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J-10CE: The Story of Pakistan’s Newest Fighter Acquisition

On 11 March 2022, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) received its first tranche of six J-10CE “Dragon” multi-role fighter aircraft from China. The new aircraft joined the PAF’s No. 15 Squadron, “Cobras.” The induction of the J-10CE marked the end of the PAF’s six-year-long effort to seek a new fighter aircraft.

The PAF intended to acquire a new off-the-shelf fighter since around 2016. Originally, the PAF had sought to enlarge its F-16C/D fleet. In 2015, it secured approvals to order eight F-16C/D Block-52 with apparent plans to follow it up with another order of 10 aircraft.

It seemed that the PAF was working towards building its F-16C/D fleet to the originally planned force of 36 aircraft. Interestingly, before the 2005 earthquake, the PAF had reportedly planned to procure upwards of 55 F-16C/Ds with an option for another 20. While significant, the latter made sense as the PAF usually inducts a new fighter platform with a purchase roadmap for at least 90 units through the long-term.

However, the PAF’s F-16 plans fell through when the U.S. decided to prohibit the PAF from using Foreign Military Funds (FMF) to co-finance the acquisition. This triggered a series of rows between Islamabad and Washington that eventually led to the U.S. withholding future FMF and Coalition Support Funds (CSF) from Pakistan. As a result, the Pakistani military as whole lost interest in purchasing U.S.-origin weapons.

Thus, in 2016, the PAF decided to move ahead with an alternative fighter platform. Reports had emerged of the PAF showing interest in the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) J-10CE as well as Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation’s (UAC) Su-35.[1] In 2017, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) at the time, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman indirectly confirmed this interest, stating, “Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.”[2]

ACM Aman’s statements showed that the PAF was – at least by 2017 – not evaluating any Western aircraft for procurement. Moreover, though the PAF seemingly had Russian options, the realistic outcome was for the PAF to procure a Chinese fighter. Thus, at this point, the J-10CE was an eventuality as it was – and still is – the only full-fledged Chinese fighter for sale (aside from the JF-17).

In 2020, the next PAF CAS, ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan, again reiterated that the PAF was open to procuring an off-the-shelf fighter. However, ACM Khan conditioned the purchase of another fighter on the need to induct a net-new air warfare capability. In an interview, ACM Khan said, “we have to be aware of modern technologies, and if the acquisition of a new fighter fits into our doctrine, then we will try to acquire it. The balance has to be maintained.”[3] By this point, a new off-the-shelf fighter was firmly on the roadmap.

Ultimately, in June 2021, the PAF signed a contract with China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) to purchase the J-10CE. The contract included both the aircraft plus training, ground support equipment (GSE), and weapon systems (notably the PL-15 or PL-15E).

Interestingly, the PAF received its first batch of J-10CEs in less than a year of signing the contract. This is a very rapid turnaround time, which may suggest that it was an urgent acquisition. On the other hand, since the PAF had wanted a new fighter (aside from the JF-17) since 2015, this contract signing may have been behind schedule. In other words, the accelerated induction timeframe may have been an effort to plug a gap caused by not being able to sign this contract earlier.

In the induction ceremony, the PAF confirmed that the J-10CE is equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. This was a key requirement and, in turn, confirms that the PAF will only induct AESA radar-equipped fighters moving forward (i.e., J-10CE and JF-17 Block-III). The PAF did not confirm if its J-10CEs came equipped with the PL-15 model used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), or the export variant, PL-15E. The latter offers a range of 145 km.

It is unclear how many J-10CEs the PAF currently has on order. Some reports pegged the number at around 20-25. However, from a long-term planning standpoint, the PAF never inducts a new fighter type without committing to at least 75 to 90 units. For example, the PAF acquired 96 Mirage III/5s from the late 1960s and through the 1970s and early 1980s. Likewise, the PAF had planned to induct at least 110 F-16A/Bs via the Peace Gate programs. Similarly, the F-7P/PG and F-6 programs both exceeded 120 aircraft. Finally, the PAF currently has between 168-188 JF-17s on its procurement roadmap.

Thus, it is likely that the PAF will procure a total of at least 90 J-10CEs through the 2020s and, potentially, in the early 2030s. Interestingly, the current CAS, ACM Zaheer Ahmad Babar, said that the J-10CE can carry stand-off-range weapons (SOW), which implies that the fighter will eventually undertake air-to-ground or air-to-sea roles in the coming years. To support this capability, the PAF would likely need a larger number of J-10CEs, especially when it sought the fighter to form-up its long-range air-to-air coverages.

Furthermore, the PAF understands that its pursuit of a next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) would likely hit obstacles. While it humoured the idea of producing an original design, the PAF was certainly going to rely on foreign suppliers for critical inputs, like engines. Even a collaborative route (e.g., TFX/MMU) would not be risk-free and, potentially, could run into standard fighter development issues like delays and cost-overruns. While the PAF absolutely wants an NGFA (especially a large twin-engine design), it understands that it would also need immediate alternatives to hedge against the risks.

Hence, the J-10CE evidently fits the bill for being the best “safety” option. For example, should the NGFA run into delays and/or cost-overruns, the PAF can hedge by acquiring additional J-10CEs. Doing so would give it a reasonably capable option of replacing its oldest F-16s should something like the TFX/MMU or J-35 not materialize in time (i.e., around the early 2030s). It is worth noting that the J-10 variant available in the late 2020s or early 2030s would also be much more capable than the current version. In China’ case, at least, some of its NGFA advances could make their way to a future J-10 variant. This future variant can be a contemporary of India’s forthcoming 4+/5-minus programs, like the TEDBF/ORCA.

Overall, it would not be surprising if the J-10CE (or future J-10 variants) factor into the PAF’s procurement plans for several decades. One can see that modern fighter aircraft can have significant longevity provided they can support emerging technologies. As long as the J-10 can support that new technology, the PAF is likely to keep procuring it, no matter far into the future. Thus, the J-10CE may very well be the actual start of the PAF’s journey into becoming a next-generation force.

[1] Farhan Bokhari. “Defending the Borders.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 02 November 2016.

[2] Amir Zia. Interview of Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman. Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017. URL:

[3] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 35

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