Skip to content Skip to footer

Pakistan Makes Progress on Next-Gen Fighter Program

According to the Pakistan Ministry of Defence Production’s (MoDP) yearbook for 2017-2018, the Aviation Research, Innovation and Development (AvRID) Secretariat completed the first of four “conceptual design phase” cycles for the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) program.

The MoDP yearbook states:

“First cycle of conceptual design phase has been completed. The first configuration that was designed based on the challenging performance requirements of PAF will go through three more cycles within the conceptual design using higher fidelity analysis tools and codes.”[1]

The FGFA is the centerpiece of Project Azm, the PAF’s vision for developing a turnkey aviation industrial base within Pakistan to support the country’s defence as well as civilian and commercial aviation needs.

The PAF formally initiated Project Azm in July 2017 with the objective of developing an FGFA, a medium-altitude and long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), new munitions, and other projects.

When it announced Project Azm, the then Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, had stated that the design work of the MALE UAV was in its “final stages.” The 2017-2018 MoDP yearbook stated that the scheduled deadline for the MALE UAV’s maiden flight was June 2019.

Since the MoDP yearbooks cover issues completed over 12-18 months prior to publication, it would mean that the MALE UAV either flew or was delayed, and that the FGFA is well into its subsequent design work.

In terms of the FGFA, in a recent interview with the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, stated that he does not expect the FGFA to become operational for “another decade.”[2]

For more on Project Azm, Pakistan’s next generation Fighter program, see:

The CAS had also revealed the current Air Staff Requirements (ASR) of the FGFA, i.e., a “twin-engine single-seater, boasting the likes of super-cruise and laser weapons (directed energy weapons).”[3] Thus, the FGFA is not only a clean-sheet design, but currently slated as a medium-to-heavyweight, high-performance jet.

This design configuration indicates that the PAF intends to produce a platform capable of heavier payloads and range than the JF-17. In other words, a platform optimized for offensive counter-air (OCA), maritime, and deep-strike platforms, i.e., a direct successor of both the F-16A/B Block-15s and the Mirage III/5.

It is unclear to what extent the PAF can honour its original intent to produce the FGFA independently. In an interview during the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), the CAS said that Air Headquarters’ (AHQ) goal was to “not [depend] upon western or eastern partners.”[4]

However, this would imply the need to locally develop turbofan engines, electronics, and a host of other technologies for which Pakistan does not yet manufacture the core inputs, such as gas turbines or semi-conductors (for engines and electronics, respectively).

Thus, some deviation from this goal is expected. In fact, the Chairman of PAC Kamra, Air Marshal Ahmer Shahzad, reportedly stated that “Turkey’s T-FX is in line with what the PAF want.” In other words, the PAF may partner with another country, which the CAS said was an option.[5]

On the other hand, the one aspect of the FGFA the PAF is unlikely to compromise on is that it must be free of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) restrictions.[6] ITAR is the regulatory framework through which the US controls the export of its technologies.

In other words, the PAF’s FGFA will be free of US components. This requirement will be a major reason as to why the PAF is unlikely to partner with Turkey on the T-FX unless Turkey also decides on an ITAR-free approach. The latter is plausible given Turkey’s increasingly precarious relationship with the US.

In any case, it is unclear to what extent partnering with Turkey on the TF-X would affect the PAF’s in-house FGFA. Based on the information available thus far, it appears that the PAF is proceeding with its own FGFA project, and that the project has passed an initial milestone and that development will catch momentum.

The previous CAS, ACM Sohail Aman, stated that “it will take five years to initiate the production of fifth-generation aircraft.”[7] This statement was made in 2018, which would likely indicate that the production of the first prototype is to start around 2023, and operationalization in the early 2030s.

The project appears to be in full-swing, and that might explain why the PAF has largely stopped discussing the prospect of additional off-the-shelf fighters. In 2016, the PAF had explored the prospect of procuring 30-40 aircraft to serve as a bridge until the FGFA, and in lieu of the F-16s which the US refused to subsidize through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Coalition Support Funding (CSF) programs.[8]

However, in recent years, the PAF has not brought up this idea. Rather, the PAF seems to have made this decade – i.e., the 2020s – center on the induction of the JF-17 Block 3, the procurement of a new lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT) aircraft, and conclude with the acquisition of the FGFA.[9]

In other words, the PAF will not counter the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) procurement of Rafale fighters with a tit-for-tat fighter acquisition, but work according to a fixed plan centered on improving the JF-17 and, in addition to acquiring the FGFA, domestically sourcing its future combat aircraft.

This course makes sense to the extent that the PAF appears to recognize the high-complexity – and high-cost – realities of developing a next-generation fighter aircraft. To ensure Project Azm stays on track and avoids as many delays and technical hurdles as possible, it must drop a parallel, near-term project.

One indication of this trade-off is that the configuration of Project Azm is that of a twin-engine fighter. So, an off-the-shelf procurement of medium-to-heavyweight fighter would cause a redundancy, i.e., fulfilling the same role with two similar platforms. Moreover, if the PAF were to sign a contract today, it could only operationalize the new fighter in the mid-2020s at the earliest, that would be only five to ten years away from Project Azm’s current timeline. Thus, the timelines are also too close to sustain two programs.

The second indication is that of fiscal limitations. One of the fighters the PAF had considered as an interim acquisition was the Su-35 Flanker-E.[10] With an upfront unit-cost in the range of $100 million US per aircraft, the purchase of 30-40 such planes would have cost the PAF $3-4 billion US.

In turn, the PAF would have paid that sum in installments over seven to ten years, if not longer. Thus, the outlay is $300-400 m US per year. Now, it appears that the PAF is directing that outlay to other programs, among them being Project Azm (and potentially others, such as the LIFT, new low-level radars, etc).

However, if one looks at the research and development outlay of the South Korean KF-X – i.e., $7.4 billion US – then the above figures ($300-400 m per year) would have to be the minimum amounts Project Azm likely needs in order to be considered a genuine program.

Thus, one can argue that the PAF is making a conscious trade-off by pushing near-term needs in favour of Project Azm. Moreover, unless Pakistan’s fiscal situation drastically changes, the procurement of an off-the-shelf fighter through the 2020s could be a sign of delays in Project Azm (or rather, delay the FGFA).

It is possible that the PAF’s decision may change again in the next two to three years, especially after it freezes the FGFA’s design and tries developing (or acquiring) the necessary subsystems. Technical hurdles and a longer development period could push the PAF back into seeking an off-the-shelf fighter.

The one exception to this issue would be new F-16s. The PAF already has the infrastructure necessary to support the Block-70/72 in as far as the engine and airframe are concerned. Thus, inducting the Block-72 would be easier than an entirely new platform. Moreover, it would likely look to upgrade its current F-16s to the F-16V-standard and, in turn, ensure commonality across the fleet.

Though the cost of such a program (new build F-16s and upgrading existing ones) would take away from Project Azm, the impact is the addition of five-plus squadrons of fighters with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars in addition to the JF-17 Block 3. And that too while extending existing infrastructure.

In other words, the operational pay-off of additional F-16s and fleet-wide upgrades is greater. If the PAF had instead opted for a new fighter platform, it would gain at most two new squadrons. However, if the F-16s cannot be had, then the PAF will likely dedicate its resources to Project Azm.

[1] Year Book (sic) 2017-2018. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. 05 September 2019. URL:

[2] Alan Warnes. Interview with Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan. Jane’s defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alan Warnes. Interview with Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan. Asian Military Review. 10 January 2019. URL:

[5] Jane’s Defence Weekly. May 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Naveed Siddiqui. “Intruders traced on radar won’t be able to go back, warns air chief.” Dawn News. 07 December 2017. URL:

[8] Farhan Bokhari. “Briefing: Defending the borders.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 02 November 2016.

[9] Jane’s Defence Weekly. May 2019.

[10] Jane’s Defence Weekly. November 2016.

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment