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IDEAS 2018: Pakistan Air Force is Seeking a Lead-in Fighter Trainer

In one of the surprise news items during the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) revealed plans for a new lead-in fighter-trainer (LIFT).

Since 2015, the PAF leadership had continually maintained that it did not require a LIFT, often stating that such platforms are too expensive to operate or too sophisticated for the intended role. However in 2018, the current PAF leadership reportedlystated that a new LIFT was on its procurement roadmap.

At IDEAS 2018, the Italian defence giant Leonardo displayed a mock-up of its M-346 Master LIFT aircraft,while the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) displayed a mock-up of its L-15. One of the PAF’s key requirements is that the LIFT include an afterburning engine.

This was a recent decision. In the Ministry of Defence Production’s (MoDP) annual yearbook for 2016 to 2017,the PAF did not list a LIFT as part of its procurement plans in 2017-2018.

It is not entirely clear why the PAF is seeking a new platform for LIFT. In theory, it could use the currently in-development JF-17B – i.e., a twin-seat fighter-trainer with an afterburning engine – for the role. But as per British aviation journalist Alan Warnes, the PAF does not intend to use the JF-17B for LIFT.

Thus, a different platform is reportedly a must.

Quwa had inquired about the apparent LIFT requirement with numerous PAF officials. The basic rationale provided to Quwa was that the K-8 was “sufficient” for the fighter-conversion unit (FCU) course. However, the PAF is “exploring” a dedicated trainer with an afterburning engine because there are certain attributes – such as increased payload, flight characteristics, etc – that such platforms provide.

One PAF official had emphasized that at this time, the PAF was using the FT-7/FT-7PG as an intermediary step between the K-8 FCU course and JF-17/F-16 operational conversion units (OCU).In other words, it is not as if pilots were moving from FCU straight to JF-17/F-16OCU; the new LIFT could replace the FT-7/PG.

Leonardo was unable to comment (non-disclosure clause with the PAF), though its display at IDEAS only displayed systems that would be of interest to Pakistan – i.e., M-346, AW101, AW159, Kronos land-based and ship-based radars, and the Grifo-E active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar.

When Quwa asked AVIC about the L-15, an AVIC representative said that it was “trying” to position the L-15 to the PAF, though it would be “too early” to comment further. Likewise, representatives of the Czech industry would not comment on whether the Aero Vodochody L-159 is also in the running.

From a cost standpoint, it is difficult to see how a dedicated LIFT – other than the JF-17B – could fit. But it is clear that the intent is to eventually re-equip the “Shooter Squadron” at PAF M.M. Alam with the new LIFT. ‘Shooter Squadron’ was formed in December 2017 as a LIFT unit that would give future“air warriors enough confidence to ultimately undergo their conversions on … F-16 and JF-17.”

Interestingly, of the LIFT platforms on the market, not many have an afterburning turbofan engine. AVIC is reportedly developing a subvariant of the L-15 with afterburning AI-222-25 turbofan engines from the Motor Sich company in Ukraine. However, neither the M-346 or L-159 use afterburning engines; instead, both platforms use the non-afterburning Honeywell F124. But it may not be difficult for either to switch to the afterburning-capable F125, though the move would add to the cost of their respective platforms.

In terms of already afterburning engine-equipped LIFT platforms, the PAF could look at the T-50 by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). However, the KAI T-50 is – specifications-wise – close to the JF-17B, so it does not make sense from a feasibility standpoint (it would be redundant).

There is also the Boeing-Saab T-X, which won the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) bid for 350+ aircraft in 2018. It is a US platform, but of the LIFT options available, it is poised to benefit from the highest economies-of-scale (the USAF order alone eclipses the total orders of other LIFT aircraft). Thus, it is likely to be the most cost-effective from a procurement standpoint. Moreover, the T-X is a trainer-only aircraft, not a trainer with multi-role capabilities like the T-50, M-346 or L-15 — it would not be redundant.

Finally, there is also the Turkish Aerospace Hürjet. The Hürjet is slated to be similar in role and capability to the KAI T-50 – i.e., a dual-trainer and light combat aircraft. Turkish Aerospace has yet to announce the turbofan platform for the Hürjet. To the PAF, this would be a long-term – potentially co-development – option. The Hürjet is slated to make its maiden test-flight in 2022.

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