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J-10CE and JF-17 – Pakistan’s Emerging High-Low Mix

Through this decade, the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 will form the new mainstay of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) combat aircraft fleet. However, one can readily guess that the J-10CE and JF-17 will make up a “high-low mix” – i.e., a combination of a larger, “high-end” fighter complemented by a smaller, “low-end” fighters in greater numbers. In fact, with every generation, the PAF had always built a high-low mix, at least since the start of its own jet age when it inducted both the F-86 and F-104.

However, this generation’s high-low mix could be fundamentally different due to one factor between the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3: a common technology platform.

Historically, the PAF’s high-low mix combinations – be it the F-104 and F-86, or the Mirage III/5 and the F-6, and the F-16 and F-7P/PG – had generational gaps. Basically, the “high-end” fighter was usually a full generation ahead in terms of technology than its “low-end” counterpart.

As a result, with each generation of PAF fighter fleets, the PAF had a situation where it would lean on a small number of advanced jets for its most qualitatively impactful roles.

For example, in the 1980s, it was the Mirage 5PA3 that carried the PAF’s anti-ship warfare (AShW) role through its capability to deploy the Exocet anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM). The F-6s, which had formed the bulk of the PAF fleet by this point, did not have this capability. The newly inducted F-16s could possibly complement the Mirage 5PA3s in the AShW role, though the PAF did not secure an ASCM for the platform.

In general, the PAF had managed an inverted ‘80/20’ situation where 20% of its platforms could carry out 80% of all required combat roles. While the high-end fighters were highly capable assets, they were always too few in numbers to create an aggregate strategic effect. Practically, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Navy (IN) did not have to deal with the threat of several hundred fighters employing the latest technology or air combat capabilities. The technology threat was usually confined to several dozen aircraft, and that in itself was an advantage. Eventually, the IAF and IN could bank on the chance that the PAF depletes most of its spare parts and, as a result, deployers even fewer “high-end” fighters.

Today, the PAF is championing the J-10CE as its new marque, high-end fighter. In fact, the PAF even terms the J-10CE as an “omni-role” asset. Thus, at one level, the J-10CE will still be a scarce asset within the PAF. In fact, while the PAF would never induct a new fighter platform without a roadmap to procure more than 90 units, Pakistan’s tenuous economic condition could dampen that vision and result in fewer aircraft. But even if the J-10CE ends up being a scarce asset within the PAF, its qualitative edge will live on across many other – potentially most – fighters in the PAF fleet.

This is because the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 share key subsystems and weapon systems, especially new long-range air-to-air missiles (LRAAM) – like the PL-15E – and stand-off range weapons (SOW).

In terms of technologies, both fighters are introducing active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars to the PAF’s fleet. AESA radars deliver substantially improved defensibility against electronic jamming and more versatility. Granted, the specific AESA radar models across the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 are different, but the point is that the actual technology is coming through both the high-end and low-end fighter. The J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 also share the same helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system as well as high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBS AAM).

Thus, regardless of whether the adversary deals with the J-10CE or the JF-17 Block-3, it will engage highly capable threats, at least from a core technology standpoint. Moreover, if the PAF can further diffuse and spread the technology stack across its older JF-17 variants, like the Block-2 (its most numerous version), it can realize a vision of having its most cutting-edge technology across most fighters in the fleet. In fact, in some respects, this vision may already be in effect. For example, the JF-17 Block-1, i.e., the first variant of the Thunder inducted by the PAF, is capable of deploying ASCMs in the AShW role.

This evolution in the high-low mix will change (if it has not already) how the PAF deploys its assets. Today, the PAF is not concerned about managing scarcity. It is not focused on preserving some high-end asset or make difficult trade-offs between preserving assets and engaging in operations. Rather, it now possesses more of the necessary assets it needs to deliver cutting-edge capability to more operations and areas.

One of the interesting aspects of Swift Retort, the PAF’s operation against India in 2019, was that it was a real-world application of interoperability. The PAF used electronic assets – like airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and electronic attack (EA) aircraft – and different fighters (i.e., F-16s, Mirages, and JF-17s) in one operation. Thus, the PAF could be looking to use both the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 together in operations, and the common technology platform tightens the interoperability connection.

Quwa expects that the PAF’s vision is to build its J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 (plus upgraded Block-2) aircraft to a large enough force for repeatable offensive operations. In other words, engaging in Swift Retort-type operations at greater frequency and across more areas of interest is the goal. The J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 will likely form the workhorse of this offensively-oriented force.

If the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 cause an expansion in the PAF’s ‘offensive package’, then the PAF will also look to invest in additional supporting assets. In Swift Retort, the PAF also deployed AEW&C and EA assets, for example. However, Quwa is not aware of programs for additional dedicated assets, like the Falcon DA 20-based EA aircraft, in the pipeline. On the other hand, a supplementary capability may be materializing in other ways, like drones.

By ordering the Bayraktar TB2 and Bayraktar Akıncı from Turkey, the PAF is investing in a diverse array of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The Bayraktar Akıncı is particularly interesting. It is a large UAS that could carry a payload comprising of munitions and/or electronics at up to 1,500 kg. Basically, a large UAS capable of carrying precision-guided bombs (PGB), ASCMs, and other weapon systems is a new and unique factor for the PAF. It previously never operated a UAS of this nature.

Granted, the Akıncı may not factor in the offensive role directly. However, by potentially serving as a high-endurance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) asset, it could support the PAF’s offensive operations indirectly. Likewise, the Akıncı is large enough to carry electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems and electronic warfare (EW) and EA pods. For the PAF, it could make more sense to assign this role to UAS as they could be more affordable to acquire than larger manned assets, like the Falcon DA-20. Likewise, a loss of a UAS does not result in a loss of personnel.

Unlike the past, the PAF should not have a supply-side obstacle with its fighter procurement plans. China is willing to supply the equipment it has sanctioned for export. However, for the PAF, the main concern at this point is whether it can secure enough funds to fuel the delivery of its vision.

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