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Pakistan’s next – near-term – steps for bridging airpower gap

In his final address to Air Headquarters, the previous Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, outlined the PAF’s long-term vision in terms of its force structure and goal for parity with the Indian Air Force (IAF). First, the CAS acknowledged that there was a gap in terms of ‘high-tech’ combat aircraft – alluding to the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III as a solution to that problem. Second, the CAS stated that the PAF has a 400-strong fighter fleet, with its long-term objective being to maintain a quantitative parity of 1:1.35 to 1:1.75 with the IAF.

Interestingly, the concept of a 400-strong fighter fleet is not recent, it appears to have been a PAF force objective since at least 1999. Speaking to Flight International in 1999, then PAF CAS ACM Pervaiz Mehdi Qureishi outlined that the PAF had planned for “around 80 high-technology fighters, about 150-160 good strike/penetration aircraft and 150 medium-technology air defence aircraft.”[1] Granted, the context is important. ACM Qureishi’s planning predates current technology dynamics, such as active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radars becoming standard subsystems. Thus, ACM Qureishi’s understanding of a ‘high-tech’ system is relative to his period, it would be different today.

For example, the context of the time was that the Mirage III/5s, a number of which were undergoing the Retrofit of Strike Element (ROSE) upgrade, would assume the strike and penetration role envisaged by ACM Qureishi. Indeed, the Mirage ROSE I/II/III now form the PAF’s key strike units – equipped with the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile and H-2 and H-4 stand-off weapon (SOW). Compared to what the PAF had at the time, the ROSE was a markedly improved strike asset. Likewise, the F-16 – i.e. the Mid-Life Update and the Block-52 – were the marquee variants of the Fighting Falcon design, forming the PAF’s idea of ‘high-tech’ in 1999. The JF-17 was to be the ‘medium-technology air defence aircraft’.

Under the Armed Forces Development Program – 2019 (AFFDP-2019), the PAF (under later leaderships) settled upon procuring at least 150 JF-17s, 100 F-16 MLU and Block-52+ and 36 additional aircraft, which would have been the J-10 had a collapse in funding not occurred in 2009-2013. Today, the understanding or definition of what constitutes a ‘high-tech’ fighter in the PAF has shifted due to current realities, such as certain technologies, such as AESA radars, becoming a necessary staple in a modern combat aircraft. However, the core objectives, including the tiers (e.g. ‘high-tech’ and ‘medium tech’) do appear to be standard between successive PAF leaderships, and along with that, a 400-strong fleet.

Granted, the perennial challenge of shoring-up funding has dampened the PAF’s ability to sustain a high-tech edge, but on the optimistic side, the JF-17 has also changed PAF expectations. In 1999, the PAF had envisaged the JF-17 as a ‘medium-technology air defence aircraft’ – i.e. an aircraft that would replace the F-7P and A-5/Mirage III & 5 in point air defence and ground attack roles, respectively. However, the JF-17 has emerged as a much more versatile platform; from its ability to deploy beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM), SOWs and anti-ship missiles (AShM) to being equipped with many of the same kinds of subsystems found on ‘high-tech’ jets, it is providing more than just quantitative depth.

The No. 32 Tactical Wing at Masroor Air Base replaced its F-7Ps with JF-17s in 2016. First, the JF-17 gives the No. 32 a complete air-to-air solution through a BVRAAM-equipped fighter, providing air cover to the Mirage 5PA2 and 5PA3. Second, the JF-17 can also deploy the C-802 anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM), thus expanding the No. 32’s anti-ship warfare (AShW) element. Third, the availability of tactical data-link (TDL) and the ZDK03-based Karakoram Eagle airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft provides the No. 32 with a fighter that can leverage extended air and surface situational awareness, both essential for the long-range air defence and AShW roles, respectively.

Thus, the JF-17’s emergence as a genuine multi-role asset that can augment specialist and marquee units is an emerging dynamic, one that the forthcoming Block-III will improve upon significantly. Outlined in a precious Quwa Premium article, the outgoing CAS also confirmed that the Block-III’s design was finalized following a ‘two-and-a-half-year’ process.[2] In fact, the Block-III will assume a role traditionally left to high-tech imports, which is to introduce new technologies to the PAF fleet, such as an AESA radar. Such a task is markedly different from the ‘medium-tech’ category the PAF had once placed on the JF-17.

In effect, the JF-17 has forced changes into how the PAF could now structure its fleet for the future. First, the JF-17’s multi-role nature negates the need for many specialist aircraft, which was something to expect from the very beginning as it was intended to replace multiple legacy platforms. Second, the ability place high-tech subsystems into the JF-17 has made it a significant “core” the PAF can rely upon to carry the bulk of its operations. In fact, in a 2017 interview with Bol Narratives, ACM Aman stated that the JF-17 provides a “core structure, which doesn’t prevent [the PAF] from launching an air campaign.”[3] The Block-III’s AESA radar should enable the JF-17 to operate in dense jamming environments wrought by equal and superior fighter platforms. It can continue using its BVRAAM in that dense electronic environment.

Thus, the concept of a ‘tiered’ fleet with ‘high-tech’ and ‘low-tech’ assets could end; in its place, the JF-17 could provide a ‘high tech core’ for defensibility against all threats while freeing a ‘high tech specialist’ to handle the tasks the JF-17 cannot due to its inherent range/endurance limits. The implication is that the PAF does not need a ‘high tech’ multi-role asset to join the JF-17, but that the JF-17 is sufficient for all defensive missions. The infusion of high-tech subsystems should provide it with the defensibility to be a credible threat to intruding high-tech assets. Granted, this is contingent on the quality and performance of the subsystems the PAF selects for use on the Block-III. Thus, compared to 1999 and 2009, the PAF in 2019 might revise its fighter fleet concept away from ‘tiers’ to potentially a ‘core’ and ‘specialist’ model.

This is discussed in detail in the Quwa Premium article, “Analysis: The Case for Pakistan Procuring the FC-31 Gyrfalcon”.[4] However, the essential idea for this piece is that it is time to expect the JF-17 to form the bulk of the PAF fighter fleet – and by a significant margin. It will assume all roles within its capabilities, be it air defence, strike, maritime operations and others. It is difficult to imagine an alternative (outside of used/surplus F-16s) where the JF-17 would not be procured in numbers (notwithstanding the shortfall of funding). Through the Block-III and subsequent variants, the PAF can continue utilizing the production line in Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) while scaling its prior research and development overhead costs.

The ceiling of the PAF’s long-term JF-17 plans are unknown. Dr. Richard D. Fisher Jr, a prominent observer and analyst of Chinese defence issues, noted that the PAF could procure up to 275 JF-17s. In 2015, a PAF-sponsored article for the Paris Air Show outlined that the PAF could acquire 150-200 JF-17s.[5][6] Funding is a major caveat; the fact that the JF-17 is co-produced at PAC does not shield it from cuts, one need only look at the al-Khalid tank’s struggles at Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) to see the damage budgetary issues can cause even to a comparatively low-cost asset. However, sustaining a 400-strong combat aircraft fleet will necessitate the JF-17 to form a substantial – i.e. majority – portion of the fleet in the long-term.

It will be interesting to see how Project Azm is tailored; would it be a general-mission/multi-role asset or will the PAF have it designed for the specialist roles (i.e. deep-strike/penetration and maritime operations) the JF-17 cannot handle? Currently, it would appear that Project Azm’s intent is to supplant the F-16s as those show their age through the 2030s. That would mark an end to the “high tech” fleet and, in turn, transition the PAF to the “specialist” fleet (with the JF-17 as the “core”). Thus, Project Azm and the JF-17 (at least the Block-III) would operate together (potentially with drones also in the “specialist” category).

Addendum – Optical Tracking at the Sonmiani Instrumented Weapons Test Range:

On 22 March, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that China provided Pakistan technology that would support Pakistan’s development of ‘multi-warhead missiles’.[7] The SCMP received a statement from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, specifically a researcher – Zheng Mengwei – who confirmed that it supplied Pakistan with “a highly sophisticated, large-scale optical tracking and measurement system.”[8] Mengwei also confirmed that the system was deployed “at a firing range”.[9]

Basically, this is confirmation that the newly established instrumented weapons test range (IWTR) at the Sonmiani Firing Range is equipped with an optical tracking system. The Sonmiani IWTR is described in full detail in the Quwa Premium article, “The Sonmiani WTR Supports Domestic Munition Development”.[10]

However, the SCMP learned that the suite supplied to Pakistan includes four ‘telescope units’, which is generally more than what standard WTRs would include. Normally, two would be sufficient – i.e. one for the target and another for the launched munition. However, Pakistan is apparently looking to conduct far more elaborate tests, indicating the possibility of genuine multiple re-entry vehicle (MIRV) tests.[11]

[1] Paul Lewis. “Improvise and modernise”. Flight International. 24 February 1999. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20120304081417/http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/improvise-and-modernise-48468/ (Last Accessed: 22 March 2018).

[2] “Why the JF-17 Block-III matters to the Pakistan Air Force”. Quwa Premium. 24 March 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/03/24/why-the-jf-17-block-iii-matters-to-the-pakistan-air-force/

[3] “Two fronts – one mission.” Bol Narratives. Interview by Amir Zia of Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman. 01 April 2017. URL: http://www.bolnarratives.com/two-fronts-one-mission/ Last accessed: 22 March 2018.

[4] “Analysis: The Case for Pakistan Procuring the FC-31 Gyrfalcon”. Quwa Premium. 14 December 2017. URL: https://quwa.org/2017/12/14/analysis-the-case-for-pakistan-procuring-the-fc-31-gyrfalcon/

[5] Richard D Fisher Jr. “Paris Air Show 2015: JF-17 fighter flying with indigenous Chinese turbofan”. HIS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 17 June 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160421064512/http://www.janes.com/article/52308/paris-air-show-2015-jf-17-fighter-flying-with-indigenous-chinese-turbofan (Last Accessed: 22 March 2018).

[6] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.” 2015. Note: a special publication released by the Pakistan Air Force during the Paris Air Show of 2015.

[7] Stephen Chen. “China provides tracking system for Pakistan’s missile programme”. South China Morning Post. 22 March 2018. URL: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2137643/china-provides-tracking-system-pakistans-missile-programme (Last Accessed: 24 March 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The Sonmiani WTR Supports Domestic Munition Development” Quwa Premium. 05 February 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/02/05/the-sonmiani-wtr-supports-domestic-munition-development/

[11] Ibid.

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