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Pakistan Calls for Joint AAM Development with Turkiye

On 15 February, the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu, met with the Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, General İrfan Özsert, at Air Headquarters (AHQ) in Islamabad.

According to an official PAF press release, the two leaders focused on “mutual training initiatives and endeavours of technology collaboration” between the armed forces of Pakistan and Turkiye.

The two leaders “agreed to elevate the existing partnership through Joint Working Groups focused on technology enhancement and core capability exchanges.” They also discussed undertaking an “Air-to-Air Missile technology exchange program to accrue maximum benefits for both Air Forces.”

It is currently unclear what this air-to-air missile (AAM) “technology exchange” program would entail.

For example, the PAF could be interested in leveraging Turkish expertise in supporting the domestic AAM program, i.e., the FAAZ by the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM).

Alternatively, the PAF could be looking at pursuing an alternative AAM program in collaboration with Turkiye, potentially at the National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP).

Overall, it should be noted that the current PAF leadership is focused on expanding NASTP activities, especially through joint-ventures and partnerships with foreign defence vendors. The PAF’s ongoing engagement with Baykar Group, for example, is resulting in the development of new munitions, such as loitering munitions and miniature air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), at NASTP.

Policy of Indigenizing Munitions

This announcement makes one aspect of the PAF’s development priorities certain – i.e., it is pursuing the indigenous production of key munitions. Thus far, the bulk of this activity involved the production of air-to-surface munitions, such as the Ra’ad/Taimur-series of ALCMs, the Takbir/Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK) precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit, and others.

However, the future product roadmap disclosed by Global Industrial and Defence Solutions (GIDS) features an in-house AAM program by the designation of “FAAZ.” Thus, it appears that at some point, the PAF identified the domestic production of AAMs a priority.

That said, the PAF is not the only Tri-Services arm aiming to indigenize munitions production; rather, this policy also seems to be a priority for the Pakistan Army (PA) and the Pakistan Navy (PN). Just like many other countries, Pakistan likely recognized the operational challenges Ukraine was facing due to its weaker munitions supply channels Thus, each of the Pakistani military’s Tri-Services tabled the production of munitions – especially guided weapons – as a goal.

For the PAF, however, the question is whether it wants to rely on solely the NESCOM FAAZ program or complement it with a NASTP initiative. This call to Turkiye for AAM collaboration is likely a push to give NASTP an AAM project, either through original designs or, potentially, co-produce the TÜBİTAK-SAGE Bozdoğan within-visual-range (WVR) AAM and Gökdoğan beyond-visual-range (BVR) AAM in Pakistan. With NASTP, either scenario is plausible as, thus far, the entity has undertaken both original projects (e.g., KaGeM V3) and co-production (e.g., Bayraktar TB2) with foreign partners.

Correcting Missed Opportunities

In 2016, an earlier piece from Quwa had projected that Pakistan would eventually require a domestic AAM program. In fact, the fundamental technology for AAMs – such as rocket motors – could also be re-leveraged to develop surface-to-air missiles (SAM), which each of the Tri-Services are now buying at scale, but through costly imports from China and Europe.

From 2015 to 2017, Pakistan had the potential opportunity to collaborate with South Africa on both AAM and SAM technology. Denel Dynamics had been working on the Marlin program, an initiative to develop a new BVRAAM and medium-range SAM based on common core inputs, such as dual-pulse rocket motors (DPMR), electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM), and guidance stacks.

Rather than receiving South Africa’s overtures to collaborate on such technology, the PAF focused on a poorly conceived (and now functionally shelved) initiative to develop a stealth fighter. It also likely missed on the opportunity to utilize South African expertise, the bulk of which seems to have shifted to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), feeding EDGE Group’s increasingly growing portfolio of big-ticket programs, including advanced short-range air defence systems (SHORAD) and drones.

However, it seems that Pakistan, and the PAF in particular, have come full circle in realizing the need to domestically produce AAMs (and SAMs). In addition to NESCOM’s original programs, it seems that the PAF is trying to build collaborative initiatives with Turkiye, but through NASTP.

Supporting a Growing Need

In many cases, AAMs and SAMs can use the same core technologies, such as DPMRs and, to varying degrees, aerostructure materials, ECCM systems, and guidance systems. Thus, as the PAF, PA, and PN each spend in growing their respective air defence capabilities, the need for these core inputs will rise in Pakistan, and by a significant margin. Strictly relying in imports, especially for short-range and medium-range solutions, could be significantly costly, especially given the scale, which may involve thousands of individual missile units, over the long term.

Hence, there is now an imperative across the Tri-Services to produce indigenous AAMs and SAMs, as one can see in GIDS’ future roadmap. However, these projects will only be impactful when they result in indigenous core inputs, such as DPMRs. If Pakistan can domestically source most of the cost of a SAM or AAM, it will save significant sums of foreign exchange, especially when it purchases missiles at a scale of hundreds – if not thousands – of individual units.

The GIDS/NESCOM programs, such as the FAAZ and LOMADS, could be the armed forces’ initiatives to developing DPMRs and other core inputs indigenously. However, the timeline for these programs will also be longer, potentially a decade (if not more) before serviceable solutions are ready.

Thus far, NASTP air vehicle and munition projects seem to be less ambitious in scope, either centered on co-producing foreign systems or designing simpler original systems. It seems that NASTP’s focus is to help accelerate certain PAF programs in ways that involve the local industry, but not necessarily substitute foreign inputs. In other words, where NESCOM represents the destination (localizing AAM and SAM inputs), NASTP bridges the gap by meeting current needs sooner with foreign partners. The NASTP approach may not result in indigenization, but it will help the PAF meet its current needs while also buffering or reducing foreign currency outflows. The currently outflow control would happen via offsets and co-production work from the foreign supplier.

The PAF may be aiming to procure Turkish AAMs with the goal of assembling them at NASTP. It might try leveraging a large long-term order as a means to acquire a technology transfer, potentially for the DPMR, among other inputs. Alternatively, Turkiye may provide an offset by investing in NASTP and/or pursuing other projects at NASTP facilities in return for a PAF order of Turkish AAMs.

Currently, it is unlikely NASTP’s work will horizontally flow into NESCOM. The two entities are working in their respective silos and, thus far, have not collaborated. In effect, any PAF/NASTP-led AAM and/or SAM project will likely develop in parallel to NESCOM’s initiatives. However, it is unlikely that NASTP AAM/SAM programs will draw on indigenous inputs as deeply as NESCOM unless the core model of how NASTP carries out its work changes. Thus far, NASTP seems to be focused on rolling out existing solutions earlier while using offsets as a way to soften cost (from foreign currency outflows).

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