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Monthly Defense News Recap – July 2022

This week’s Quwa Premium article is a recap of some defence news items from around the world. Besides a basic overview of the news, this article also offers short-form analysis of each issue.

Pakistan to Receive 7 Ex-Belgian C-130Hs

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) will start receiving the first of seven former Belgische Luchtmacht/Belgian Air Force C-130H Hercules transport aircraft. The first aircraft (CH-12/4483), now refurbished and overhauled, recently flew at Melsbroek Air Base in Belgium. The PAF will be taking delivery of it shortly.

Two third-party contractors – SABENA Aerospace and Blue Aerospace – are facilitating the sale to Pakistan by taking on the refurbishing and overhauling work.

The Belgian Air Force had operated a total of 12 C-130s since 1972. Since 2020, Belgium has been phasing its C-130Hs out with the Airbus A400M (of which, it has seven aircraft on order).

The 7 ex-Belgian C-130Hs will join the PAF’s existing fleet of 14 C-130B/Es. In turn, observers expect the PAF to raise a third C-130 squadron. In addition to the aircraft, the PAF is also acquiring spare parts and engines, propellers, and ground support equipment (GSE) from Belgium.

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Assuming the PAF will continue operating its existing C-130B/Es alongside the C-130Hs, the PAF’s Hercules fleet will grow to 21 aircraft and, potentially, result in a third squadron.

This is an increase of 50% to the fleet, and a significant capability boost for the PAF as it gives it a relatively large medium-weight transport fleet. In fact, few air forces in the world operate more than 12-16 C-130s.

Granted, the PAF’s C-130B/E/H types are smaller than the current variant, C-130J-30, but the older aircraft are still durable, reliable, and capable.

In relation to this deal, there are three key points worth following:

First, one should not underestimate the value proposition of used American equipment, especially when the end-user can readily absorb it.

Pakistan already has the infrastructure to operate legacy C-130 variants. The overhead cost of additional units is marginal as the PAF already has the logistics, maintenance capacity, and trained personnel. Thus, the PAF is basically buying for only the cost of the aircraft in themselves, and the pricing can be quite low depending on the condition and overhaul requirements of the aircraft.

Moreover, the PAF can operationalize these aircraft relatively quickly. Yes, new-build aircraft deliver much value thanks to potentially better capabilities, lower operating costs, and other gains. However, new-built aircraft also take several years to build from the time of order and, potentially, several years to properly integrate into one’s fleet structure. While it would be ideal for the PAF to have a vision for a successor to ultimately replace the C-130, used Hercules aircraft still deliver value for the immediate term.

Second, the PAF will likely seek additional second-hand C-130s, especially as more countries opt for new-build C-130J-30s, A400Ms, and C-390s. Besides getting a relatively low-cost way to add to its C-130 fleet, the older Hercules aircraft can also become a source for spare parts and attrition replacements.

Third, there is no doubt that the PAF would also prefer buying other used American equipment, especially the F-16A/B Block-15 and, potentially, used F-16C/D Block-25/32s. Like the C-130B/E/H, the PAF already has the infrastructure to operate these two F-16 variants. The fact that the PAF has yet to get such aircraft clearly indicates that there is a supply-side block, such as a lack of approvals from the United States.

Pakistan Navy Orders 2 More OPVs from Damen Shipyards Group

On 16 July 2022, Damen Shipyards Group held the steel cutting ceremony for the first of two additional offshore patrol vessels (OPV) for the Pakistan Navy (PN).

Termed “OPV-II”, this is a follow-up to the two Yarmouk-class offshore patrol vessels already in service with the PN. These additional OPVs were likely an option in the original contracted signed in 2017.

Neither the PN or Damen Shipyards Group have given a timeline for the delivery of these ships. However, based on the previous program, the PN could receive the two OPVs in around 3 years, or by 2025. Like the preceding two OPVs, the OPV-IIs will be built in Romania.

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Based on Damen’s OPV 2600 design, the OPV II could have a displacement of 2,600 tons, making it larger than the 2,300-ton Yarmouk-class OPV.

It also seems that the PN is configuring the OPV II with a vertical launch system (VLS)-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. The make or model of the SAM is not known. However, the PN has several options, such as the MBDA CAMM-ER, Denel Umkhonto, and Roketsan Hisar-series.

Like the Yarmouk-class, the OPV-II will also be configured to carry anti-ship missiles (AShM). It might also have a modern sensor suite consisting of either a SMART-SMk2 radar or, possibly, an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for monitoring and tracking surface-based and aerial targets.

Damen does not list the OPV 2600 on its website, but the OPV 2600 is likely very similar to the OPV 2500. According to Damen, the OPV 2500 can carry up to five mission modules. Assuming the PN is using one of these modules for the AShMs and another for the VLS-based SAM, it still has three modules available. The PN could potentially use these modules for a variety of roles, including anti-submarine warfare (ASW) or mine countermeasures (MCM). The PN could also use the modules for humanitarian and disaster relief.

Overall, the OPV-II is a modular design that gives the PN flexibility in how to use these ships. For example, in peacetime, it might commit the OPV-IIs to mostly sea policing, counter-smuggling and trafficking, and managing asymmetrical threats. However, in a conventional wartime scenario, the OPV-IIs can provide a supplementary anti-ship, anti-submarine, and/or anti-air capability. In fact, the PN need to front-load the conventional warfare investments. It can acquire the OPVs with a focus on their peacetime role, but when the funds permit, the PN can acquire conventional warfare modules at a later time.

It will be worth seeing how many more of these OPVs join the PN. The previous Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Zafar Mahmoud Abbasi, seemed to have suggested the PN could order six more OPVs on top of the Yarmouk-class. However, his statement was unclear.

Adm. Abbasi said the PN wanted to build a fleet of 20 “major surface vessels.” When accounting for the 4 Type 054A/P frigates, 4 Babur-class corvettes, 4 F-22P frigates, and 2 Yarmouk-class OPVs, the PN would need six additional ships. In theory, six more OPVs would fit the bill. However, the PN also has the Jinnah-class frigate program, and rumours peg the PN getting six of those frigates.

Korea Aerospace Industries Test-Flies its KF-21 Boramae Fighter

On 19 July 2022, South Korea conducted the maiden test flight of its indigenous KF-21 Boramae multi-role fighter. The test flight reportedly happened at Sacheon, the location of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s (ROKAF) 3rd Flying Training Wing.

Work on the KF-21 (then known as the KFX) kicked off in 2011. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) completed the Critical Design Review (CDR) in 2019 and began producing the first prototype in 2020.

KAI rolled out the first KF-21 prototype in April 2021 and, in turn, the maiden test flight took place over a year later. KAI is aiming to push the KF-21 to production from 2026. The launch variant – i.e., Block-I, will be configured for primarily air-to-air. However, the Block-2, which KAI hopes to start manufacturing from 2028, will have air-to-surface capabilities.

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KAI recently secured an order for 48 F/A-50s from Poland and is hoping to win Malaysia’s light fighter bid. Basically, it seems that KAI is building serious momentum and could emerge as a major supplier of combat aircraft through the 2020s and beyond, especially once the KF-21 comes online.

The KF-21 could shape into a compelling fighter for the next-generation. Though the F-35 is now becoming more ubiquitous, there are still many markets that cannot access it. For example, Israeli security concerns dampened the ability of the Gulf Arab states, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to buy the F-35.

While this gap has been a boon for the likes of Dassault, the Eurofighter Consortium, and Boeing, the KF-21 could still slot in as that technically Western F-35 alternative. This would especially be true once KAI incorporates an internal weapons bay to the KF-21 (reportedly with the Block-3 variant).

However, even in its current state, the KF-21 could still carve a healthy share of the market for itself. For example, not every F-35 operator can afford a large number of those fighters. They might need a lighter weight complement to the Lightning II, especially for the air-to-air role (while they can have their own F-35s focus on the air-to-surface role). The KF-21 could be a viable complementary asset to the F-35.

Finally, the other interesting aspect of the KF-21 is that it is helping pave the way for a peculiar segment of the fighter market. Basically, alongside the Chinese J-35, the KF-21 represents the rise of the 25-28-ton, twin-engine, low-observable multi-role fighter option.

The J-35 could have a lead in the sense that it will likely have an internal weapons bay. But that aside, the KF-21 and J-35 could occupy similar segments of the market.

On the one end, you have the KF-21 drawing heavily on Western technology and, in turn, appealing to countries who traditionally bought from the U.S. and Europe. On the other hand, you have the J-35, which could appeal to those who have relied on either China or Russia for their fighter purchases.

Ironically, both fighters would come from the same region of the world but represent two opposing geo-political worlds.

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