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Pakistan Defence Review (April 2019): Modest Steps for the Short-Term & Significant Plans for the Long-Term

Pakistan to Reportedly Buy Egyptian Mirage 5s

On 17 April 2019, the aviation journalist Alan Warnes reported that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has inked a deal with Egypt for a batch of the latter’s Dassault Mirage 5 fighters.

Alan Warnes did not reveal the number or sub-model of the fighter, but he noted that the PAF will use most of the aircraft to support its existing Mirage III/5 fleet.

Today, the Mirage III and 5 fighters serve an integral role in the PAF as primarily strike-oriented aircraft. In addition to having the ability to deploy the H-2 and H-4 stand-off range (SOW) glide-bombs, which have ranges of 60 km and 120 km, respectively, the Mirage is also the PAF’s main asset for deploying the Ra’ad-series of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM).

Considering Pakistan’s current fiscal limitations and its small supplier pool, the PAF is also unlikely to procure an off-the-shelf fighter to complement (or supplant) the Mirage for strike missions. In effect, the Mirages will endure until the JF-17 (be it via the Block-III or a future variant) or Project Azm materialize into suitably capable strike platforms.

Former Pakistan CAS Reportedly Says Project Azm Design is ‘Complete.’

Speaking to the Islamabad Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ICCI), the previous Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), retired Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman had reportedly stated that the PAF had completed the design of Project Azm, its next-generation fighter.

A direct quote is not available, but a summary of the retired CAS’ speech is available on the official website of the ICCI with the aforementioned claim. According to ACM (retired) Sohail Aman, the PAF completed the design process in two years. No additional details were provided.

The statement appears significance on first glance, but ‘design’ is a broad concept. In one sense, it could simply mean that the PAF has frozen its air staff requirements (ASR) for Project Azm.

It is also a possible reference to the engineering design work. However, this is still an early stage as it necessitates testing (e.g., wind-tunnel testing) and, depending on the results, could require a re-work of the design and another two years before Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) can begin producing the first prototype. Thus, the only thing that can be gleaned from the statement is that the PAF has crossed a major milestone with Project Azm, but the project is still in infancy.

Pakistan’s Top Defence Suppliers are (Firmly) China and Turkey

The Deputy Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a Russian, non-governmental think-tank, Konstantin Makienko surmised that Pakistan is a potential market for big-ticket Russian arms, such as combat aircraft and air defence systems (via RIA Novosti).

However, though there had been reports – most notably of Pakistani interest in the Sukhoi Su-35 – it is unlikely that Pakistan will procure big-ticket arms from Russia, at least at this time.

Overall, there are three main constraints:

  1. Moscow’s continuing need to placate New Delhi’s concerns with regards to Pakistan, at least from the standpoint of defence. Despite India’s growing reliance on West European and American suppliers, it is still among Russia’s top defence customers.
  2. Pakistan’s limited fiscal capabilities. In the best case scenario, Russia would have to offer a line-of-credit and/or offsets and countertrade to support a sale to Pakistan. In of itself, this is not peculiar. However, having to rely on those mechanisms weakens Pakistan’s own stance vis-à-vis lifting India’s pressure on Russia.
  3. Finally, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is likely an issue for Pakistan. Seeing how the US has put a stay on the transfer of F-35s to Turkey, a NATO ally, and is pressuring other states, Pakistan is unlikely to confront the US by buying arms from Russia. Doing so could put Pakistan at risk of losing access to spare parts for its US-origin arms as well as other US-origin systems from third-parties.

Today, Pakistan’s top defence suppliers – especially for big-ticket items – are China and Turkey.

The evidence for this is clear considering that all of Pakistan’s big-ticket orders since 2016 came from suppliers in those countries (the sole US purchase, the AH-1Z, has been in limbo since the US blocked FMF and CSF support to Pakistan). Pakistan will likely build upon these programs.

Though only two countries, the supply pool is actually growing. For example, while Pakistan has, thus far, only procured new surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems from China. However, not only are there multiple SAM options in China, but Turkey will have its own parallel streams.

Thus far, only Roketsan had a medium-range SAM program (i.e., the Hisar-series), but now, the R&D bureau TÜBİTAK SAGE will develop a 40 km-range SAM based on its Göktuğ air-to-air missile (AAM) platform. Should Pakistan require additional SAMs (e.g., for the Jinnah-class frigate), it can examine multiple Turkish and Chinese options from competing suppliers in both countries.

If anything, the interesting dynamic would be the effect the availability of Turkish munitions may have on Pakistan’s ability to procure Western sensors.

One of the challenges with acquiring the Leonardo Grifo-E – which is a new gallium nitride (GaN)-based active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar – for the JF-17 Block-III was the reluctance of both suppliers to share their respective source codes.

However, with Turkish AAMs, anti-ship missiles (AShM), and other radar-guided weapons, this is unlikely to be an issue. Yes, this is out-of-scope for the Block-III, but for a potential Block-IV, this could be a factor. Likewise, Project Azm could draw on more Western technology thanks to the advancements of the Turkish defence industry. Likewise for Pakistan’s efforts to acquire a long-range SAM, new helicopters, special mission aircraft, and other programs.

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