Skip to content Skip to footer

Pakistan Offers Glimpses of Next-Generation Fighter Program

On 07 September 2020, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) commemorated the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971. In its presentation video, the PAF showcased a number of activities it was undertaking as part of the Kamra Aviation City initiative, an effort to set-up a domestic aerospace development and manufacturing cluster.

The crown jewel of this effort is Project Azm, an initiative the PAF started in 2017 to secure its own next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and new munitions. In its event video, the PAF briefly showed glimpses of each of these projects.

However, though the commemoration event was recent, the video clips in question may not reflect the actual work PAC is currently undertaking for Project Azm. Nonetheless, the clips could offer an insight of the general direction of the NGFA’s main operational outcomes in terms of size, capability, and priorities.

Next Generation Fighter Aircraft

Interestingly, the video clips had showcased studies referencing the ill-fated YF-23 demonstrator. The YF-23 was Northrop’s proposal for the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program. USAF ultimately selected Lockheed Martin’s submission, the YF-22 (i.e., the F-22 Raptor).

The ‘studies’ do not indicate anything on their own terms. However, based on other information, it leans towards the idea of a twin-engine fighter. In fact, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, outlined that the PAF was seeking a single-seat, twin-engine design equipped with super-cruising and laser weapons from its NGFA.[1] Thus, the PAF is looking for an aircraft that delivers both current capabilities in so-called fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) today – such as low-observable (LO) and low radar cross-section (RCS) airframes – and in future generational platforms.

The video does not reflect the actual design of the PAF NGFA, but it could hint towards an interest in a medium-to-heavyweight design – e.g., a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 30,000 kg to 35,000 kg – over a medium-weight aircraft with a MTOW of 25,000 kg to 27,000 kg. The YF-23 and YF-22 both leaned towards heavyweight applications, whereas the F-35 – and emerging aircraft such as the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) KFX and Shenyang FC-31 – reflect lower-cost medium-weight designs.

PAF interest in a heavyweight design would not be surprising. Since as early as the 1970s, the PAF sought to build an effective long-range strike element (e.g., by requesting 110 A-7 Corsair IIs from America), but in general, suitable aircraft for the role were not available to Pakistan.

The PAF had already built an inventory of suitable stand-off range weapons (SOW), such as gliding bombs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). However, the PAF is restricted to deploying these munitions via its lightweight aircraft – i.e., the Mirage III/5 and JF-17. Clearly, the procurement of a heavyweight aircraft with more carriage and range – and a measure of stealth – would be a strategic gamechanger.

This route would make logical sense in as far as if the PAF is unable to acquire an aircraft of this size and capability from overseas, it would have to develop a local solution. However, a ‘heavyweight’ fighter with a MTOW in-excess of 30,000 kg would open-up other questions, most notably the engine.

To sustain a fighter of this size, the PAF would likely need an engine with an output of at least 120 kN. The likeliest candidate would be the Chinese WS-10. The WS-10 could meet the nominal power/performance parameters, but it is also a tested design by virtue of its wide-scale usage in both the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It would be a logical choice.

It should be noted that PAC is drawing on external design support from China. In fact, the previous CAS – ACM Sohail Aman – confirmed this arrangement in 2017, “Pakistan is engaged with Chinese experts in manufacturing the next generation aircraft.” Granted, Project Azm is not (at least yet) a joint venture with China, but the use of Chinese consultants could point the aircraft to critical inputs from China.

In terms of the specific design attributes of the PAF NGFA, a concept similar to the YF-23 is plausible, but is purely a matter of speculation. There is enough evidence to suggest that the PAF wants a strike-capable platform, so design elements that support that aim would make sense. This could involve a larger internal payload bay and more internal volume for fuel, which could translate into a greater surface area. Likewise, the PAF may compromise on maneuverability to achieve these goals.

However, this design would also be a high-cost fighter in terms of both upfront acquisition and long-term support and operation. Even if Project Azm is aiming to develop a fighter of this class, it is unlikely that it would form the entirety of the future PAF fleet. The PAF would require a lower cost supporting fighter.

In a sense, this direction would align with the idea of separating Project Azm from the PAF’s immediate or medium-term requirements. For the latter, the PAF can instead pursue an existing off-the-shelf design – e.g., the FC-31/J-35 – while refocusing Project Azm as a more gradual, longer-term endeavour.

If there are two distinct operational requirements at play, then Project Azm will not result in a duplicate solution. Basically, the PAF can begin sorting its mainstay, multirole fighter requirements with an off-the-shelf design, but through the long-term, develop a niche, strike-oriented platform domestically. The later is also be more difficult to procure off-the-shelf, thus necessitating a domestic program.

Air-Breathing Missile

The PAF had also shown some apparent work surrounding an air-breathing missile, possibly a supersonic-cruising missile. The design shown was aesthetically similar to the Chinese CM302, but it is unclear what this project would allude to practically.

It could be an actual design and development project (the MoDP yearbook of 2017-2018 disclosed that Pakistan is developing a “supersonic missile” for the PN), or integration of an off-the-shelf solution.

In any case, a supersonic-cruising missile is Pakistan’s procurement pipeline. It would be surprising if it is limited to solely a surface-launched or air-launched application. Rather, Pakistan will likely aim to deploy this capability from land, sea, and air (as it does for its subsonic cruise missile systems).

Artificial Intelligence-Based Electronic Warfare

Finally, the PAF revealed that its newly raised Centre of Artificial Intelligence and Computing (CENTAIC) is undertaking a ‘Cognitive Electronic Warfare’ (or Cognitive EW) program. Cognitive EW is the solution to a modern-day EW’s problem – managing and analyzing vast amounts of data.

Today’s EW systems can collect a considerable amount of data about an enemy’s frequency use, radar deployment, and many other factors. However, the analysis function of using that data to find actionable results is left on solely human operators, which may not be an efficient use of personnel, nor effective.

So, for example, in today’s environment an electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft could pick up and collect an enemy’s radar frequency use. However, for that data to matter, the end-user would have to take that information, analyze it, and then add it to their collective electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems.

This may be doable in peacetime, but not in wartime.

Cognitive EW aims to introduce artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to manage and analyze that data to rapidly create electronic countermeasures and counter-countermeasures (ECM/ECCM). Thus, cognitive EW can vastly accelerate the process of using that EW/ELINT data.

In the long-term, advances in computer technology and AI/ML development may lead to real-time analysis and deployment. However, this is a more abstract application of Cognitive EW. In the near-term, the goal is to cut the time it takes to use data from EW assets and distribute ECM/ECCM information.

Starting a cognitive EW program at CENTAIC would indicate that the PAF has not only bought into the full value of EW and ECM technologies, but that it is looking to keep pace with development in the area. The fruits of this work would also benefit the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Navy.


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

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment