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Pakistan Air Force CAS Outlines Next Procurement Steps

In an interview with IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, laid-out the PAF’s upcoming procurement plans.[1] These center on the procurement of additional JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighters alongside a new lead-in-fighter trainer (LIFT) as well as defining the PAF’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) program.[2]

First, the PAF is in the process of concluding the JF-17 Block-II program, with the last three aircraft (out of an order of 62) slated for June 2019. Second, for the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III, the PAF will choose one of two active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars: the KLJ-7A by the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) or the LKF601E by Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (LETRI).

The PAF is aiming to induct the AESA radar-equipped JF-17 by March 2020.

Originally, the PAF opted to procure 150 JF-17s split across three equally sized tranches (i.e., Block-I, Block-II, and Block-III). However, to keep Pakistan Aeronautical Complex’s (PAC) production line warm, the PAF added 12 Block-IIs to its order. Now as per the CAS’ most recent statements, the PAF will also add 26 twin-seat JF-17Bs to its fleet[3], thus bringing the JF-17 roadmap to 188 fighters.

Having first flown in April 2017, the JF-17B was not only intended as the twin-seat training variant of the JF-17, but it was also the basis of the JF-17 Block-III. It introduced a new three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system (replacing the hybrid FBW of prior variants) and purportedly longer wingspan.

However, the primary goal of the JF-17B was to meet the needs of certain overseas users, while the PAF was satisfied with using simulators. It now appears that the PAF has pivoted to backing the JF-17B as well. It is likely that the PAF will configure these aircraft along identical lines to the JF-17 Block-III. Thus, the PAF will induct 76 new AESA radar-equipped JF-17s, and it may add more in lieu of an interim off-the-shelf jet.

It is unclear why the PAF is procuring the JF-17B. The CAS stated that the objective was to train new pilots “without first putting them through the F-16, Mirage or F-7P/PG as they are now.”[4] On first glance, one might take it as a sign that the PAF will use the JF-17B for LIFT or as a Fighter Conversion Unit (FCU). However, in the same interview, the CAS listed the LIFT as a separate requirement.[5]

Instead, it appears that the JF-17B will serve as an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), i.e., to convert new or rookie pilots to the JF-17. In other words, the PAF is now looking to make the JF-17 the first aircraft for all of its future upcoming pilots. This – alongside a new LIFT — may be a sign of the PAF retiring its F-7P/PG fighters, which serve in the FCU/LIFT role and as the primary go-to fighters for the PAF’s rookie pilots.

Potentially, the PAF could also use the JF-17B in the strike role. The tandem-seat configuration lets the JF-17B deploy the electro-optical (EO)-guided H-2 and H-4-series of stand-off weapons (SOW). Basically, one of the JF-17B’s air crew could manually guide the SOW to its target. Likewise for laser-guided bombs and missiles with the support of an advanced targeting pod, such as the Aselsan ASELPOD. By assigning more conventional SOW capabilities to the JF-17, the PAF can preserve the Mirage III/5 for strategic operations.

However, with the CAS also neglecting to mention off-the-shelf fighters, it seems that the PAF will depend on advanced model JF-17s to drive its fighter requirements. In this respect, it must focus on equipping the JF-17 with more capable air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions. It must also, as noted in an earlier Quwa Premium article, consider procuring additional special mission aircraft to complement the JF-17s.

A New Lead-in-Fighter-Trainer (LIFT) is a Priority

Though the PAF will procure 26 twin-seat JF-17Bs, the CAS outlined that the PAF requires a new LIFT. But he did note that the aircraft “doesn’t have to be supersonic, but will need to have an air interdiction radar and a datalink training system.”[6] The PAF evaluated the Korea Aerospace Industries T-50, Leonardo M-346, and Hongdu L-15. It is unclear which of these is the frontrunner.

Disclosed at the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), the LIFT requirement was a departure from the PAF’s previous stance of not needing such an aircraft. In fact, many had thought that the JF-17B would fulfil this role, but it appears that the PAF is procuring both platforms, and for different requirements (i.e., OCU for the JF-17B and FCU for the LIFT).

In an earlier Quwa Premium article, we argued that in addition to FCU roles, the PAF could also use a LIFT as a Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) platform. Using a Western AESA radar (e.g., Leonardo Grifo-E) and electronic warfare (EW) suite, the LIFT can simulate a modern Western fighter.

The Leonardo M-346 has a flyaway price of $25 million per aircraft, but with spare parts and logistics, the unit cost could rise to $30-32 million per aircraft. On the other hand, the Philippines ordered 12 FA-50PHs in 2014 for $415 million US, i.e., $35 million per aircraft. Thus, a squadron-plus order of 16~24 aircraft will cost $480 million to $840 million, which, while sizable, could be split into manageable installments over a decade. However, signing for a LIFT would likely preclude an off-the-shelf-fighter.

The PAF is Looking Forward to a FGFA

The expansion of the JF-17 program and interest in a LIFT could indicate that the PAF is no longer pursuing an off-the-shelf fighter. Between 2015 and 2017, the PAF had pursued a medium-to-heavyweight fighter to serve as a bridge between the present and its FGFA requirements. However, that appears to have been shelved. Instead, the PAF leadership is looking towards the future with plans for manufacturing a FGFA in Pakistan so as to “maintain a strategic balance in the region.”[7]

Interestingly, the CAS outlined that the PAF is seeking a “twin-engine single-seater, boasting the likes of super cruise and laser weapons.”[8] Thus, it appears that the requirement is for a complete solution for the future, something with every capability from superior range and payload to emerging technologies, such as Directed Energy Weapons (DEW). The PAF is viewing the FGFA as its future for the long-term.

The CAS also stated the PAF is open to collaborating with other countries on the FGFA’s development, but the fighter would “have to be ITAR free” so as to avoid supply issues with the US.[9] This aligns with the PAC Chairman, Air Marshal Ahmer Shahzad, statingTurkey’s T-FX is in line with what the PAF want” in May during the 2019 International Defence Industry Fair (IDEF) in Istanbul, Turkey. However, this configuration would also make a Shenyang FC-31-based fighter a plausible option as well.

However, it is unclear if the PAF is still seeking turnkey manufacturing capabilities. At IDEAS 2018, the PAF CAS claimed that the FGFA program “is indigenous at this time” and that the PAF “will be self-reliant and not dependent upon Western or Eastern partners” (Asian Military Review). Given the cost of a twin-engine fighter with supercruising and DEW, the PAF may need a partner to share the R&D overhead.

The interesting aspect to this recent news is that it is increasingly diverting from the apparent projection of the previous PAF leadership. ACM Khan’s predecessor, ACM Sohail Aman, reportedly stated that PAC had completed the design of Project Azm in two years. In December 2017, ACM Aman said it would take – with Chinese help — “five years to initiate the production of fifth-generation aircraft.”

There is clearly a gap between the messaging of the current and previous leadership. This could mean one of two scenarios: First, the PAF is still conceptualizing its FGFA requirements, which would push the FGFA’s timelines into later years (e.g., into the 2030s). Second, there are two programs in play, e.g., a near-term fighter in lieu of an off-the-shelf import and a long-term an ambitious clean-sheet design.

The second scenario would mirror India’s approach with the Tejas Mk2 – an enlarged variant of the Tejas – preceding its Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft FGFA program. The PAF could, in theory, re-open the design of the JF-17 and produce an enlarged and more capable variant in the 2020s.

This would align with the aggressive timelines of the previous CAS, and bridge the gap left by the lack of new F-16s or another off-the-shelf fighter. The alternative would be the PAF walking back on not just its previous timelines, but based on what ACM Aman stated in the public, shelving work involving China (slated to begin in five years, and then replacing it with a far more complex and expensive alternative idea.

[1] Alan Warnes. Interview. Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, Chief of the Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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