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PAF Bholari: The Pakistan Air Force’s New Main Operating Base

On April 20, a retired Indian Army officer – Col. Vinayak Bhat – provided a detailed insight of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) new main operating base (MOB), PAF Bholari. Available on The Print, Bhat’s analysis of PAF Bholari surmises that the burgeoning MOB will ultimately house the PAF’s nuclear assets.[1]

Currently, the PAF’s deterrence assets center on the Dassault Mirage III/5-based Retrofit of Strike Element (ROSE) strike fighters configured to carry the Ra’ad I and II air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). However, while Bhat’s perspectives on deterrence are important, Bholari’s value is much more significant.

Rather, PAF Bholari is a strategic asset for enabling significant air support coverage for Pakistani land and naval forces, especially through the long-term when the PAF is expected to procure longer range combat aircraft through Project Azm and/or an interim multi-role fighter platform.

Reinforcing Interior Sindh

In peacetime, the PAF stations each of its assets in MOBs, such as PAF Bholari (Thatta), PAF Peshawar, PAF Masroor (Karachi), PAF Minhas (Kamra) and others. In parallel, the PAF also has forward operating bases (FOB) for temporary deployment – be it in wartime, crisis or exercises – of its combat assets.

In its inauguration of PAF Bholari, the previous Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the PAF – Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman – stated: “Indeed, PAF Base Bholari is…of strategic significance for capacity enhancement of Pakistan Air Force in operational domain both overland as well as at sea”.[2] Located northeast of Karachi, PAF Bholari is located 125-150 km away from the coastline and 200-250 km from the Thar Desert.

Note: These are approximate locations, not to scale with distance.

Bholari’s stated purpose is to increase Pakistan’s airpower presence in Sindh, enabling for air support for both maritime and land operations. However, in terms of maritime responsiveness, the No. 32 Tactical Wing (32 TW) based at PAF Masroor in Karachi is better positioned than PAF Bholari’s units. Likewise, PAF Nawabshah (a FOB) is closer to the Thar Desert than PAF Bholari.

Thus, PAF Bholari is not at the center of either maritime or land operations; rather, it is located well behind those operational theatres. In one respect, it could serve to feed other PAF MOBs and FOBs in wartime by deploying its combat units to the front. Strategically, PAF Bholari contributes to the overall distribution of PAF assets, thus ensuring that it has redundancy should other assets be lost at another MOB. It also seems that the PAF is leveraging Bholari’s distance from the desert and maritime theatres as a buffer.

Currently, PAF Bholari hosts the PAF’s No. 19 Squadron, an operational conversion unit (OCU) operating the F-16A/B Block-15 Air Defence Fighter (ADF). It is unclear if the No. 19 will be reinforced by the PAF’s other F-16 units, especially one of No. 9 or No. 11 at Mushaf which fly the Block-15 Mid-Life Update (MLU). It makes technical sense: First, it enables the PAF to scale the logistics it has in place for supporting its ADF units – the MLU has the same airframe. Second, the MLU and ADF are (relative to the PAF’s fleet) medium-weight fighters, thus possessing the inherent range and payload to readily operate from Bholari.

However, stationing No. 19 at Bholari does not necessarily mean that the PAF will station No. 9 or No. 11 there as well. Since the ADFs were not upgraded to the same standard as the PAF’s MLUs – which include several restricted technologies – the PAF has flexibility in where it can station those fighters. The US had required that it have security personnel in proximity to the Block-52+ and MLUs so as to prevent the risk of leaks to China (for at least one five-year period).[3] On the other hand, the potential entry of the S-400 long-range air defence system pressures PAF Mushaf; an interior MOB enables the PAF to deploy its F-16s without facing an invasive high-altitude air defence threat.

Nonetheless, one can identify two major implications with PAF Bholari. First – uncertain, but plausible – is the allocation of a F-16 MLU unit, i.e. placing a credible air-to-air capability through the AIM-120C5 and Link-16 tactical data-link (TDL) connectivity with the Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. Second, the range/proximity buffer between Bholari and the forward combat areas require the PAF to operate medium-to-heavyweight fighters from its new MOB.

The buffer does not preclude the PAF from stationing JF-17s at Bholari, but forward deployment of the JF-17 would require either temporary allocation to Nawabshah (FOB) and/or Masroor (MOB). For the JF-17 to operate from Bholari, it would have to utilize fuel-tanks and/or air-to-air refueling (AAR). This is not a stopper for operations over land as the PAF could recover spent JF-17s through FOBs and/or its makeshift airstrips. In fact, the use of multiple-ejector-racks could enable for a credible ordnance load for air-to-air and air-to-ground operations. The challenge is maritime operations where fuel-tanks will take-up entire hardpoints that could have been used to deploy anti-ship missiles (AShM).

Briefly returning to deterrence, the PAF could readily operate the Mirage ROSE from the base provided it deploys the Ra’ad-series of ALCM from within Pakistan (i.e. 150-250 km from the border). The Ra’ad and Ra’ad II provide 350 km and 550 km in range, respectively.[4] Like the JF-17, the Mirage ROSE can be flown closer to the border to deploy its ALCM load and, upon completion, be recovered by a FOB or airstrip.

Designed for Project Azm?

The location – along with the stated objectives of supporting the Navy and Army – suggests that Bholari is being built with Project Azm in mind, i.e. the PAF’s next-generation fighter program. Granted, the F-16s can fulfill the necessary range and payload requirements to operate from Bholari, but the current state of foreign relations with the US have currently shuttered opportunity for fleet modernization and expansion through the F-16 route. Thus, the PAF is left with Project Azm and – if Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan’s statements hold true – an interim bridge in the form of the Su-35.

The idea that Project Azm is (compared to the JF-17) a long-range and medium/heavyweight fighter stems from several factors. First, the PAF is fielding a series of heavyweight SOWs – such as the Ra’ad-series of ALCM, H-2/H-4 heavyweight glide-bombs and others – which are bottlenecked in their offensive potential due to the short-range and/or light payload restrictions of the PAF’s current fleet. Not only would a large fighter increase the ordinance load, but the added range could enable the PAF to fly deeper and/or create a less obvious flight path (within Pakistan) prior to delivering SOW ordinance loads.

However, a medium-to-heavyweight fighter can also serve as a valuable air support asset for operations on land. Project Azm could enable the PAF to engage aerial threats to the Army’s mechanized formations at long-range (through beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles), providing an umbrella under which the JF-17 and the Army’s attack helicopters can operate for anti-armour and anti-infantry operations.

In general, the space to house a high-powered radar is a necessity to contest airspace against the Indian Air Force’s Dassault Rafale and Sukhoi Su-30MKI. Likewise, a follow-on bid for another set of fighters – by both the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy – will add to this pressure.

Finally, it is an appropriate platform to deter enemy activities in Pakistan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ): by leveraging the platform’s inherent range and payload, the PAF can deploy credible air-to-air and long-range anti-ship capabilities. The alternative – i.e. JF-17 – requires augments in the form of fuel tanks and AAR to compensate for its inherent range deficiency; this eats into payload options.

By initiating Bholari, the PAF is actively preparing for Project Azm (and/or an interim). While Bholari is strategically valuable in the sense of distributing assets, the location’s utility for the stated goals of land and maritime support evidently necessitate a larger platform. The secondary impact is that Bholari could turn into an active threat for India: First, it is facilitating deep-strike operations by housing the relevant long-range attack platforms away from the border. Second, the buffer (of 200-300 km) provides the PAF time to react to an incoming enemy attack – it can deploy a mixed force of JF-17s and larger fighters.

Conclusion: Fruition in the Long-Term

Though the PAF inaugurated Bholari in December 2017, the air base is far from reaching its potential. With a lone – and relatively obsolete (compared to the Block-52+/MLU) – F-16 unit in place, PAF Bholari is in its formative stages of development. However, its design (from the perspective of its location and how the PAF intends to use it) showcases a change in the PAF’s strategic and tactical approaches to the long-term.

Project Azm’s impact will not be confined to Bholari. By enabling PAF units to fly farther and longer while also equipping them to engage at longer ranges, the PAF could leverage Project Azm to raise new MOBs in the central or western regions of Pakistan (i.e. creating buffers ahead of the border).

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[1] Vinayak Bhat. “Pakistan’s newest airbase in Sindh province suspected of storing nuclear weapons”. The Print. 20 April 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 21 April 2018).

[2] “Air chief says Bholari base to safeguard CPEC project”. Pakistan Today. 25 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 21 April 2018).

[3] Saba Imtiaz. “WikiLeaks on Shahbaz airbase: F-16s flew in, with guaranteed US presence at base”. The Express Tribune. 11 September 2011. URL: (Last Accessed: 21 April 2018).

[4] “Pakistan Officially Unveils Extended Range Ra’ad 2 Air Launched Cruise Missile”. Quwa Premium. 23 March 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 21 April 2018).

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