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Pakistan’s Opportunity to Form a ‘Third’ Defence Supply Option

Since 1947, Pakistan traditionally relied on a superpower – i.e., Britain, the United States, and now China – for the bulk of its military equipment. If the first source is unable or unwilling to help, Pakistan pivots to the second. It had started by moving from Britain to America, and then to America to Europe and China.

This reliance was – and remains – acute for critical inputs such as engines for aircraft and ships, radars, and in many cases, high-tech weapon systems as a whole. However, with Pakistan’s access to high-tech weapon systems under strain, especially in regards to long-range and offensively capable platforms, the armed forces are pursuing domestic programs. Project Azm, the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) next-generation fighter program, is a notable example of this pursuit.

But Project Azm is a long-term endeavour, one that is far from showing tangible indicators of progress or success at this time. Not only that, but the PAF is unlikely to secure the critical inputs of its in-house fighter from any source but a reliable superpower-caliber state, i.e., China.

In addition, a myriad of Pakistani defence programs will enter the procurement pipeline from the present and by the time Pakistan can potentially field a domestic alternative. This forthcoming hardware will likely include new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), main battle tanks (MBT), helicopters of various types, and other equipment. The final bill will amount to several billion dollars.

The modernization run of the next decade will be an expensive investment. Ideally, the bulk of the money would flow into the Pakistani economy through orders from the domestic industry. Unfortunately, as the Pakistan Army’s (PA) recent VT4 purchase showed, big-ticket imports will still take priority.

On their own, imports present a significant challenge. First, they create a strain on Pakistan’s foreign/hard-currency and, in general, require loans spanning several years at a time. Second, they disincentivize local investors from taking defence ventures seriously as the country’s biggest buyer constantly looks outside. Third, the lack of investment in the domestic base prevents Pakistan from developing critical technologies of its own (and, in the long-term at least, mitigate some of its reliance on overseas suppliers).

However, the VT4 also shows that the country’s decision-makers are inclined to look from China. Granted, this is not surprising since Beijing is the only willing country to supply the technology Pakistan needs at an accessible financial cost. But there is a political cost to having more of Pakistan’s defence lean on China.

It is not so much of whether China is unreliable. This is not the case. In fact, at this time, Beijing’s interests (i.e., the need to circumvent Washington’s pressure) dictate the need to get Islamabad’s support. Rather, Pakistan itself cannot afford to rely on one or two suppliers for critical hardware. China’s willingness and support notwithstanding, a limited supplier pool is still a limit on foreign policy flexibility and muzzle the country’s voice on the international stage, especially when Pakistan’s interests do not align with suppliers.

Cynicism in relationships would actually align with an older Pakistani foreign policy axiom. In fact, retired Pakistan Army Brigadier General Feroz Khan wrote in his book, Eating Grass, “Pakistan found international institutions capricious and alliances unreliable.”[1] This axiom fuelled Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

Yet over 50 years later, the decision-makers of Pakistan’s defence affairs seemed to have taken alliances and institutions for granted, though their predecessors warned against it. Relying on one or two countries for critical defence hardware works within an alliance. In fact, this approach is actually the most common way in the world to build military strength. The entirety of the Arab Gulf relies on American combat aircraft and air defence solutions, for example. Even Israel, which views every risk on its border as an existential threat, needs the United States for defence, economic, and foreign policy support.

However, in its history, Pakistan never yielded such benefits from alliances. It has, for the most part, dealt with rebuke and material consequences such as sanctions and, in 2011, an actual military attack. So, given this history, Pakistan should – logically at least – form a cynical worldview of big powers. It should largely view relations with such countries as solely interest-driven and limited in scope. If this had been the view, then there is no reason to take any specific country (including China) for granted.

This cynicism may seem out of place today. Indeed, one can plainly see that China needs to cultivate strong relations with its neighbours – including Pakistan – to offset the pressure it is facing from America across both the economic and geo-strategic fronts. However, a big-ticket defence item is a long-term (and in the case of Pakistan, many decades-long) investment. What use is the investment if Pakistan has trouble with spare parts or upgrades a decade after the initial purchase?

Pakistan is at that stage with the F-16. It is unclear (if not increasingly untenable) if it can acquire additional F-16s from the United States, or upgrade its Block-52+ aircraft to the current F-16V-standard. Some could chalk this issue up to Islamabad’s ties with Washington. However, that issue is precisely the point. If PAF planners cannot factor the U.S. into their procurement plans, they must solely rely on China. In effect, one is asking the PAF to rely solely on one country; this is a high-risk situation.

Realistically, it will be difficult for Pakistan to widen its supplier pool for critical technologies such as new engines, but it is possible for other equipment. Not only that, but Pakistan can pair that diversity push to a renewed focus on its domestic defence industry. In other words, it can seek partners for collaboration.

This approach would solve two major problems. First, it would widen Pakistan’s supplier base to additional countries, thereby reducing its reliance on one or two countries. Second, instead of restricting the use of funds to solely imports, it can channel that money to grow the domestic industry and technology base by collaborating with foreign suppliers on development.

Pakistan is not the only country that should weigh against relying on one or two suppliers. Other countries, such as Brazil, Ukraine, South Africa, and Turkey, have sought to either improve their own industries or to overcome their own supply-side constraints with new partnerships, or both. Each of these countries has developed a base in an area that could interest Pakistan, such as munitions technologies (i.e., Ukraine and South Africa), airliners and special mission aircraft (i.e., Brazil), artillery (i.e., South Africa and Turkey), and armour (Ukraine and Turkey). These countries are also trying to develop critical inputs, like engines, too.

In effect, Pakistan has peers that are not too far in geo-strategic stature, economic realities, and general views on superpowers that it can work with to secure its development and supply of its weapons. It would also help Pakistan

To reiterate, this approach may not achieve much ground in the way of engines and other high-tech, high-complexity critical inputs. However, Pakistan can make in-roads in areas such as ATGMs, UAVs, artillery, MBTs, armoured fighting vehicles (AFV), infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), air-to-air missiles (AAM), surface-to-air missiles (SAM), and a range of other equipment.

The difficulty of developing these weapons – especially with capable partners who have sufficient experience and the requisite technology base – does not warrant the need to default to imports. Not only that, but if one accumulates their value, they can amount to several billions of dollars of expenditure that could better be spent to nurture Pakistani technologies and industries.

[1] Feroz Hassan Khan. “Atoms for Peace at the Crossroads of History”. Eating Grass. Stanford University Press. 2012. p.24

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