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Pakistan Air Warfare Goals by 2030 (Part 3)

Though fiscal constraints made it more difficult for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to add new combat aircraft and support systems to its fleet, equipment is but only one part to a successful large-scale air operation, such as Swift Retort. The other component is the availability of trained aircrew, effective planning, and a flawless execution. To sustain more frequent – and simultaneous – large-scale air operations, the PAF will need to raise its personnel quality, planning and execution experience fleet-wide.

Ultimately, such changes boil down to training and experience. These attributes are not as tangible to the eye as a new combat aircraft, but they are essential to maintaining an acceptable margin of success – and in mitigating loss and failure – of such operations. In contrast to the procurement of new equipment, the PAF has had success in acclimating its personnel to the changes of air warfare through training and multi-national and fleet-wide exercises, such as Anatolian Eagle and High Mark, respectively.

The PAF is taking steps to acclimate its personnel across three key areas: its growing fleet of modern multi-role combat aircraft, network-enabled warfare, and complex, large-scale air operations.

Preparing New Pilots for Multirole Platforms

The cockpit environment of the PAF’s mainstay fighters have changed, glass cockpits with multi-function displays (MFD) are common within the fleet. In time, such fighters will form the majority of the PAF fleet, thus requiring new pilots to have familiarity with those environments before converting to those aircraft.

The PAF was moving towards upgrading its K-8 Karakoram trainers with glass cockpits since at least 2010. Designated K-8P, it seems Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) was carrying out the integration work of existing PAF K-8s as recently as 2017-2018.[1] However, the K-8 is an intermediary-to-advanced step in the PAF’s training curriculum, so the PAF opted to advance its training at earlier levels as well.

The starting point for basic flight training is the Super Mushshak. The latest Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) yearbook lists a “glass cockpit modification” project for 20 aircraft split between the PAF and the Pakistan Army.[2] The MoDP says PAC carried out the cockpit modification work using Dynon’s SkyView avionics system. However, in March 2020, Genesys Aerosystems announced that a Super Mushshak flew with its glass cockpit environment.[3] It is unclear if PAC is offering the Genesys package for overseas Super Mushshak users, or if the PAF is revising its upgrade plans away from the Dynon SkyView (or use both).

In any case, the work to upgrading the Super Mushshak is evidently underway, and like the K-8P, the PAF will take a gradual, phased approach to the change. The next step is dealing with the legacy T-37 Tweet.

There are no indications as of yet of the PAF moving to replace these aircraft, but the latest MoDP material do not list notable upgrade or service life-extension plans (SLEP) either. Thus, besides continuing to utilize the aircraft, it is unclear exactly what the PAF intends to do with them in the long-term.

The challenge with the T-37 is that it forms a large portion of the PAF’s training fleet, so procuring a new replacement would be a high-cost endeavour. The K-8P could be a candidate, especially as the PAF already absorbed the fixed maintenance and logistical support costs of the aircraft. However, the PAF has not yet indicated its plans for the T-37 at this time, so it will likely remain a fixture for the foreseeable future.

At the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) had told Quwa that the PAF was interested in the armed variant of the Hürkuş, i.e., the Hürkuş-C. TAI did not specify whether the supposed interest in the Hürkuş-C was for operational purposes, or in regards to using the Hürkuş platform as a trainer. However, either way, TAI is marketing the platform to the PAF.

Interestingly, it should be noted that PAC did raise a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engine, which both powers a number of aircraft in use by Pakistan (e.g., the King Air 350ER, Cessna Grand Caravan EX, etc) and the Hürkuş. So, in a way, Pakistan can support one of the Hürkuş’ (and, for that matter, most other trainers of its class) engine already.

At IDEAS 2018, the PAF also stated that it was interested in acquiring a new lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT), likely to take over from the FT-7P/FT-7PG in the step between the K-8P’s fighter conversion unit (FCU) and the JF-17B’s operational conversion unit (OCU).  This was confirmed directly by the PAF’s current Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan.[4] The CAS said that the LIFT “doesn’t have to be supersonic, but will need to have an air interdiction radar and a datalink training system.”[5]

The intent is clear. The PAF wants a platform that will introduce new fighter pilots to the concepts it had employed during Swift Retort as early as possible, i.e., before they convert to a fighter. The PAF said that it evaluated the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) L-15, Leonardo M-346, and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 thus far, but would not comment if there was a frontrunner.

Based on what other PAF officials told Quwa at IDEAS 2018, the likeliest candidate to win such a contract – assuming it comes to fruition – is AVIC with the L-15. One K-8 instructor pilot told Quwa that one of the preferred features of the LIFT is that it have an afterburning engine. Of the aircraft the PAF saw thus far, only the KAI T-50 and the AVIC L-15B would fit that bill. However, the latter does not use US components, while it also leverages the economies-of-scale AVIC built by supplying the aircraft to China.

So, in terms of cost and accessibility, the L-15B is likelier. Moreover, by using a Chinese radar and other subsystems, it could immediately leverage the PAF’s stock of SD-10 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM), making it both a combat asset and a capable training and aggressor platform.

Acclimating Pilots for Network-Enabled Warfare

The data-link requirement of the possible LIFT program highlights that the PAF wants to start training its pilots on network-enabled warfare concepts at an earlier stage. Besides the fact that data-link connectivity will be a key feature across all mainstay PAF combat aircraft, Swift Retort-like operations will only happen in increasingly contested environments, especially across the border.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is certain to deploy a greater measure of electronic countermeasures (ECM) – e.g., radar spoofing/jamming equipment – in a future confrontation. One of the goals of ECM would be to deprecate the PAF’s BVR capability by jamming the F-16 and JF-17’s radars.

To mitigate its effects, PAF aircrew would have to learn how to operate with their radars switched-off and, in turn, rely on an off-board radar feed, such as from an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) or a fighter with a radar with sufficient electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM).

The latter could come in theory using an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, such as the KLJ-7A the PAF selected for use from the JF-17 Block-III. However, it is not a surety without real-world data to prove it, but in general, AESA radars should have better ECCM qualities (due to the fact that they leverage hundreds of emission arrays, potentially one with its own unique signal, making jamming more difficult as the ECM may not be able to track, record and spoof every signal).

Building Experience for Swift Retort-Like Operations

To equip each unit/region to sustain Swift Retort-like operations, the PAF will need to train its aircrew for each of the following areas: beyond-visual-range (BVR) warfare, stand-off weapon (SOW) usage, execution and familiarity dealing with advanced – if not technically superior – air threats.

Beyond-Visual-Range Warfare

One rationale for adding a LIFT could be to familiarize new pilots with the BVR environment earlier on. It works in two areas. First, the PAF can practically train young pilots on how to employ BVRAAMs as well as the surrounding best practices, processes, etc of such missions. Second, it can also familiarize new aircrew to contested environments. So, for example, the L-15B can carry the KG600 ECM pod, so it can carry-out radar jamming and spoofing. Likewise, these pilots can also practically learn how to mitigate BVR threats.

However, the aircrew will continue learning and fine-tuning their familiarity with BVR and ECM later on in their flying careers. But with a LIFT, they could enter the OCU stage with experience on how to use these capabilities already, thus making them mission-ready sooner, and allow them to improve those skills with experience and fine-tuning than to learn anew partway into their service.

Stand-Off Range Precision Strikes

The PAF would need to train aircrew on how to practically deploy SOWs (which, again, it can do from an early stage using LIFT). There are three main types of SOWs in the PAF. First, precision-guided bombs (PGB) such as the Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK). The IREK is a ‘fire-and-forget’ weapon in that the end-user deploys it against a predesignated target (usually a fixed target), and the PGB relies on satellite-aided inertial navigation to reach the target. Second, a SOW with a manual terminal-stage operation, i.e., the H-2/H-4, where the pilot can guide the SOW to its intended target via data-link control. Third, anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM) where the SOW is used against a distant, but moving target.

However, learning how to practically use SOWs is only one part of the equation. The other is the fact that successful ground strikes, especially at long-range, require significant pre-planning and preparation. The mission commanders would need to model target areas with an array of tools and resources (e.g., image intelligence from satellite, 3D modeling, etc) and understand the local threat environment. The operation may even require coordination with the Pakistan Navy (PN) or Pakistan Army (PA).

Executing Missions Successfully

Thus, the training aspect of long-range strikes stems into both familiarizing aircrew with how to use such weapons, and guiding more senior personnel to correctly plan and execute these operations. This training can come via Combat Commanders School (CCS) for familiarity, and exercises for experience. The PAF has no trouble instituting learning at this level, but some constraints prevent it from reaching its potential.

One gap is the lack of air and land integration between the PAF and PA, respectively. This integration may be valuable, if not essential, for mitigating some of India’s advantages, such as its strong – and increasingly improving – integrated air defence environment. So, for example, the PA can use its land-based assets – e.g., ground-launched cruise missiles and artillery – to attack surface-to-air missile sites. Unfortunately, it does not seem as though there is any training or exercises to enable this collaboration.

Practically, the PAF will likely put the training to practice through exercises across more of its units, and more frequently. These may be internal force only programs or multi-national efforts, but short of conflict, they are the only opportunities to assess and improve execution standards.

Familiarity to Advanced / Superior Adversaries

Finally, the PAF will need to accept the reality of India’s technology advantages. Ultimately, PAF units will come against a numerically and qualitatively superior foe. Though familiarity with India’s aircraft through dissimilar air combat training (DACT) with friendly countries is an option, the PAF will also need to rethink how it perceives these threats, and make its training reflect that change in reality.

So, every five years the PAF launches a major exercise called High Mark which, traditionally, split the PAF into a ‘Red Land’ and ‘Blue Force.’ However, the reality of ‘Red Land’ (i.e., the adversary) today is that the IAF is the quantitatively and qualitatively superior force. So, in other words, ‘Red Land’ should use better assets, and in greater quantity. If not tenable at the fleet-wide level, then it should be considered for the PAF’s regional or local-level exercises, such as Saffron Bandit.


In comparison to procuring new equipment, the PAF exercises more control – and copes with fewer issues or restrictions – with training. In fact, the PAF had been implementing the necessary changes before Swift Retort occurred, which (according to the PAF) helps explain the apparent success of that operation.

There are gaps, especially in terms the lack of air and land integration, but the PAF is making strides in this area, despite its fiscal constraints. The key is continuity, and if the material assets (e.g., sufficient numbers of AESA radar equipped fighters, longer-ranged BVRAAM, additional EW/ECM assets, etc) come through, the PAF itself could pose enough of a threat to deter Balakot-like situations in the future.

[1] Year Book 2017-2018. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. Page 83.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Press Release. “Super Mushshak Flies with Genesys Aerosystems Glass Cockpit.” Genesys Aerosystems. 25 March 2020. URL:

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

[5] Ibid.

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