually. In other words, instead of 500 AIM-120C5s up front, the PAF could stage a purchase of 1,000 AAMs over 10 years and, in turn, split the order into multiple batches wherein each batch improves upon the other. Pakistan can also locally refurbish older munitions.

Not only would purchases in this direction feed the domestic economy as a stimulus, but are likely to be lower-cost than imports due to Pakistan’s lower-cost labour and manufacturing costs as well as absence of foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM) mark-ups. Cost and an assured supply channel would free the armed forces to test its munitions more frequently and extend the duration of combat operations (e.g., Pakistan could replenish precision-guided bomb stocks during counterinsurgency campaigns).

Acquire Emerging Technologies

This is contingent on Pakistan domestically building or securing the necessary technology inputs, but from a theoretical standpoint, domestic manufacturing would be the best way to ensuring that Pakistan is able to induct current and emerging munition technologies in a timely manner.

In other words, relying on purely foreign OEMs could mean delays in acquiring new technology, which had been the case for the PAF when it originally sought beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM). But the emerging standard for BVRAAM technology envisages the use of ramjet engines, digital processing of much more data, and AESA-based seekers, among other advancements.

Besides AAMs, Pakistan could also benefit from developing medium-to-long-range SAMs (especially those that can be loaded onto naval frigates and corvettes), long-range ATGMs, laser-guided artillery and mortar shells, guided sub-munitions dispensers, and other solutions.

Not only would importing such munitions be prohibitively expensive, but practically impossible as far as engaging Western Europe and the US is concerned. The next route would be to wait for China, but if there are other countries open to collaborating on this technology, Pakistan could be well-served to engage said states (e.g., China, Turkey, South Africa, and Ukraine) to co-develop and co-produce this technology.

Generate Scale by Standardizing Across Platforms

One of the reasons why Pakistan did not pursue domestic manufacturing of conventional munitions was limited economies-of-scale. However, with munitions technology increasingly aligning between different applications (e.g., the HQ-16/LY-80 SAM is both land and sea-based), standardization across platforms is possible. In turn, standardization can enable Pakistan to generate scale, especially for core inputs.

Interestingly, South Africa’s Denel Dynamics is developing a family of BVRAAM and SAM built on the same rocket motor and electronics technology platform. While Pakistan has yet to show any interest in Denel’s projects, the South African vendor’s work shows that it is possible to develop SAMs and AAMs using the same research and development (R&D) and technology inputs (e.g., rocket motors).

Thus, not only could you scale by integrating the same model of SAM across multiple platforms, such as land-based air defence systems and naval frigates, but the same rocket technology could also find itself in hundreds, if not thousands, of SAM and AAMs.

Pakistan already has an opportunity to scale through its cruise missile program. Be it submarine-launched, ground-launched, ship-launched, or air-launched, these cruise missiles each rely on air-breathing turbojet or turbofan engines, flight control systems, and guidance electronics. Mastering the domestic production of a miniature turbofan or turbojet engine could be diffused across hundreds of cruise missiles for the PA, PN, and the PAF. It would not be surprising if developing and manufacturing cruise missile inputs become the first phase of Pakistan’s domestic munitions development work (if not already).

Pakistan is Evidently Seeking Partners

This will be discussed in part-two, but the agreements made during IDEAS 2018 make it clear that Pakistan is – as expected – seeking partners to help it develop conventional munitions. Turkey and Ukraine appear to be the main prospective partners, but others – such as South Korea, Poland, the Czech Republic, etc – should not be discounted. There are more to conventional munitions than simply long-range missiles or rockets, but short-range, small-impact weapons as well where less apparent partners could emerge.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Two-seat JF-17B progresses.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2017.



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