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IDEAS 2018: Pakistan Air Force Updates

During the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) opted to showcase that it was ‘staying the course’ with a predefined, long-term modernization roadmap.

The core of this roadmap was set by Air Headquarters (AHQ) more than a decade ago, i.e., complete the procurement of 150 JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter aircraft, enable and enhance interoperability among each of the PAF’s combat and surveillance assets, and address the margins where possible.

It is in the ‘margins’ where activity is, perhaps, the most dynamic. For the PAF, the ‘margins’ are programs that are important, but not essential to maintaining a deterrence posture vis-à-vis India. Major examples of this are the PAF’s search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopters and lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT) needs.

In terms of SAR, the PAF announced (via an event daily) that it concluded the procurement of 14 AW139 SAR helicopters. The Leonardo AW139 has replaced the PAF’s legacy Alouette IIIs in the SAR role.

The PAF also announced that it was evaluating lead-in fighter-trainer (LIFT) platforms, namely the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) L-15 and Leonardo M-346. The PAF is reportedly serious about a new LIFT, and if procured, it could supplant the FT-7P/PG in the ‘Shooter Squadron’ unit.

Speaking to Asian Military Review, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan stated that the PAF is still constrained by its limited resources.While the CAS made the statement in the context of thoroughly evaluating LIFT options and, in turn, implying that a PAF order speaks to the quality and cost-effectiveness of a platform (which vendors can convey to other markets).

However, the resource comment also suggests that if more pressing priorities emerge, the luxury of a LIFT will not be pursued (at least as a direct, off-the-shelf import). Besides LIFT, one can argue that new air-to-air refueling (AAR) tankers, next-generation medium-lift transport aircraft, and dedicated special mission aircraft for electronic warfare (EW) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) could compete here as well.

Seeing how the PAF was once against a LIFT platform, a change in priorities, budgeting, or options (e.g.,if a dual-boom and hose-and-drogue AAR tanker became available) could see the LIFT program shelved.

In terms of the ‘core’, the PAF is focused on the JF-17. To its credit, the availability of three credible active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar options justifies this focus.The baseline model – the LKF601E– will double the JF-17’s air-to-air targeting range against 5m2 RCS (radar cross-section) targets to 170 km, and it can be applied to the PAF’s existing Block-II and, potentially, Block-I aircraft.

If taken in context of the fact that the PAF could not only get 50 Block-IIIs, but expand its Block-III fleet via retrofitting older aircraft and additional procurement (which would be the PAF’s most affordable path for new fighter aircraft), this is a significant capability gain for air-to-air and air-to-surface applications.

Quwa asked Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) if, in tandem with a new AESA radar, the PAF will also equip the JF-17 with longer ranged beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM). Although PAC would not offer specifics (e.g., what type of BVRAAM or its origin),it did confirm that such a plan is in motion.

From a defensive-standpoint, the JF-17 has met the PAF’s needs. Beyond this, any other fighter will either need to be a significant improvement over the JF-17, or fill an essential requirement the JF-17 or existing assets are failing to address (such as its range and payload limiting its deep-strike potential).

In terms of the former, there is Project Azm, i.e., the PAF’s 5th-generation fighter (FGF) program. The PAF did not provide many details regarding it, though the CAS was adamant about it being fully indigenous, stating: “It is indigenous at this time – we will be self-reliant and not dependent upon western or eastern partners.” However,given the fact that Pakistan lacks industrial inputs across almost every necessary area of an FGF, the PAF will likely need an overseas partner (or several) to bring Project Azm to fruition, at least in the allotted timeframe (e.g.,a flying prototype within 10 years).

However, in terms of an off-the-shelf purchase (which had been explored in 2016-2017 and, slated in the original plan for 2015), the PAF does not appear enthusiastic. To be clear, the block on such a purchase – which could supplant the Mirage ROSE in the deep-strike role – is funding more so than the PAF itself. 

On the other hand, the stated ambition of Project Azm would, especially if an original design (even with foreign partners) is pursued, require a long-term development period. This could exceed that the period in which the PAF can feasibly continue flying the Mirages. One issue to watch would be for a potential interim fighter.

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