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Pakistan Air Warfare Goals by 2030 (Part 2)

To the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Operation Swift Retort had ‘worked.’ The PAF said it was able to carryout precision strikes against multiple targets across the Line of Control (LoC) while also dissuading a larger and better equipped force from escalating tensions any further. The PAF lauded the effectiveness of its Falcon 20-based electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft – it specifically noted how the Falcon 20 apparently jammed communications between the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) assets.[1] The PAF also felt that Swift Retort validated its ability to deploy stand-off range weapons (SOW), and manage large-scale air operations. Indeed, for the PAF, Swift Retort was an unprecedented experience in that this operation was its first involving networked assets, long-range guided bombs (SOW) against pre-planned targets and, potentially, as many as 18 to 24 fighters supported by special mission aircraft.

But if Operation Swift Retort ‘worked,’ it did so because it was a large-scale air operation. However small in comparison to what the U.S. Air Force (USAF) could conduct, Swift Retort was arguably the largest and most complex air operation in South Asia’s air warfare history. Its unprecedented nature might have been the biggest reason why the IAF was, from the PAF’s perspective, thrown off sure footing. Notwithstanding the fact that the Government of Pakistan (GoP) sought to de-escalate tensions, the PAF had carved itself an advantageous position. Yes, it was temporary, and if it had occurred in the context of a full-scale war, the upper hand might have only been for a short period of time. But the PAF says it got that advantage.

Thus, rationally speaking, the PAF would want to replicate that advantage again in the future, should the situation in South Asia demand it. However, that is easier said than done considering how the PAF secured that advantage through a large-scale air operation. Thus, in a full-scale conflict, could the PAF muster the resources necessary to repeatedly carry out Swift Retort-like operations? Swift Retort required many key inputs, but in this article, the focus is the most noticeable one: a large number of fighter aircraft.

Simply, Swift Retort worked, in part, thanks to the disproportionate response to the IAF’s Balakot airstrike attempt. It is a break from poetic sensibilities (e.g., ‘the smaller force that won against the larger enemy’), but disproportionality works. To undertake such operations across more areas, and at a higher frequency, the PAF will require a larger fleet of modern combat aircraft. This article will argue that point as well as promote the case to focus on expanding the JF-17 development and acquisition program.

Swift Retort: Numbers Mattered

According to the PAF, its strike package consisted of six aircraft: two Mirage 5PA, each armed with one H-4, a glide-bomb with a rocket-assist/motor capable of a range of 120 km. The H-4 carries a 600 kg warhead, but it uses a manually operated terminal-seeker. Basically, the PAF also sent two Mirage IIIDAs, each with an operator to control the H-4 in its final stage, i.e., before impact against the target. The Mirage 5PAs launched their H-4s, and the H-4s independently flew towards the general location of their targets. Once in the vicinity of their targets, the Mirage IIIDAs took manual control of the H-4s to finish the strike.

In addition, the PAF also sent two JF-17s, each armed with two 454 kg (1,000 lb) MK83-based precision-guided bombs (PGB). The PGB kit is called the ‘Indigenous Range Extension Kit’ (IREK). Pakistan produces the IREK locally, but it is similar to the US Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM); it adds a satellite-aided inertial navigation system (GPS/INS) to the GPB as well as stabilizers to help direct the bomb to its target.

Unlike the H-4, the IREK PGB is a ‘fire-and-forget’ weapon. The fighter launches it towards a pre-set target/location, and the PGB will fly towards that target while relying on a GPS feed. It is optimal against large fixed targets, such as bunkers, bridges, hangars, ammunition depots, etc. The IREK provides a range of up to 100 km, but if launched at a high enough altitude. In other words, the lower the altitude of launch, the lesser the range. Thus, with the H-4 and IREK, the PAF deployed a complex strike element.

Finally, in addition to those six attack aircraft, the PAF deployed 12 to 18 F-16s and JF-17s to provide top-cover and ‘sweep’ air-to-air threats, such as the MiG-21bis, Su-30MKI and Mirage 2000H. The PAF used as many as 18 to 24 combat aircraft in Swift Retort, and that too with the support of one Falcon 20 EW/ECM jet and one Saab 2000-based Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.[2]

For a defensively oriented force, this is no small feat in terms of resource use and employment, especially the latter seeing how (1) the PAF never employed such a force in real-world combat before and (2) any major flaw in that operation could have resulted in losses and further escalation, to say the least.

The PAF could be tempted into thinking that a one-off employment is fine, but in reality, it would be better for Pakistan to pattern its future air warfare on Swift Retort. Basically, if Swift Retort generated a tactical advantage against India, then it makes sense to improve it, and be able to deploy it more often. The latter is critical in the context of a full-scale conflict, and there is a legitimate reason to think along those lines.

The risk of escalation is always there, even with a measured retaliatory response. Neither Pakistan or the PAF can control the decisions of other countries. Moreover, showing the ability to sustain such operations at a full-scale wartime level could help with setting conventional deterrence. In other words, India would have to accept that an action on its part could result in quick and severe conventional losses. Pakistan need not retreat to its strategic/nuclear threats and, instead, can press with conventional strikes if it is able to employ it. Thus, India may lose the incentive to engage in Balakot-like pre-emptive operations.

However, in a true wartime scenario, the PAF would need to duplicate Swift Retort across multiple fronts, and potentially, undertake large-scale air operations simultaneously. Consequently, the PAF would sustain losses, and it would need the capacity to again re-employ these operations after India’s response(s).

In just this point above, there are three key things to unpack:

Capacity for Large Scale Operations

First, does the PAF have the capacity to duplicate Swift Retort across multiple fronts? In other words, can it orchestrate a similar air operation from Southern Air Command (SAC), e.g., across Rajasthan or the seas, or over Punjab through Central Air Command (CAC)? The short answer is that the PAF can manage large scale operations from other regions, its resources well distributed to achieve that goal.

SAC, for example, is equipped with 18 F-16C/D Block-52+ which, unlike the older F-16A/B Block-15 Mid-Life-Update (MLU), are equipped with their own EW/ECM suites (i.e., the Advanced Airborne Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite, or AIDEWS). In other words, the Block-52+ can engage in EW/ECM-based spoofing and jamming independently, they do not need the Falcon 20 EW/ECM aircraft. The Block-52+ operate alongside the No. 11’s F-16A/B MLU unit at Shahbaz Air Base in Jacobabad, Sindh. One more F-16 unit (i.e., No. 19’s Block-15 Air Defence Fighters) are based at PAF Bholari.[3]

In addition, SAC also uses two JF-17 squadrons, i.e., the No. 2 Minhas unit based out of Masroor Air Base in Karachi, Sindh and the No. 28 Phoenix unit operating from Samungli Air Base in Quetta, Baluchistan. It also operates two Mirage III/5 squadrons as well as an F-7P/PG unit at Masroor and Samungli, respectively – but the F-16s and JF-17s alone speak to a large multi-role force. Finally, these units are supported by the ZDK03 Karakoram Eagle AEW&C system and, with time, the Erieye AEW&C.[4]

CAC is smaller, but it too has one F-16 unit (No. 9 with F-16A/B MLU) and two JF-17 Block-I/II units (No. 14 and No. 16 at Kamra Air Base), forming its multi-role element. Its F-7P units will likely move to the JF-17 Block-III through the 2020s. NAC’s high-tech element is its sole JF-17 unit (No. 26 at Peshawar), but it likely receives forward deployed aircraft from CAC and, possibly, SAC. One should assume that every one of the PAF’s multi-role units (i.e., JF-17 and F-16) will have AEW&C support as well. The JF-17 Block-III and JF-17B induction will likely cut across all three commands, boosting their respective multi-role elements.

The fact that each sector – especially SAC – is equipped to manage large scale air operations, one should assume that India will focus on defensibility along Punjab and Rajasthan. The cost-effective route is to rely on the Tejas and bolster the integrated air defence ground environment (ADGE). The latter will result in Barak-8-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) purchases, but other potentially other systems too, including the Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS) from the US. However, this route is still costly – five IADWS systems would cost up to $1.87 billion US.[5] If the IAF takes the threat of PAF operations seriously, it could end-up trading the purchase of high-tech imports (e.g., Rafale) for more SAMs and Tejas fighters.

In one sense, this is the type of change in procurement dynamics the PAF would prefer. It means India will have fewer offensive assets to deploy against Pakistan. Moreover, it could also free up the market to the PAF, allowing it greater or easier access to Western suppliers that might have otherwise focused on India. However, to achieve that outcome, the IAF must take the PAF threat – specifically the threat of large-scale air operations akin to Swift Retort – seriously. Is the PAF a credible threat?

Simultaneous Operations

The capacity to orchestrate one-offs may be in place, but the PAF may not have the ability to employ more than two or three simultaneous operations. It would be an important capability. If one Swift Retort could throw India off sure-footing, then three such operations at the same time in different areas could carve additional tactical and/or strategic openings. However, multiple and concurrent deployments could be an infeasible use of resources for the PAF.

The fleet numbers on paper do not tell the whole story. First, a percentage of aircraft are not serviceable due to maintenance or overhaul. Second, a number of each type are likely in storage as reserves to replace aircraft lost to attrition and accidents. Thus, if the PAF was to employ three Swift Retort-like missions, it could use at least 1/3 of its available fighters in a single day, can it sustain that resource use? Simply put, it would need to acquire more aircraft to lower that resource usage ratio.

Sustain Losses

In wartime, the only way to replace lost aircraft is by tapping into stored reserves. It is not known how the PAF calculates its reserve needs. However, a number of sources had labelled the PAF’s Peace Gate III order of 11 F-16A/B Block-15OCUs (Operational Capability Upgrade) as attrition reserves. With the Peace Gate IV order of 60 aircraft, the PAF would have had 110 F-16s on paper by 1997 (if it had not been sanctioned under the Pressler Amendment), of which 10 aircraft would have been in reserve. Thus, it is possible that the PAF keeps about 1/10 of its stated fleet in reserve as attrition replacements.

In peacetime, the way to replace lost aircraft is to procure or produce them. Unfortunately for the PAF, if it losses an F-16 or Mirage, it is unlikely to be able to replace them. Any additional F-16 acquisition – be it from the US or a third-party – is contingent on Washington’s approval. The door to F-16 acquisitions opens and closes based on the geopolitical dynamics of the era — and at this time, that door is shut. The Mirage is out of production, though by virtue of being the largest operator of the type, the PAF can salvage more units. In either case, there is a finality to the loss of either an F-16 or Mirage – the only way for the PAF to replace them is by supplanting either (or both) with a new fighter (e.g., Project Azm).

The Benefits of Concentrating on Only the JF-17

The JF-17, however, is a different story. Since the supply channel involves China and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), the PAF can readily replace lost aircraft with new-built ones. Granted, there is always the risk of losing PAC’s production line (e.g., as a loss in war), but the potential of a parallel line in China is also in place. Moreover, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) line will only end once there is a successor to the JF-17 – either through a next-generation fighter, or with one of AVIC’s other fighters, e.g., the J-10CE or L-15B, carrying most of its export load. However, neither one of those is a reality at present.

Finally, once one factors in the existing fixed cost overhead of the JF-17, the JF-17 is likely the lowest-cost contemporary fighter with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar on the market. So, not only will it be the PAF’s most technically modern fighter, but also its most accessible option for fleet-building.

There is no finality with a JF-17 loss. In fact, if a conflict results in the IAF exploiting a weakness in the JF-17, the PAF will find it easier to resolve it on the JF-17 than with an imported fighter. With the JF-17, the PAF can at least control development, especially as it takes on more of the integration and testing work.

The JF-17 Will Become Pakistan’s Most Capable Air-to-Air Asset

On the JF-17 Block-III, the KLJ-7A will accompany a new beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). PAC confirmed this to Quwa at the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS). However, while there are rumours claiming the PAF will get an export variant of the PL-15, PAC did not comment on the specific make, model or capabilities of the new BVRAAM. It could be either the PL-15E, or an improved version of the PL-12/SD-10. The new BVRAAM will likely offer at least 100 km in range and include a new seeker with improved electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) against EW/ECM.

With the stated ability to track a fighter-sized target at up to 170 km, and a new 100+ km BVRAAM at its disposal, the JF-17 Block-III will become the PAF’s most technically able air-to-air asset. In addition, the JF-17 Block-III will also have an integrated EW/ECM suite for self-protection, and the ability to deploy an EW pod such as the Chinese KG600 and other ITAR-free systems from Turkey and/or Western Europe. In terms of the electronics, the Block-III is a fully contemporary fighter; the market can only offer an improvement in performance and specifications, but it will not as much new technology.

If the PAF employs the Block-III correctly (and at sufficient quantitative scale), it could gain an effective air warfare asset. To understand how, one just needs to impact the benefits of the aforementioned features.

First, the Block-III will have air-to-air engagement coverages similar – if not greater than (with the PL-15) – than the PAF’s F-16s. Thus, the Block-III will be integral to a sweep or top cover force. Second, the Block-III can carry EW/ECM, allowing the PAF to embed this capability within its fighter force. It can also deploy more EW/ECM in operations (since it can equip any of its 130+ Block-II/III/Bs). Third, if the strike package and fighter sweep comprised of only JF-17s, the entire force could operate on a single tactical data link (TDL), instead of maintaining parallel TDLs in the same mission by operating both F-16s and JF-17s. If the JF-17s lose connectivity to AEW&C, they can use the AESA radar of one fighter for collective situational awareness. Every other JF-17 can switch-off their radars, making it difficult for the IAF’s fighters’ radar warning receivers (RWR) detect the other fighters, even when these JF-17s try engaging IAF fighters.

In response to Swift Retort, the IAF will work to close its technical capabilities and, in turn, build methods to deprecate the PAF’s capabilities. If these efforts expose vulnerabilities in the JF-17, the PAF could work on resolving those gaps immediately (e.g., upgrade the JF-17’s software defined radios so that they could pass more data and/or better secure data-links from jamming). This level of control is one of the greatest benefits of maintaining an in-house fighter project.

Likewise, the PAF can also diversify its JF-17 stock by acquiring additional tranches with differing radars and EW/ECM. So, the Block-III will use the KLJ-7A and a new Chinese BVRAAM. Once a new BVRAAM comes online in Turkey or South Africa (such as the Marlin), the PAF could acquire another Block-III tranche with the Leonardo Grifo-E (or PAC’s in-house AESA radar project). Diversity would make support and maintenance more difficult, but not as much as adding an entirely new fighter. However, the benefit of diversity is that it would be more difficult for the IAF to decipher the JF-17’s electronic weaknesses.

The JF-17’s Strike Potential is Only Limited by the PAF

Interestingly, the JF-17 already has an effective strike capability. The Block-II can carry 227 kg (500 lb) MK-82 and 454 kg (1,000 lb) MK-83 GPBs, either unguided or as PGBs with a range of up to 100 km, depending on the launch altitude. The Block-I and Block-II can also carry C-802 anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM), i.e., a stand-off range capability deployable against moving targets. However, these are not fully analogous to the precision-strike capability offered by the PAF’s venerable Mirage III/5s.

It is evident that the H-2/H-4 SOW and Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) were primarily designed for the Mirage III/5, and are not readily compatible with the JF-17. The incompatibility is not limited at the electronic/interface level (which is solvable), but within the SOW/ALCMs’ designs. So, for example, both the H-2/H-4 and Ra’ad have protruding horizontal stabilizers that would interfere with the JF-17’s landing gear (if carried from the wings) and ground clearance (if deployed from the centerline hardpoint).

However, a solution for this problem does exist, i.e., the Denel Dynamics Raptor III. The Raptor III is (or at least was) the latest proposed variant of the Raptor I/II, which the H2/H4 were based on (after a transfer-of-technology agreement between Pakistan and South Africa).

The Raptor III is a compact design using an “X” tailstock and foldable wings. Thus, if used from the JF-17’s wings, it should not interfere with any vital mechanical functions. The Raptor III still carries the H2/H4’s 600+ kg warhead, but with a key improvement – an engagement range of up to 280 km. The range extension is a result of integrating the tailstock with a miniature turbojet engine.

In other words, the Raptor III is technically an ALCM. If the PAF were to emulate the Raptor III (or takeover the project), it could equip the JF-17 with a SOW that combines qualities of the H2/H4 and Ra’ad. So, for example, instead of one H2/H4, a single JF-17B can carry two Raptor IIIs (i.e., one under each wing). Since the PAF had used a separate Mirage III to remote-operate the H2/H4, a single JF-17B can both carry these munitions and (through a Weapon Systems Officer) remotely control them (or manage one with a pre-set target using GPS, while controlling the other). If the strike package consisted of two JF-17B and four JF-17 Block-II/III, then those six aircraft could have deployed 12 munitions instead of six. Basically, each aircraft would launch two SOWs in the form of Raptor IIIs and/or IREK PGBs. Likewise, the PAF could have utilized fewer aircraft to achieve the same ground-attack impact (e.g., four JF-17B/Block-II instead of six fighters).

The maritime environment could work in a similar way. Instead of the Raptor III, the PAF could equip each strike-focused JF-17 with two ASCM (in fact, the Block-I can already carry two C-802A). The key would be adding a true supersonic-cruising ASCM, so as to overcome the Indian Navy’s (IN) improving ship defences for countering cruise missiles. The constraint, however, would be whether the JF-17 can carry a 1,400 kg-plus munition such as the HD-1A (a Chinese supersonic-cruising ASCM).[6] The Block-III will reportedly carry 925 kg (2,000 lb) MK-84-based IREK, so it may be possible for it to also support the HD-1A.[7]

The PAF could also look at investing in more developmental ingenuity around munitions. So, for example, it can use the Raptor III (or analogous in-house design) as the basis for different warhead types, including electronic attack (EA) or an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to disrupt local radars or communications. It can also look at developing a low-cost indigenous turbojet engine as a tailstock for the Raptor III. This way, it can use the Raptor III as a shorter-range (i.e., 60 km/120 km) SOW identical to the H2/H4. In fact, it could simplify and modularize the seeker and range-extension kits (including low-cost turbojet) design further to improve the IREK-series, i.e., turn any dumb bomb into a SOW that can reach 100 km from any launch altitude. Finally, it can even experiment with a lighter and smaller ALCM design patterned on the Ra’ad or Ra’ad II, but with submunition warheads for attacking runways, or even launch small disposable EW/ECM (similar to the Leonardo BriteCloud) over an air defence system.

None of the above solutions are beyond the PAF’s reach (interestingly, Leonardo is indicating that it had ‘optimized’ the BriteCloud for use from the JF-17)[8], or even its in-house technical capabilities. For the PAF, the key is whether it is willing to invest in these farther out solutions, instead of buying off-the-shelf.

Could the PAF Still Acquire an Off-the-Shelf Fighter?

The PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) had hinted that an off-the-shelf fighter can come. In fact, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan stated, “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.”[9]

Traditionally, the main benefit of importing a new fighter is that it would introduce new technology. This was the case from the F-104 to the Mirage III/5 to the F-16 and F-16 Block-52+. However, the one fighter that is bringing new technologies to the PAF today is the JF-17 (e.g., an AESA radar). So, while import could offer markedly better performance on a 1:1 basis, is it the most optimal air warfare solution for the PAF?

The one thing that could be of interest to the PAF is access to a BVRAAM that matches the MBDA Meteor (which India is getting with the Dassault Rafale), or at least offers a comparable impact in the region. Thus, a supplier could hinge the availability of said BVRAAM to the purchase of another fighter platform.

However, be it from the US, Europe, Russia or even China, the acquisition of a new fighter would still be a major fiscal strain on the PAF. Given Pakistan’s severe fiscal and monetary constraints, the money it will need for a cutting-edge fighter will involve a trade-off, such as reducing the cash outlay for the PAF’s next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA), or continued JF-17 development.

In some situations, the trade-off is understandable (though not ideal). So, for example, if the PAF sought 18 F-16 Block-72s and 62 F-16V upgrade kits for its 18 Block-52+ and 44 F-16A/B MLUs, the outlay would likely sit around $5.5 billion US based on recent Block-72 and F-16V contracts. Though simplistic, but if the PAF somehow secured a loan that breaks the cost over annual installments over 10 years, it would need to pay $550 million US a year. This outlay would certainly draw money away from the NGFA, and preclude further JF-17 development. However, the gain is 80 cutting-edge 4.5+ generation fighters with an industry-class BVRAAM. This may retain strategic value longer than any delay to the NGFA.

The exception works best for the F-16 (which, ironically, is the most politically tenuous option) due to its comparatively lower costs and the fact that the PAF already absorbed its support overhead costs. But any other platform, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Su-35 or J-10CE, is a questionable diversion of resources, and that outlay will stick in perpetuity until those fighters are retired (i.e., many decades).

In fact, in light of COVID-19, an off-the-shelf fighter is likely no longer on the table anyways, the PAF should shift to now making the most of even fewer funds. Realistically, concentrating on the JF-17 is the only tenable avenue.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 33. URL: https://airforcesmonthly.keypublishing.com/the-magazine/view-issue/?issueID=8176

[2] Ibid. p32.

[3] Order of Battle. Pakistan Air Force. Scramble. URL: https://www.scramble.nl/orbats/pakistan/airforce

[4] Ibid.

[5] News Release. “India – Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS) and Related Equipment and Support.” Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). 10 February 2020. URL: https://dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/india-integrated-air-defense-weapon-system-iadws-and-related-equipment-and-support

[6] Liu Xuanzun. “Chinese firm unveils new cruise missile.” Global Times. 9 November 2018. URL: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1126731.shtml

[7] Alan Warnes. “Dubai Airshow: Pakistan JF-17 returns to Dubai.” Arabian Aerospace. 13 November 2017. URL: https://www.arabianaerospace.aero/dubai-airshow-pakistan-jf-17-returns-to-dubai.html

[8] Product Catalog. BriteCloud. Leonardo. URL: https://www.leonardocompany.com/documents/20142/3149300/Britecloud_ECM_LQ_mm08222_.pdf?t=1538987428261

[9] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 35

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