Skip to content Skip to footer

Pakistan’s Air Warfare Goals by 2030 (Part 1)

With a little over year passing since Operation Swift Retort – i.e., the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) retaliatory strikes in response to India’s action over Balakot, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in February 2019 – the PAF has likely developed an idea of how to modernize its fleet through the 2020s. Granted, many will likely be drawn to the PAF Chief of Air Staff’s (CAS) hint that the PAF may pursue an off-the-shelf fighter[1], but that is not the actual story. Yes, the PAF’s Mirage III/5s and JF-17s played the lead role in attacking ground targets, while the F-16s downed at least one Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter (the PAF claims two). However, those fighters relied on critical supporting assets to deliver their respective munitions, including the Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and Falcon DA20 electronic warfare (EW)/electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft. Moreover, the PAF also lauded the experience it gained through multi-national exercises as key to its execution in February 2019. Finally, tying all those assets together was the PAF’s investment in the electromagnetic spectrum, i.e., secure and working data links (and ability to apparently deprecate the IAF’s wireless communications and counter-deployment via EW/ECM).

If anything, the actual ‘story’ is that the PAF will need to continue improving its ‘supporting assets’ – i.e., AEW&C, EW/ECM, data-linking, etc – to keep up with emerging technologies and regional trends. If not, then it could potentially suffer in similar ways the IAF did during Operation Swift Retort, such as a loss in wireless data link/communications quality, or weaker EW/ECM employment. Though these assets are not as tangible (or celebrated) as combat aircraft, their absence or deprecation could cause aircraft loss, and potentially, wider tactical or even strategic defeats. Likewise, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and militaries are less transparent about the performance and technical specifications of these assets, so one will not know how effective they truly are until an actual engagement. However, though modernizing these assets adds fiscal strain, it is more affordable to keep these systems at-par, at least for now. In fact, significant (and comparatively lower-cost) gains in this respect could lessen the pressure of acquiring new high-performance combat aircraft (read: high-cost imports). Note: those combat aircraft are still valuable, but they are far from the sole measures of air warfare capability today as they were several decades ago.

For the PAF, its modernization goals for the 2020s will likely focus on the following areas: First, additional combat aircraft. This may contradict an earlier point, but ‘additional aircraft’ does not necessarily mean ‘high-cost off-the-shelf fighters,’ but rather, more JF-17 Block-IIIs and JF-17Bs (i.e., more than the 76 the PAF already has in its procurement pipeline). Second, diversification of EW/ECM assets, be it across pods for combat aircraft or dedicated, stand-off range assets like the Falcon DA20. Third, further investment in securing wireless communication/data-linking so as to mitigate enemy EW/ECM effects and ensure its reliability in contested electromagnetic environments. Fourth, training aircrews and other specialists from an early stage, and leveraging more exercises, so that the PAF can maintain and improve execution quality.

Quwa will break-out each of these four areas into detailed articles in April. In this article, Quwa will briefly look at the main challenges and intended outcomes for each area (and examine each in depth separately).

1. Add More JF-17s. Numbers Matter.

For the PAF, the primary benefit of acquiring a new fighter is that it introduces new technology and air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. For the PAF, the biggest technology leaps occurred with the induction of the F-16C/D Block-52+ (and the F-16A/B Mid-Life Update for the already serving Block-15s). It brought a credible beyond-visual-range (BVR) capability plus tactical data-links (TDL) and precision-strike. Even in his most recent statements, the PAF CAS hinted as much; if there is a much-needed capability that would come through a new fighter, the PAF will try to acquire that fighter.[2] However, the JF-17 Block-III will alter this equation in that the PAF can now get the latest technologies through an in-house program.

Though the JF-17 does not have as much range, payload, or subsystem performance specifications as top-end ‘4+/4.5-generation’ aircraft, the Block-III and JF-17B offer enough for the PAF to achieve its mission objectives. The main bottleneck is not the JF-17, but the air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions as well as subsystems (e.g. radar, EW/ECM, etc) available to the JF-17. If the PAF resolves those constraints (and it can if it opts to invest in munitions and subsystems), the JF-17 is more than ‘a good enough’ asset.

However, that is just one side of the challenge. The other side is the fact that the PAF actually needs to deploy a large number of fighters to replicate Swift Retort-like operations, especially in succession at a high-rate, which the PAF will need to expect in a wider-scale conflict. So, in Swift Retort, the PAF appears to have used 18-24 fighters consisting of Mirage III/5s, JF-17s and F-16s. Seeing how a percentage of the stated numbers of fighters will always be non-operable (e.g., maintenance), effective operations of Swift Retort’s nature require significant resources. The only way to sustain multiple operations of this scale – potentially some at the same time – is with a low-cost delivery asset, i.e., the JF-17.

In a separate article, Quwa will look at the finality of losing a Mirage or F-16 in operations (i.e., if lost, the aircraft are unlikely to be replaced) and highlight the benefits of moving offensive missions to the JF-17.

2. Diversify Electronic Warfare, Countermeasures and Attack Assets

Thus far, the PAF has only revealed that its primary EW/ECM asset in Swift Retort was its modified Dassault Falcon DA20. There is no information on how the PAF equipped these jets, but one can expect some type of digital radio frequency memory (DRFM)-based jamming system. With DRFM, the EW suite can jam an enemy’s ground and airborne radars by recording and re-transmitting those radars’ radio frequency (RF) signals. The stated benefit of DRFM is that it makes it difficult for the other side to differentiate between valid and false signals coming back to their radars. However, the PAF also revealed that the Falcon DA20s can jam communications as well. It did not reveal what methods it uses to achieve this, though it could involve disturbing the area’s signal-to-noise ratio, among others.

In terms of EW/ECM, the PAF only disclosed the presence of the Falcon DA20. However, there is a photo of a PAF JF-17 flying with a Chinese KG600 or KG700 EW/ECM self-protection pod (via Twitter). In addition, the PAF’s 18 F-16C/D Block-52+ leverage the AN/ALQ-211(v9) Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare System (AIDEWS) pods. Originally, it seemed as though the PAF would acquire AIDEWS pods for its older F-16A/B Block-15 Mid-Life Update (MLU) aircraft as well, but it is unclear if it made those orders.[3]

In any case, it is clear that the PAF is working to equip its existing units with EW/ECM, right down to the individual fighter where possible. The JF-17 Block-III could have a suite integrated right into its airframe.

The challenge moving forward will be an increased IAF investment in both improving its own EW/ECM as well as electronic intelligence (ELINT). It will use the latter to build-out its threat-library so that it can read and respond to Pakistani EW/ECM attempts, i.e., deprecate Pakistan’s EW/ECM in the future.

This is where diversity of EW/ECM assets could be critical. It would be surprising if the PAF sticks to relying on only its Falcon DA20s. Rather, it should acquire additional EW/ECM aircraft, and that too using systems from different suppliers, so as to make it harder for India’s ELINT efforts. Likewise, the PAF will likely need to invest in ELINT of its own so as to track India’s signals and, in turn, build its own threat-library.

It would not be surprising if the PAF pursues these objectives quietly, after all, no one knows what systems are in use with the Falcon DA20. However, one should expect it to seek new technology this decade. One area of interest should be gallium-nitride (GaN)-based active electronically scanned array (AESA) jammers with the ability to address a wider spectrum of RF signals (so as to engage more types of Indian radars).

3. Improve Data-Link / Wireless Communications

Just as the Falcon DA20 apparently jammed the IAF’s communications, the IAF will work to effect the same results on the PAF in the future. The PAF’s main tactical data-link (TDL) networks are Link-16 and Link-17, which are deployed from the F-16 as well as JF-17 and Mirages, respectively. It would be prudent for the PAF to continue investing in its TDL technology, be it through new (and more jamming-resistant) software defined radios (SDR), improved encryption, frequency hopping and other methods.

One area it could look into, especially in the context of Project AZM, is a specialized TDL meant for high-risk areas or contested electromagnetic environments. It could be a back-up to Link-17 wherein fighters in a specific area can still communicate and share each others’ respective sensor feeds, despite jamming.

Fortunately, this is an area where several of Pakistan’s partners would want to invest in as well, especially China and Turkey. So, there is scope to collaborate on the underlying technologies with both countries. It should be noted that Turkey is already helping Pakistan with its network-enabled warfare infrastructure, especially the Pakistan Navy (via ‘Link Green’ and ‘RedLine’). [4]

4. Train for New Concepts at an Earlier Stage

Already, the majority of the PAF’s mainstay fighter aircraft leverage multi-function displays (MFD), TDLs, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM), guided air-to-surface munitions, and other capabilities (e.g., in-flight refueling). Thus, to execute Swift Retort-like operations at a wider scale and more frequently the PAF will need to ensure that its pilots and supporting personnel (e.g., onboard AEW&C, EW/ECM and other special mission aircraft) are sufficiently trained and acclimated to these environments.

There are hints that the PAF is already moving towards adapting its operational changes to its training, e.g., a local contractor integrated Genesys Aerosystems’ glass cockpit to the Super Mushshak recently.[5] The new cockpit leverages three MFDs as well as multimode radios, a flight management system (FMS), and other features. Interestingly, Genesys Aeroystems says it will be “transferring technology for local manufacturing of key components for long-term sustainability” to Pakistan, suggesting this could emerge as a fleet-wide upgrade of the PAF’s existing Super Mushshak trainers.[6]

Likewise, the PAF CAS said (in May 2019) that a key priority was procuring a lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) to serve as a bridge between the K-8 and the JF-17/F-16 conversion units. The CAS said the PAF looked at the Leonardo M346, Korea Aerospace Industries T-50, and Aviation Industry Corporation of China L-15. It seems the PAF is looking to acclimate its new pilots on new operational concepts (e.g., TDL, BVRAAM and others) before they convert to any of the PAF’s operational units. Once these pilots move onto operational units, they would then undertake dissimilar air combat training (DACT) through the PAF’s own aggressor unit(s) as well as fleet-wide and multi-national exercises.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 35. URL: https://airforcesmonthly

[2] Ibid.

[3] Asif Shamim. “Potential sale of AIDEWS pods to Pakistan.” 26 June 2008. URL:

[4] İbrahim Sünnetci. “A Look at Latest Status of the PN MİLGEM Project.” Defence Turkey Volume 14. Issue 97. 2019.

[5] Press Release. “Super Mushshak Flies with Genesys Aerosystems Glass Cockpit.” Genesys Aerosystems. 25 March 2020. URL:

[6] Ibid.

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment