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Pakistan Air Warfare Goals by 2030 (Part 2)

This is the third article in Quwa’s series on the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) modernization goals by 2030. ‘Swift Retort’ was the first – and only – large-scale air operation in South Asia in recent years, and Quwa contends that its outcome will shape much of the PAF’s asset acquisition activities in the 2020s.

From the PAF’s viewpoint, Swift Retort validated a number of strengths, such as its ability to accurately hit targets using long-range weapons from 60-120 km away, or deploy a large number of aircraft with several support assets in one mission, among others.

However, while Swift Retort may have shown that the PAF is capable of operating as a contemporary or modern air force, it also magnified the need to maintain the supposed edge in those areas.

So, for example, if large scale operations can work against India, then it would make sense for the PAF to build the capacity to mount such campaigns more frequently (if not simultaneously). However, it would need a large force of modern multi-role fighters, which is why Quwa highlighted that the PAF should focus on acquiring more JF-17 Block-IIIs and JF-17Bs in part-two of this series.

In the third article of this series, Quwa will continue this discussion, but this time with a focus on the PAF’s little known – but important – electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) assets.

Though the PAF lauded the role of EW/ECM in Swift Retort, it did not reveal much about what it deployed against India, except for its modified Dassault Falcon 20 EW/ECM aircraft. The PAF disclosed that it used the Falcon 20 EW/ECM aircraft to jam the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) communications.

However, by the PAF’s own admission, its success in jamming the IAF’s communications had more to do with gaps within the IAF – notably the lack of networking/data-linking between IAF aircraft at the time.[1][2]

The IAF is now working to solve the gap by acquiring the BNET software defined radio (SDR) from Rafael. SDRs are the basis of secure and high-speed voice and data communication between combat aircraft and other assets (i.e., tactical data links). This is an important step for the IAF, but it speaks to a bigger issue – the IAF is systematically working the gaps it knows the PAF had exploited in 2019.

The PAF may have only revealed a small part of its actual EW/ECM capability, but by that same logic, the IAF could be working to reactively close its gaps and proactively deprecate the PAF’s EW/ECM capabilities.

The IAF’s efforts form the PAF’s first challenge, i.e., its need to ensure that its EW/ECM capabilities remain at-par so that the PAF can undertake air operations in South Asia. If these capabilities degrade, then future PAF air operations are at higher risk of failure. The PAF can suffer from the same issues it inflicted on India.

The second challenge is that as the IAF’s EW/ECM improves, the IAF’s ability to sustain its own offensive operations against the PAF will climb as well. In this respect, the PAF cannot afford to see its air and land-based radars fail. So, for example, if the PAF’s air intercept radars fail, so may its ability to fire long-range beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM). Likewise, if the PAF’s ground-based radars fail, then the IAF will gain gaps it could exploit for low-level strikes, helicopters use, etc.

Summary of Pakistan’s EW/ECM Capabilities

The PAF operates dedicated EW/ECM assets and an assortment of EW/ECM subsystems in combat aircraft and other integrated systems. Before continuing, a few notes on EW/ECM. In trite terms, EW/ECM efforts center on detecting electromagnetic (or radio) emissions (such as radar signals), and managing them in a way that reduces the enemy’s ability to use those emissions (e.g., by jamming their radars).

Dedicated Assets

The PAF’s only dedicated EW/ECM assets are its modified Dassault Falcon 20 aircraft. Based on a VIP aircraft and, likely, commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) subsystems, the Falcon 20 is a custom configuration.

Following Swift Retort, the PAF revealed that the Falcon 20s can jam communications. However, being a dedicated EW/ECM asset, the PAF likely equipped it with at least a radar frequency (RF) jamming system, if not other equipment. To the PAF’s advantage, it has access to COTS EW/ECM equipment. Likewise, the Falcon 20 is larger than a fighter, so it has more room for power and cooling units for EW/ECM subsystems.

As noted earlier, the centerpiece to an EW/ECM aircraft is its RF jammer. Modern RF jammers use digital radio frequency memory (DRFM). Basically, DRFM records the specific radar/radio signals the aircraft picks up in an area. It then re-transmits those signals with the aim of confusing (or ‘spoofing’) the transmitting radar, deprecating its capability at that specific time. This is one of the basic goals of EW/ECM.

However, a dedicated EW/ECM aircraft likely uses more than jamming equipment. These systems could include wide-band coverage, allowing the Falcon 20 to deal with different types of emission sources.

Likewise, if the PAF says it jammed IAF radio links, then it likely has the ability to identify and find sources for signals of interest. In other words, the Falcon 20s may be able to direct their jamming and spoofing at specific radars or emitting sources. Of course, the Falcon 20s are a guarded secret, so no one will definitely know the exact make, model or origins of the Falcon 20’s systems outside of the PAF.

Integrated Assets

The PAF also employs EW/ECM capabilities as part of other systems, such as combat aircraft. In general, these EW/ECM systems include radar warning receivers (RWR), electronic support measures (ESM) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems, and RF jammers.

RWRs alert the equipped aircraft of potential tracking and targeting by opposing radars. It functions as a situational awareness tool for the end-user, allowing them to know about a potential threat with an active radar (e.g., an enemy fighter or air defence system).

ESM/ELINT are related to EW/ECM in that they typically work in peacetime to monitor, identify and record enemy radar and commission emissions. The data gleaned from the ESM/ELINT goes into a threat library, which the end-user can use to its advantage (e.g., the Falcon 20s could look for specific signals).

The interesting thing about ESM/ELINT is that the PAF would need it to build its EW/ECM capabilities, but there are no details about what ESM/ELINT assets it is deploying. In theory, the Saab Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system comes with an ESM/ELINT suite, but it is unclear if the PAF equipped its aircraft with those systems. It would be surprising if it did not, especially when the Pakistan Navy (PN) acquired ESM/ELINT from Elettronica for use on its RAS-72 Sea Eagle maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).

F-16C/D Block-52+ and F-16A/B Mid-Life-Update (MLU)

In terms of RF jamming, it seems that the PAF’s integrated assets deploy them as special mission pods. So, in the case of the PAF’s F-16 Block-52+ and MLU, the EW/ECM comes in the form of the ALQ-211(v)9 and ALQ-131 Block-III or ALQ-184, respectively. When the PAF had originally requested the ALQ-131 and ALQ-184, the US did not clear the export of DRFM. However, the PAF made it (and Link-16) a condition before signing onto the deal for the new F-16s and upgrades, and seeing how the PAF got Link-16 and the ALQ-211(v)9 – the latter with DRFM – it is likely the US ultimately cleared DRFM to the PAF.[3][4]

JF-17 Block-II, JF-17B and JF-17 Block-III

The PAF’s JF-17s evidently have access to at least the KG600 or KG700 EW/ECM pod, which is similar in concept to the ALQ-211(v)9. The JF-17 Block-IIs are equipped with the Indra ALR-400 RWR. However, given how the PAF has access to multiple ITAR-free EW/ECM options, the JF-17s could draw on other systems.

Overall, the advantage of delivering EW/ECM through fighters is that the PAF can deploy this capability across dozens of different assets. This creates redundancy (to guard against loss) and, if the PAF chooses, diversify its EW/ECM technologies, which could make it more difficult to counter. Moreover, the PAF can also deploy an EW/ECM capability closer to the air combat area, whereas with the Falcon 20, it likely opts to fly them at stand-off range (i.e., away from the threat of enemy engagement).

The JF-17 Block-III and JF-17B may take EW/ECM a step further by boasting integrated RF jamming suites. This was the original plan with the Block-III, but it is unclear if the PAF will continue on this path. However, the Block-III will have a chin-based hardpoint dedicated for special mission pods.[5]

How to Improve and Diversify EW/ECM

To counter the IAF’s progress, the PAF will likely focus on improving the quality of its EW/ECM across its dedicated and integrated assets, and where possible, diversify its EW/ECM equipment.

Improving EW/ECM

With the JF-17B and Block-III working into the fleet through the 2020s, the PAF could seek new EW/ECM pods for those fighters. It is likely that it a new gallium-nitride (GaN)-based system will be of interest, but the PAF would have to wait for a willing supplier. If Saab is still an option, then the PAF could seek the new AREXIS, which leverages GaN-based arrays to cover a wider range of radar frequencies, including very high frequency (VHF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF) radars.

The benefit of covering VHF/UHF radars is that it could allow the JF-17s to better operate in environments with new-generation air defence radars. In turn, the JF-17s could potentially operate more flexibly while in contested environments, especially in the vicinity of India’s air defence assets. The PAF is unlikely to be able get the AREXIS, but it will certainly seek an ITAR-free GaN-based pod once available.

Diversifying EW/ECM

Besides acquiring new pods, the PAF could also look at inducting additional dedicated EW/ECM aircraft – i.e., additional Falcon 20-type aircraft. The Falcon 20 EW/ECM aircraft was an original integration project in that it uses a suite specially selected by the PAF. The PAF could simply continue this approach, but with additional aircraft and, ideally, different subsystem sources.

Doing so would allow the PAF to buffer against the non-serviceability of aircraft, be it due to maintenance or attrition. Likewise, diversification would help shield the EW/ECM fleet from supply loss (e.g., if one of the PAF’s suppliers opts to stop selling systems to Pakistan), or supply-side compromise.

R&D, Innovation and Ingenuity

The PAF must perpetually operate with fiscal constraints, and with relatively fewer resources at hand than the IAF. The interesting thing about EW/ECM is that it is not necessarily as expensive as acquiring combat aircraft or other complete systems, but they can still make a difference in real-world combat.

In this sense, the PAF should focus on pushing the application of EW/ECM in novel ways. So, for example, it should study the use of fitting miniature RF jammers into the chaff-and-flare dispensers of its fighters. Oddly, the product catalogue of Leonardo’s BriteCloud disposable RF jammer implies that the JF-17 is one of the intended platforms for this system.[6] However, innovation should not stop at the COTS market.

The PAF can also look at innovating on the technologies it already builds in-house. It could, for example, use the Ra’ad II air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) as the basis for an EW/ECM drone. With a range of 600 km and, ostensibly, space of a heavyweight warhead, the Ra’ad II could be an appropriate platform. It may have enough room to carry the RF jamming arrays as well as fly in an area for several hours, i.e., enough time to support an air operation. Basically, the PAF could have something analogous to the MALD-J.

Ultimately, the key to acquiring these new capabilities is through domestic research and development as well as collaboration. In terms of the latter, Pakistan can look at high-level studies of relevant technologies with Turkey, South Africa and Brazil. Though it lacks the key industrial capacities, it could build a domestic understanding of how to design the key inputs (e.g., arrays, transceiver modules, etc) so that it can control more of the supply channel of EW/ECM technologies, at least in the long-term.

[1] Sanjeev Verma. “IAF lacked ODL during Balakot strike, fighters jet went incommunicado.” Times of India. 15 December 2019. URL:

[2]  Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 33

[3] “ODRP Chief Engages Pakistan’s Military Leadership.” Public Library of US Diplomacy. WikiLeaks. 09 January 2008. URL:

[4] “Reassuring Pakistan on the F-16 Sale.” Public Library of US Diplomacy. WikiLeaks. 17 September 2007. URL:

[5] This was revealed by a Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) official to Roze News during a televised report on the JF-17 Thunder (note: the interview is in Urdu):

[6] Product Catalogue. BriteCloud. Leonardo. URL:

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