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Pakistan Orders J-10CE Fighters from China

On 29 December 2021, Pakistan’s Minister of Interior, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, revealed that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) will induct J-10 fighter aircraft from China. Ahmed said that the PAF will induct the aircraft by 23 March 2022, i.e., in time for the country’s annual national day parade.

The PAF has yet to comment on the matter. However, multiple observers following the PAF’s procurement activities have confirmed that the PAF will acquire the J-10CE, with deliveries slated to start in 2022.

Not a Surprise: Off-the-Shelf Fighters Were Always on the Radar

The PAF was seeking an off-the-shelf fighter to complement its fleet modernization strategy since at least 2016. Initially, the PAF had sought additional F-16C/D Block-52+ so as to expand its fleet of 18 aircraft. But the deal fell through over the U.S.’ refusal to let Pakistan use Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to help fund the acquisition. The F-16 contract – and, in all likelihood, the PAF’s hope for additional F-16s in general – fell through, thus prompting the PAF to seek alternatives.

In 2017, then PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, said, “Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.” This statement may have indicated the PAF was choosing between the J-10CE and, potentially, the Su-35.

However, a Russian fighter was unlikely for many reasons. First, Moscow is reluctant to sell big-ticket arms to Pakistan out of fear of losing its much larger market in India. Second, the Su-35 at the time was offered as a tightly integrated package. The PAF likely wanted several key modifications that Russia was unwilling or unable to cost-effectively support. Russia generally preferred countries to buy the Su-35 as configured. Third, acquiring the Su-35 would have forced the PAF to add an entirely new operating stack (i.e., training, maintenance, logistics, weapons, interoperability processes, etc). This would have been time-consuming and, above all, very costly. The PAF likely preferred sticking to familiar American and Chinese systems.

With the F-16 off the table, the only realistic off-the-shelf fighter solution was the J-10CE. The J-10CE fits within the PAF’s fiscal constraints and comes from a willing supplier. In fact, China is likely offering a type of credit or financing arrangement to help Pakistan pay for the fighters.

Ultimately, the PAF likely greenlit the J-10CE purchase several years ago. Interestingly, the previous PAF CAS, ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan, had hinted towards an off-the-shelf fighter in 2020. In an interview, ACM Khan said, “We have to be aware of modern technologies, and if the acquisition of a new fighter fits into our doctrine then we will try to acquire it. The balance has to be maintained.”

The PAF set a criteria for the off-the-shelf fighter – it must introduce a significant net-gain in terms of its capabilities. Since the JF-17 Block-3 was already delivering a AESA radar plus a new integrated electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, the PAF must have sought the J-10CE for its air-to-air missile (AAM) stack.

Quwa was told a number of times that the availability of the PL-15 was not a given. In fact, in 2018, well-placed sources told Quwa that the PAF would likely integrate an improved SD-10 variant with the Block-3. However, in 2021, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) added the PL-15E – a long-range AAM with a reported range of over 140 km – to its catalog of export-ready solutions. In any case, the PAF must feel that it is getting a significant improvement in its air-to-air capabilities through the J-10CE.

Though the initial J-10CE batch may involve 18~24 aircraft, the PAF is unlikely to stick to such a low number of aircraft. When using national funds to finance procurement, the PAF always committed to purchasing 90 units of each aircraft type. In fact, one can see this from the PAF’s procurement history with the Mirage III/5, F-6, F-16, F-7 and JF-17. Granted, sanctions and/or a shortage of funds could (and have) cut programs short of their potential, but when it comes to planning, the PAF aims for at least 90 units. This makes sense as adding a new infrastructure base for a fighter is expensive. It is always more cost-effective to leverage an existing overhead as much as possible by adding more units of the same type.

Based on the PAF’s past procurement trends and the information from well-placed sources, Quwa projects that the PAF will acquire 90 to 126 J-10CEs through the 2020s and early-to-mid 2030s. In fact, if the Indian Air Force (IAF) orders additional Rafale batches plus another multirole fighter type, the PAF may work to accelerate its induction of a large J-10CE fleet by the end of this decade.

What Happens to the JF-17?

On the surface, the J-10CE would seem like a conflicting or redundant acquisition, especially as the PAF is inducting the JF-17 Block-3. In fact, with the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3, the PAF would be adding two AESA radar-equipped fighters to its fleet within this decade. This is a significant capability gain.

Thus far, the PAF is committed to ordering 30 (of the originally slated 50) Block-3s. It is unclear why it has cut its Block-3 orders. However, funding for the J-10CE and/or freeing capacity for potential export orders could explain the reason. That said, it is unlikely that the PAF will be limited to only 30 AESA radar-fitted JF-17s. The PAF will likely retrofit its JF-17Bs, Block-2 and, possibly, Block-1 aircraft with the KLJ-7A AESA radar as well. The PAF could also order additional Block-3s. In any case, Quwa believes that the PAF would aim for at least 100 JF-17s of numerous variants equipped with AESA radars.

With the J-10CE and JF-17 fleets combined, the PAF could potentially have close to 200 fighters equipped with AESA radars by the end of this decade. Both aircraft types would be able to deploy the PL-15E AAM, which would give the PAF the theoretical ability to engage aerial targets at 145 km.

However, the PAF will likely tailor the JF-17s for a more air-to-surface-oriented role. Over the last several years, the PAF has been working to integrate an assortment of air-to-surface stand-off weapons (SOW) to the JF-17. These include the Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK), a precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit that the JF-17 can deploy at 60-100 km against fixed targets. In addition, work is seemingly underway to add a rocket-assisted PGB called ‘REK-III.’ This would function similarly to the H-4, which the PAF’s Mirages had used to (from the PAF’s standpoint) great success. The REK-III could have a range of 120-150 km.

In addition, it seems that the PAF is adjusting its air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) strategy around the JF-17. First, the new Ra’ad II ALCM, which has a range of 600 km, seems to have been designed so that it can fit underneath the JF-17’s wings. Second, China is marketing the HD-1A air-launched supersonic ALCM using the JF-17 (by showing a model of the aircraft carrying two HD-1As on its underwing hardpoints). The PAF could be aiming to equip the JF-17 (especially the Block-3) with the ability to deploy two ALCMs.

The eventual goal would be to use the J-10CE and JF-17 as a tandem in Swift Retort-like operations. In the future, the PAF expects its optimal response/retaliation package would comprise of a credible, long-range air-to-air capability and a deep-strike element. The J-10CE would specialize on the air-to-air coverage, and the JF-17s will cover both the deep-strike and supporting air-to-air work. Interestingly, the PAF had already used the JF-17 for the strike role in Swift Retort by having a duo each launch a pair of REK PGBs across the Line-of-Control (LoC) in Kashmir. The PAF may have been satisfied with the results and, in turn, opted to double-down on equipping the JF-17 for the SOW-carrier role.

There are two additional variables to consider.

First, the J-10CE and Block-3 are technologically newer and more advanced than the package the PAF sent in 2019. For example, the J-10CE and Block-3 utilize AESA radars and integrated ECM suites. Moreover, each Block-3 could potentially carry two long-range SOWs to the one H-4 each Mirage had carried during Swift Retort. This qualitative gap could enable the PAF to rely on fewer fighters to create the same impact and coverage as it had in 2019. In turn, the 200 AESA radar-equipped fighters could amount to a relatively large number of offensive packages at the PAF’s disposal.

Second, drones. Since 2019, the PAF – along with the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Navy – has stepped up its drone procurement efforts. Quwa cannot verify the reports of the PAF importing Wing Loong 2 and Bayraktar TB2 drones from China and Turkey, respectively. However, the Pakistani military as a collective is likely aiming to build a sizable drone fleet through both domestic production and imports. Thus, Pakistan could incorporate drone strikes (plus land-based SOW strikes) into its response package. It might look to use drones to deprecate India’s ground-based air defence deployments and/or increase attack coverages to a larger number of targets. Pakistan may even use drones in lieu of manned aircraft in some situations, e.g., to limit escalation, engage in smaller-scale strikes, or carry out attacks with high attrition/loss risks.

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