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Pakistan Defence Review: News/Procurement Updates

This is a review of ancillary Pakistani defence news topics with short-hand analysis to provide clarity and context. In March 2018: 3 Turkish T129 attack helicopters took part at the Pakistan Day Parade; ASELPOD spotted on the JF-17; the JF-17 participating in Gulf Shield; a sign of SUPARCO’s Space Vision 2040 being in full-swing; and how Pakistan’s naval deterrence efforts are still a work-in-progress

3 TAI T129 ATAKs at March 23rd Parade

The Turkish Army sent three of its T129 ATAK attack helicopters to participate in the Pakistan Day military parade on 23 March. However, it would be premature to connect the gesture to Pakistan inking its long-awaited contract for 30 T129s with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI).

Like the MILGEM Ada corvette deal, the T129 deal is contingent on the availability of a line-of-credit from Turkey to back the sale. Basically, Pakistan will use the loan to get the production process started and, in turn, repay the loan over fixed installments over a mutually agreed-upon time-period. However, a Turkish analyst stated that TAI and Pakistan are still waiting for approval from Turkey’s Export-Import Bank.[1]

However, the Daily Sabah reports – citing an anonymous, but well-placed source – that the Pakistani T129 deal is “months, if not weeks” away from being inked in earnest. Originally, Alan Warnes learned that TAI was aiming to announce this contract as a firm deal at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show in July.[2] However, once the deal is inked, TAI promised that it will begin delivering the helicopters relatively soon.

If inked, there are several key ‘treads’ emanating from this deal. First, TAI invited Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) to support the T129 with some parts manufacturing work (which will feed TAI).[3] Second, it will complete Pakistan’s recapitalized high-altitude helicopter fleet, which saw the Airbus Helicopters H125M and Leonardo AW139 assume the scout/light-utility and medium-utility roles, respectively.[4]

The T129 – which Pakistan apparently praised for its performance in high-altitude environments – would provide the attack element for Pakistan’s high-altitude forces. The Pakistan Army lamented about the AH-1F/S Cobras being unable to operate above 8,000 ft,[5] the T129 was test-flown in Pakistan at 14,000 ft.[6]

ASELPOD Spotted on JF-17 Block-I/II

Footage from Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) showed a JF-17 Block-I or Block-II equipped and flying with an Aselsan ASELPOD targeting pod. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) received three deliveries of the ASELPOD from 2016-2018.[7] Currently, it appears that eight are in use with the PAF, it is unclear if or when additional pods will be ordered, though Aselsan confirmed talks were underway (in 2016).[8]

In terms of targeting pods, it is true that the Block-III is expected to have a dedicated hardpoint for special mission pods. However, the PAF sought the ASELPOD to equip the JF-17 for its counterinsurgency (COIN) operations,[9] so seeing this capability emerge ahead of the Block-III is not surprising. As for whether this is a Block-I or Block-II, it is unclear because the PAF is fielding mixed or composite units with the JF-17. The No. 16, for example, was raised with the Block-I, but it has also been shown with in-flight refueling (IFR)-equipped Block-IIs.[10] Logically, the IFR-equipped Block-II would make sense because IFR frees the JF-17 to use its six remaining hardpoints for munitions instead of fuel-pods.

However, it should also be noted that there has been a relative drawing down of COIN air operations; the switch to continual low-intensity operations could see a greater reliance on armed drones than the JF-17. In this sense, the ASELPOD footage could simply be an indication of testing, integration and qualification more so than trying to fulfill an immediate operational requirement. It may also explain why the PAF has yet to ink another ASELPOD order, despite commencing such talks in late 2016.

It will be interesting to see if the PAF adds other special mission pods to the JF-17. A PAF official told Quwa that the ASELPOD could be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes, but the ASELPOD’s capability-set is not analogous to a traditional ISR pod. For example, the UTC DB-110 photo-reconnaissance pod can relay images to other assets through data-link. This capability is not present in the ASELPOD. In fact, Aselsan was working on a dedicated reconnaissance pod with the Belgian company Terma in 2015.[11] Thus, the PAF could look to expand its special mission pod inventory, especially the Block-III, which will benefit from a dedicated hardpoint for such pods.

JF-17s Participating at Gulf Shield

The PAF deployed a contingent formed of five (or six) JF-17s with a C-130H to Saudi Arabia to participate in Gulf Shield, a multi-national exercise involving 23 countries. Based on a promotional video, it appears that the aircraft are Block-II fighters equipped with IFR probes. Though one might look at the deployment from a commercial standpoint – i.e. of Pakistan promoting the JF-17 to draw overseas interest – but the decision is likely driven to adjust to a new reality. Simply, the JF-17 is now the mainstay multi-role fighter of the PAF and it will figure centrally in any scenario of denying enemy access to Pakistan.

The ramifications of this is that it would be logical for the PAF to begin infusing experience and expertise into these JF-17 units. Large multi-national exercises provide specific PAF units – namely the commanders, aircrew and ground support personnel – an opportunity to learn from and benchmark against foreign air arms. In the long-term, these interactions may be particularly insightful as the air forces in the Arab Gulf begin inducting their new fighter platforms, namely the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16V. Not only do such exercises give PAF aircrews context for their threat-environment, but it could also inform the PAF for future JF-17 variants and Project Azm.

Space Vision 2040 in Full-Swing (with CGWIG?)

Pakistan’s Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) signed a deal with China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) for the PakSat Multi-Mission (PakSat-MM1) satellite on 22 March. This is the third satellite that SUPARCO ordered from CGWIC, with the first – PakSat-1R – already in orbit. The PakSat-MM1 will join the Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-1) in the pipeline, with the latter slotted for launch along with its co-payload Pakistan Technical Evaluation Satellite (PakTES-1A) in 2018.

In 2012, SUPARCO launched Space Vision 2040, which outlined a plan to launch a second communications satellite (following PakSat-1R) along with three remote sensing satellites (RSS).[12] It seems that the second communications satellite will be the PakSat-MM1, while the first of the three RSS will be the PRSS-1, which will have a service life of five years. Thus, the subsequent two RSS will replace the PRSS-1. However, given that the PakSat-1R has a life of 12-15 years, the PakSat-MM1 will operate at the same time as the PakSat-1R – i.e. SUPARCO is looking to maintain at least two communications satellites in orbit.

The potential military applications of SUPARCO’s program was discussed in Quwa Premium in the article, “The Push to Boost Pakistan’s Space Program”.[13] However, a key point to consider with the PakSat-MM1 deal is that it could be an indication that Space Vision 2040 is now active in earnest. For SUPARCO, which had operated through the decades on a minimal budget, this would be significant.

Given that the cost of communications satellites and observation satellites could start at $100 million and $300 million US (note: pricing examples were discussed in Quwa Premium)[14], Space Vision 2040 could amount to at least $500 million US in expenditure. Granted, some of that will likely be recouped through licensing to commercial users, while a domestic earth observation satellite (EOS) will see savings by ending the import of imagery from Europe and the United States.

Though SUPARCO will grow from Space Vision 2040, Pakistan’s preference to procure from China may tilt that growth towards being an applications research and services bureau. In other words, the tract will not lead to SUPARCO mirroring the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in terms of ISRO’s mastery of the development and manufacturing of satellite launch vehicles (SLV). Instead, the need for SLVs will be addressed by CGWIC, leaving SUPARCO to facilitate Pakistan’s access to space-based communications and earth observation assets.

It is uncertain if SUPARCO will sufficiently grow to undertake satellite development and manufacturing through domestic means, but success is contingent on building industry competency in the relevant materials, electronics, power-generation and propulsion fields. Ideally, building these elements would be the culmination of Space Vision 2040, thus facilitating the domestic industry to handle all future satellite development and manufacturing needs.

[1] Yunus Paksoy. “Turkey, Pakistan close to finalizing ATAK helicopter deal”. Daily Sabah. 22 March 2018. URL: https://www.dailysabah.com/defense/2018/03/23/turkey-pakistan-close-to-finalizing-atak-helicopter-deal (Last Accessed: 27 March 2018).

[2] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan on verge of ordering TAI T129 ATAK.” Mönch Verlagsgesellschaft mbH. 22 June 2017. URL: http://www.monch.com/mpg/news/air/1746-pakatak.html (Last Accessed: 27 March 2018).

[3] Alan Warnes. 01 June 2017. Twitter. URL: https://twitter.com/warnesyworld/status/870358168710369281 (Last accessed: 27 March 2018).

[4] “Pakistan Army Aviation’s High-Altitude Capabilities”. Quwa Premium. 20 February 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/02/20/pakistan-army-aviations-high-altitude-operations-forces/

[5] Gareth Jennings. “Pakistan evaluating new attack helicopter options.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 31 January 2018. URL: http://www.janes.com/article/77493/pakistan-evaluating-new-attack-helicopter-options (Last Accessed: 28 March 2018).

[6] “TAI T129 ATAK at the Himalayas.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. November 2016. Issue 31.

[7] “Pakistan Defence Review: Procurement Updates”. Quwa Premium. 12 February 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/02/12/pakistan-defence-review-procurement-updates/

[8] “Aselsan Sets Eyes on Air Defence and Tank Modernization.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. January 2017. Issue: 34

[9] John Irish. “Pakistan wants air force upgrade for prolonged militant fight.” Reuters. 07 April 2016. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-airforce-militants/pakistan-wants-air-force-upgrade-for-prolonged-militant-fight-idUSKCN0X417E (Last Accessed: 28 March 2018).

[10] “Pakistan Defence Review: Procurement Updates”. Quwa Premium. 12 February 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/02/12/pakistan-defence-review-procurement-updates/

[11] “Terma and Aselsan Sign Memorandum of Understanding”. Terma. 12 May 2015. URL: https://www.terma.com/press/news-2015/terma-and-aselsan-sign-memorandum-of-understanding/ (Last Accessed: 28 March 2018).

[12]  Salman Siddiqui. “Lagging behind: 2040 – Pakistan’s space od[d]yssey.” The Express Tribune. 01 August 2017. URL: https://tribune.com.pk/story/415738/lagging-behind-2040-pakistans-space-oddyssey/ (Last Accessed: 28 March 2018).

[13] “The Push to Boost Pakistan’s Space Program’. Quwa Premium. 01 January 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/01/01/the-push-to-boost-pakistans-space-program/

[14] Ibid.

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