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Pakistan’s Erieye AEW&C Follow-On Order Now Proceeding?

In April and May 2018, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) took delivery of numerous items from Saab AB, notably radar equipment from Saab’s Surveillance Headquarters in Gothenburg/Göteborg and a bevy of additional secured equipment from the Swedish defence giant. Considering that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) placed an order for three additional Saab 2000-based Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft in May 2017, it is possible that Saab’s deliveries this year indicate the implementation phase of this order.

The deliveries can be examined from the following open-source export-import (EXIM) registries:

Background on the Pakistan Erieye AEW&C Program

In 2006, Pakistan had agreed to procure six Saab 2000-based Erieye AEW&C aircraft from Saab along with a baseline Saab 2000 (i.e. seven aircraft) for a total of $1.15 billion US. However, to reallocate resources for the reconstruction effort in Kashmir (following the earthquake of 2005), the PAF trimmed its order to four Erieye AEW&C and one baseline Saab 2000 (i.e. five aircraft). Although the PAF received and inducted these aircraft, an attack on Minhas Air Base in 2012 rendered three of the four aircraft inoperable.

In the aftermath of the 2012 attack, one of the three affected aircraft was written-off, while the two were severely damaged. Shortly thereafter, the PAF embarked on recovering the two damaged aircraft through a domestic rebuild, testing and certification process at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).

The PAF’s Air Commodore Rizwan Riaz (PhD in Aerodynamics), Air Commodore Shakeel Safdar (PhD in Structural Design and Repair) and Wing Commander Muhammad Rafiq had outlined on national television (PTV) the recovery process of the Erieye AEW&C aircraft. The PAF returned the first aircraft to service in 2015, with the second following in 2016. Thus, the PAF’s Erieye AEW&C fleet was restored to three aircraft by 2017, with Alan Warnes reporting (in May 2017) of the PAF ordering another three aircraft.[1] According to Alan Warnes, the first of the three follow-on aircraft was due for delivery in December 2017.[2]

Sources have told Quwa that the PAF’s Erieye fleet has been returned to four aircraft – this would align with Warnes’ report about the first follow-on Erieye arriving in late 2017. In addition, Quwa was able to confirm (via open-source EXIM logs) of radar, services and equipment deliveries in February 2017 similar to the deliveries made in April and May 2018. This strengthens the notion of an Erieye delivery in 2017.

Is Pakistan Integrating the Erieye AEW&C to the Saab 2000 Domestically?

Based on the EXIM log, it would appear that Pakistan is integrating the Erieye radar and other subsystems to the Saab 2000. PAC’s capacity to undertake the integration work will have emerged from the depot or D-Level airframe repair capability it had to build in order to repair the two damaged AEW&C aircraft. Using the photos the PAF released (through PTV), it appears that PAC could access the aircraft’s superstructure and (at least) install specific components, including aerostructures/airframe parts and engine propellers.

To be clear, a D-Level maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility, though capable of implementing structural work on an aircraft – such as repair, refurbishing, integration and upgrades – still relies on the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for components. Be it repairing the two damaged Erieye AEW&C aircraft or integrating three new aircraft, PAC had relied on Saab for the necessary components.

However, it would be erroneous to suggest that there is absolutely no local content. Though modest, PAC could be involved sourcing in comparatively basic areas, such as the aircraft’s wiring. Interestingly, though the cost savings of PAC’s D-Level MRO site would primarily occur in labour and services (not materiel), the PAF had claimed on numerous occasions that the repair work cost $25 million US (or 5% of the price had the original OEM Saab taken on the task). Thus, as far as the PAF is concerned, substantive savings were accrued through PAC. In the forthcoming years, these savings will grow as PAC will be tasked to carry-out more surface-level MRO tasks and, potentially (albeit in the long-term), upgrades or retrofits.

How Will the Follow-On Erieye AEW&C Fit in the PAF’s Doctrine?

The follow-on order would bring the PAF’s Erieye AEW&C fleet to six aircraft, i.e. the original force it had planned to build prior to the 2005 Earthquake. However, the PAF also procured four ZDK03 AEW&C from China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). Thus, the total AEW&C fleet would rise to a total of 10 aircraft, a relatively sizable number. Interestingly, the follow-on Erieye order might have been a very affordable order for the PAF thanks to the fact that much of the operating infrastructure was in place.

As discussed in a previous Quwa Premium article, the upfront acquisition cost of each Erieye could be less than $100 m US. This conclusion is based on the following (earlier) analysis:

In contrast, adding new Erieye AEW&C – especially through the Saab 2000 – is turning out to have been a very affordable route for the PAF. To be clear, the cost of adding new Erieye is lower for the PAF because it has the requisite infrastructure to maintain them.

These infrastructure costs were absorbed in the initial order made in 2007 for four Erieye. In 2006, Pakistan agreed to purchasing six Saab 2000-based Erieye for $1.15 billion (i.e. $1.4 billion today).[3]

Today, that all-inclusive cost would amount to $350 million per aircraft, but in 2007 a change to the contract had revealed the cost of each system minus the initial costs. Due to the aftermath of an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005, the PAF omitted two Erieye from its order, this trimmed-off $186 million (i.e. $227 million today) – i.e. $93 million per aircraft ($114 million today).[4]

In light of the fact that additional F-16s are not (at least currently) in the procurement pipeline, the fleet expansion would indicate the following factors. First, contrary to very early notions (when the PAF opted to procure both the Erieye and ZDK03), the Erieye – though Link-16 capable – will (if not already) also take on the proprietary tactical data-link (TDL) system in use by the JF-17. It would make no sense to build-up the Erieye fleet to be the mainstay AEW&C platform if the PAF’s mainstay fighter cannot operate with it.

In fact, Saab itself has positioned the Erieye AEW&C to be interoperable with non-Western and non-NATO operational environments. Firstly, Sweden itself is not a part of NATO, so it is not necessarily required to adhere by NATO standards unless it was marketing solutions to NATO countries. Secondly, Saab itself had stated (via its promotional material) that the Erieye could be configured Link-16, Link-11 or an “in-house data-link dedicated for AEW&C.”[5] In other words, the PAF can configure the Erieye and JF-17 to ‘speak’ to one another via the latter’s TDL – i.e. Link-17. The fact that Sweden is not a NATO country nor is the Erieye a NATO-standard system by default should make this endeavour doable, if not already accomplished.

The deployment strategy could see specific Erieye AEW&C allocated to F-16s and to JF-17s, i.e. demarcate specific units and prevent interoperability despite sharing the same AEW&C platform. It is not known if the PAF has opted to equip the Erieye with the capability to process different TDL protocols. However, the Turkish company MilSOFT has a solution called the MilSOFT Multi Data Link Processor (Mil-DLP). The PAF could, albeit in theory, consider the Mil-DLP to enable the Erieye – and other combat management system (CMS)-equipped platforms, such as frigates – to receive and process different TDLs.[6]

Besides providing combat aircraft with extended-range radar-based situational awareness, the PAF could – at least in theory – deploy the Erieye as a stand-off range targeting asset. According to Saab, the Erieye offers over-the-horizon (OTH) coverage that is “10 times over” that of surface-based radars.[7] The Erieye’s horizontal/surface reach covers an area of 500,000 km2 [8]. Although the PAF’s ZDK03 AEW&C is ostensibly providing stand-off and OTH targeting coverage in Pakistan’s maritime space, the Erieye offers the PAF a complementary option. Otherwise, a large AEW&C fleet helps with maintaining a persistent AEW umbrella by reducing operational gaps caused by aircraft downtime (e.g. maintenance).

Besides the core AEW&C radar, it is unclear if the PAF added or will add supplementary electronics, namely electronic support measures (ESM), ground-surveillance radar and/or electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) pod. The latter are all integrated to the new-generation Saab GlobalEye Swing-Role Surveillance System (SRSS) platform sold to the UAE. Though the D-Level MRO site at PAC should enable the PAF to undertake such upgrades, delineating or separating the ground surveillance and ESM roles to different platforms can be an equally, if not more plausible, alternative should the need arise.

In relation to that, PAC’s D-Level MRO work on the Saab 2000 may have provided it with an understanding of the structural properties and inputs of turboprop-powered airliners. In turn, the PAF’s newfound drive to domestically manufacture such aircraft, as it had announced during the 2017 Dubai Air Show.[9] Such a program could be bound to future special mission aircraft (at least as a means to generate scale-at-launch) should PAC actually bring its civil aircraft program to fruition.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan to get more Erieyes”. Air Forces Monthly. 19 May 2017. URL: http://www.airforcesmonthly.com/2017/05/19/pakistan-to-get-more-erieyes/ (Last Accessed: 24 February 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Press Release. “Saab contract for surveillance system to Pakistan becomes effective”. Saab Group. 22 June 2006. URL: https://saabgroup.com/sv/media/news-press/news/2006-06/saab-contract-for-surveillance-system-to-pakistan-becomes-effective/ (Last Accessed: 24 February 2018).

[4] Press Release. “Saab renegotiate surveillance contract”. Saab Group. 28 May 2007. URL: https://saabgroup.com/media/news-press/news/2007-05/saab-renegotiate-surveillance-contract/ (Last Accessed: 24 February 2018).

[5] Promotional Material. Erieye AEW&C Mission System. Saab. 2013. URL: https://saab.com/globalassets/publications-pdfs/eds/radar/airborne/erieye_en_2013.pdf (Last Accessed: 24 June 2018)

[6] Promotional Material. Multi Data-Links Processor. MilSOFT. URL: http://www.milsoft.com.tr/en/portfolio/mil-dlp/ (Last Accessed: 24 June 2018).

[7] Saab. 2013.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Waheed Abbas. “Pakistan to soon start producing commercial aircraft.” Khaleej Times. 14 November 2017. URL: https://www.khaleejtimes.com/business/aviation/pakistan-to-soon-start-producing-commercial-aircraft-in-kamra-official (Last Accessed: 24 June 2018).

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