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Pakistan’s Mirages: Today’s Success and Tomorrow’s Roadmap

Note: This article is a partial re-write of an older Quwa Premium piece – “Pakistan’s Mirages: Specialists Enduring Out of Necessity.” However, the latter half of this article delves into how the PAF used the Mirage III/5 during Swift Retort as well as how the PAF may configure the JF-17 to support the Mirages and how the lessons of using the Mirages in strike and maritime operations for decades could confirm Project AZM.

In April 2018, the AFP News Agency published an article detailing its visit to the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).[1] The complete AFP article is available on Dawn News, but it provides an insight into the MRF’s activities in keeping the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) Dassault Mirage III and 5 fighters serviceable, especially with much of the fleet averaging 50 years in terms of airframe age.[2]

Interestingly, AFP was able to extract the reason why the PAF persists with operating the Mirage III/5, i.e. its continuing value as an effective strike aircraft, which the PAF Air Commodore Tariq Yazdani described as a “very agile aircraft capable of penetrating deep into the enemy’s territory without being detected by radar, which makes its sole mission — to drop bombs on the enemy’s position — quite easy.”[3]

Since its introduction to the PAF fleet in the 1968, the Mirage III/5 has transitioned from being the PAF’s mainstay high-tech fighter in the 1970s to a complementary asset to the newer F-16 in the 1980s. Today, the Mirage III/5 may not command as much attention as the F-16 and JF-17 as an air-to-air asset, but it is significantly more than just a valuable strike fighter – it is the PAF’s prime strike asset.

This prominence stems from two factors.

First is the straightforward reality that the PAF has not yet been able to secure a suitable successor. The cause primarily stems from a lack of funding (i.e., cash on-hand or financing mechanisms such as a supplier line-of-credit), but also a limited pool of willing suppliers with aircraft that can substantively improve upon the Mirage III/5 to warrant the costly shift to a new platform.

Second, the Mirage III/5 is the PAF’s sole delivery platform for key stand-off weapons (SOW), namely the H-2 and H-4 glide-bombs (which are derived from the Denel Dynamics Raptor I and Raptor II – ranges of 60 km and 120 km, respectively) and Ra’ad I and Ra’ad II air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), which have ranges of 350 km and 600 km, respectively. The Mirage 5PA3 can also carry the MBDA AM39 Exocet anti-ship missile (AShM). Prior to the C-802-equipped JF-17, the Mirage 5PA3 was the PAF’s only anti-ship warfare (AShW) asset. It still operates from Masroor Air Base under the No. 32 Tactical Wing.

The Mirage Rebuild Factory

The PAF established the MRF in 1978. In the subsequent 40 years, the MRF has serviced (as of November 2017) a total of 350 aircraft and 2,280 engines.[4] The PAF has invested considerably in the MRF, essentially building a robust infrastructure base to stretch airframe lives beyond the lifespan intended by Dassault.

However, the extent to which MRF is undertaking depot-level maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) work today is the culmination of four decades of gradual capacity growth at PAC. When it began its MRO work, PAC relied on imported parts – originally from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and then from surplus Mirage III/5 aircraft from Australia, France, Libya and other places – to ensure and/or extend airframe lives.[5] PAC reduced this reliance (albeit, not entirely) by undertaking some manufacturing work, particularly of wing components and parts for the Atar-09C turbojet engine.[6]

It appears that since the 1980s, PAC accumulated a series of turnkey repair facilities from Dassault – i.e. Wing Refurbishing Facility, Fuselage Structural Repair and Engine Overhaul Wing.[7] Granted, the Mirages are old platforms, but compared to other aging platforms – such as the C-130B/E, AH-1F/S and in time the F-16A/Bs – PAC is essentially the best place to replenish certain aerostructures (such as the wings’ ribs).[8]

Moreover, new investments – such as a structural health management system from Critical Materials in Portugal – will enhance MRF’s ability to assess the integrity of the Mirage III/5’s aerostructures so that it can optimize its resources while maintaining or even improving the overall maintenance process.[9]

Operational Deployment & Future

It is important to note that the Mirage III/5 itself was designed as a comparatively lightweight fighter. It is not a ‘deep-strike fighter’ in terms of the range and payload flexibility a Flanker-series or even a medium-weight platform such as the Mirage 2000, F-16 or J-10 would offer. However, through the integration of SOWs, air-to-air refueling (AAR), and shrewd deployment strategies, the PAF’s Mirages are strike assets.

In terms of exploiting geostrategic realities, Pakistan’s immediate proximity to India means that the PAF’s Mirage III/5s can deploy SOWs without needing fuel-tanks to sustain a long-range flight (there is no need for it). The presence of forward operating bases, civilian airstrips and makeshift runways using highways enable the PAF to deploy and recover its aircraft with relative ease. Thus, the inherent limitation in combat radius is not an issue for the PAF in terms of airstrikes on nearby targets, albeit targets within the coverage provided by the PAF’s SOW arsenal, especially the H-2 and H-4 (local versions of the Denel Raptor-I/II).

The PAF had shown a limited measure of this capability in its response to India’s attempted air strikes over Balakot in 2019, i.e., Swift Retort. The PAF’s strike package at the time consisted of two Mirage 5PAs and two dual-seat Mirage IIIDAs. The PAF armed the Mirage 5PAs with H-4s, i.e., a gliding SOW with a rocket-assist motor capable of reaching a range of 120 km. Once the Mirage 5PAs launched their H-4 ordnances, operators sitting in the rear seat of each Mirage IIIDA manually operated the H-4s to their targets using a data-link-based communications protocol and the H-4’s TV-seeker. The PAF says it opted to intentionally miss the military targets on the other side of the Line-of-Control (so as to limit escalation).[10]

In terms of the future, the PAF is beginning to configure the JF-17 for SOW. Currently, the JF-17 can deploy the C-802 AShM and Range Extension Kit (REK)-configured MK-80-series precision-guided bombs (PGB). It can also deploy an air-launched rocket in the form of the CM-400AKG. The JF-17 now shares some of the strike and maritime operations load of the Mirage III/5s, but it is not yet ready to fully supplant it.

For example, the PAF has yet to qualify the Ra’ad-series of ALCMs for use from the JF-17. Likewise, there are no indications at this time of the PAF integrating the H-2/H-4 to the JF-17. However, the PAF will have to eventually carry these munitions forward to a new platform.

It seems that the PAF is already working on this transition, at least with the Ra’ad-series. In February 2020, the PAF test-fired the Ra’ad-2, which it says offers range of 600 km. The Ra’ad-2 uses a new “X-shaped” tailstock instead of the initial Ra’ad version’s protruding horizontal stabilizers. This new configuration could have been done to enable the JF-17 to carry Ra’ad-2s from each its wings.

In terms of emulating the capability of the H-2/H-4, the PAF will need a new-generation munition that can fit under the JF-17’s wings. One option could be to acquire the Denel Raptor-III (with a local manufacturing license). The Raptor-III carries forward the H-2/H-4’s manual terminal-phase targeting, but it also provides the end-user with the option to use other seeker types, such as imaging infrared (IIR). One major design aspect of the Raptor-III is that it uses a miniature turbojet, giving it a range of 280 km.

The PAF may also look at other types of munitions in the future, such as smaller cruise missiles and small loitering munitions (emphasizing precision attacks against specific high-value targets).

However, for the foreseeable future, the PAF’s Mirage III/5 fleet must endure. The JF-17 is starting to take on some of the Mirage III/5’s attack work, which is a positive step considering that the PAF is working with a scarcer supply of parts, aerostructure inputs (especially wings) and engines to keep the Mirage III/5s in the air. In fact, the PAF itself acknowledged the looming obstacle in the early 2000s when it committed to procure 36 FC-20 – i.e., J-10A – multi-role fighters from China. According to the PAF’s own official book – i.e. The Pakistan Air Force – 1998-2008: A New Dawn – the FC-20s were intended for “deep-strike”.[11]

Originally, it appeared that the FC-20 was intended to serve in this strike role (the F-16 is limited in terms of its munitions configurability due to end-user restrictions by the US). In fact, it made complete sense for the PAF to select the FC-20 considering that it was available, affordable (be it directly in cash or via a loan from China) and accessible in terms of ultimately configuring it for the strategic role (i.e., carry Ra’ad). But a fiscal crunch in the late 2000s and early 2010s forced the PAF to shelve its FC-20 plans.

The JF-17 as an Interim Strike Asset

The current Chief of Air Staff (CAS) outlined that the PAF could potentially acquire an off-the-shelf fighter. However, it is unclear if that move is to supplant the Mirage III/5 in the strike role, or to address the threat posed by the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) acquisition of the Dassault Rafale. In terms of the strike role, the PAF could continue configuring the JF-17 with new air-to-ground munitions.

Configuring the JF-17 would be the easier route. The PAF does not need permission from another OEM or supplier to configure the JF-17 with offensive weapons. Moreover, the PAF already operates 112 Block-I and Block-IIs, and by the end of 2021, 26 dual-seat JF-17Bs. In other words, the JF-17 is already a mainstay fighter in ample quantity throughout the PAF fleet. It is also capable of AAR. To equip these fighters for a strike role, the PAF will need new types of munitions. In most cases, the domestic industry could develop these weapons (e.g., as one can see with the improvements to the Ra’ad-series). Finally, the recent reveal of a new integration facility for the JF-17 at PAC indicates that the PAF is moving towards this outcome.

The JF-17 could gradually takeover the tactical attack role of the Mirage III/5. That said, the PAF could opt to keep flying the Mirages as a means to maintain a large SOW/ALCM-capable fleet. This approach would also make sense as the PAF still has a stock of legacy munitions, such as H-2/H-4s and earlier Ra’ad ALCMs.

How the Mirage III/5 Experience May Inform Project AZM

Ultimately, the long-term vision of the PAF is not stop at simply replacing the tactical attack capabilities of the Mirage III/5s through the JF-17. Rather, the PAF is focusing on developing a credible airborne strike capability that can serve as a conventional deterrence to future Balakot-like situations. The PAF is looking to materialize this goal through its next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA), Project AZM.

In May 2019, the current CAS said that the design of the PAF’s NGFA would involve a “twin-engine single-seater boasting the likes of super-cruise and laser weapons.”[12] The CAS’ statement alludes to a medium-to-heavyweight platform, but with ample internal space and power to support directed energy weapons.

These are clear indications of a large fighter (e.g., in the size range of the F/A-18 or potentially F-15), and a break from the PAF’s experience of operating light-to-medium-weight fighters, such as the F-16 and JF-17. A larger design enables for more payload and range, and in the case of an NGFA, the PAF could also acquire a recessed and/or internal payload capability for reduced radar observability at long-range.

The PAF’s experience with using the Mirage III/5 as both a maritime and attack asset likely influenced its design decisions for Project AZM. By working towards a larger aircraft, it certainly identified range and/or payload deficiencies in its current fleet, at least for maritime and strike operations. However, these gaps may not be in the context of today’s realities; the current fleet could be ‘good enough’ for present threats. Rather, the PAF must also think about the future, e.g., the Pakistan Navy’s growth towards a 50-plus fleet of ships, India’s ambitious fighter procurement plans for both its air force and navy, and, potentially, new lessons gleaned through actual combat experience during Swift Retort.

That said, the most telling aspect of this situation is that the PAF is looking to acquire a larger and longer-ranged fighter through an in-house program. In other words, the design decisions it identified for Project AZM are not for a niche application, but a fleet-wide solution. Otherwise, there is no point for the PAF to invest in setting-up the manufacturing capacity for a fighter with a small production run. The PAF will need economies-of-scale to sustain this project, and logically, that would necessitate a transition of significant portions of the PAF fleet from lightweight-to-mediumweight aircraft to larger twin-engine fighters.

[1] “Thrifty at 50: How the Pakistan Air Force keeps ageing Mirages flying”. AFP (via Dawn News). 29 April 2018. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1404605 (Last Accessed: 04 May 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alan Warnes. “Masters of Mirage maintenance”. Air Forces Monthly. November 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Press Release. “Critical Materials Selected by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex to Deliver Advanced DTA/SHM Technologies”. Critical Materials. 22 June 2017. URL: http://www.critical-materials.com/en/media/short-news/posts/short-news-1/critical-materials-selected-by-pakistan-aeronautical-complex#.Wu-3B4gvyUl (Last Accessed: 04 May 2018).

[10] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On” Key Military. 19 March 2020. URL: https://www.keymilitary.com/article/operation-swift-retort-one-year

[11] Alan Warnes. “The Pakistan Air Force – 1998-2008: A New Dawn”. 2009. p18-20

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

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