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Pakistan’s Push to Replace Legacy Air Platforms

The following article is a section from an upcoming quarterly report on the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) modernization plans, which will be available to Quwa Premium subscribers on 29 March 2024.

In a public relations video released in January 2024, the PAF said that Air Headquarters (AHQ) made the “strategic decision to phase out legacy systems” while showing footage of the Dassault Mirage III and 5, Chengdu FT-7P, Karakoram Eagle (KE) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, and CN-235 light transport aircraft.[1] Overall, the PAF is working to phase out older aircraft and, at least among its special mission aircraft, consolidate its fleets.

Fighter Aircraft

The PAF’s push to replace the F-7P, FT-7P, and F-7PG as well as Mirage III/5 is not surprising. In 2016, the PAF stated that it aimed to replace 190 legacy fighters by 2020.[2] Then Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman added that the PAF sought to maintain a 400-strong fighter fleet so that it could hold a 1:1.35 to 1:1.75 ratio against the Indian Air Force (IAF).[3]

The promotional video suggests that the PAF is now pressing ahead with replacing its legacy fighters. While it did not disclose a revised timeline, it appears that the complete shift away from the F-7 and Mirage III/5-series could take place in the short-term, i.e., the next three to five years, or 2030 at the latest. The new fighters will comprise of the J-10CE and the JF-17C (Block-III) in an interoperable high-low mix. Currently, the PAF has 20 J-10CE and 30 JF-17Cs, but Quwa expects that the PAF will acquire additional airframes across both fighter types through the 2020s.

But in November 2023, reports emerged of the PAF speaking to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) for an unspecified number of Hongdu L-15Bs for a lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT) need. In fact, the PAF sought a new LIFT since at least 2017 to better prepare its pilots for 4/4+ generation jets like the J-10CE, JF-17, and F-16. The PAF had originally planned to use the JF-17B for this role in 2015, but in 2017, it pivoted to seeking a separate platform. Interestingly, the PAF laid out that its new LIFT should have an afterburning engine, multimode radar, and tactical datalink (TDL).[4]

The PAF’s LIFT requirements point to a fully functional fighter, and on that front, the L-15B delivers. It has a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar paired with SD-10 beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missiles (AAM), capacity to deploy precision-guided bombs (PGB) and laser-guided bombs (LGB), and compatibility with targeting pods and electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods.

With these features, the L-15B matches the operating environment of the PAF’s frontline fighters. However, the PAF could also leverage these capabilities for certain missions, especially internal security efforts, like counterinsurgency (COIN) or point air defence.

Thus, the L-15B could emerge as a replacement for some of the PAF’s legacy fighters, such as the F-7PG. However, its value would go beyond taking on the F-7PG’s air defence role. By owning the PAF’s COIN requirements, the L-15B can free the PAF to fully commit its more sophisticated fighters against its external threats. This approach could free up aircraft to allocate to the PAF’s offensive wings on a full-time basis.

Currently, the PAF has 20 J-10CE, 75-odd F-16A/B Block-15 and F-16C/D Block-52, 30 JF-17C, 26 dual-seat JF-17B, 62 JF-17 Block-II, and 50-odd JF-17 Block-I. In total, this would amount to 263 out of 400 4/4+ generation fighters, leaving a requirement of around 140 additional aircraft.

The PAF will certainly seek additional J-10CEs. In fact, it rarely inducts a new fighter type without first planning to acquire at least 80-90 units. Not only is this rule apparent from the PAF’s past mainstay, multirole fighter acquisitions, but it was plainly stated by a former CAS, ACM Pervaiz Mehdi Qureshi, who said that the PAF was (in lieu of F-16s) seeking 80 new ‘high-technology’ fighters.[5] The exceptions to this rule are niche or specialized assets, like the Nanchang A-5 ground attack aircraft and, potentially, L-15B for various training roles.

Quwa projects that, by 2030, the PAF is planning to operate a fleet of 80-90 J-10CE, over 100 JF-17B and JF-17C/Block-III, 75-odd F-16s, over 100 JF-17 Block-I and Block-II, and 30-40 L-15B. From 2030, the PAF will likely look to inducting the Shenyang J-31 as its next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA), which could start replacing the PAF’s older F-16A/Bs. Delays in the NGFA program would likely prompt the PAF to continue inducting additional J-10CE and/or JF-17B/C aircraft.

Special Mission Aircraft

The apparent plan to retire the KE AEW&C was unexpected. Inducted in 2009, the KE pairs the ZDK03 PESA radar to the Shaanxi Y-8F600 turboprop-powered transport aircraft. The KE has been a key part of the PAF’s maritime operations, where the PAF deployed the AEW&C in joint maneuvers with the Pakistan Navy (PN). It appeared that the KE was interoperable with the PN’s assets.

Moving forward, it seems that the PAF is standardizing on the Saab 2000-based Erieye AEW&C. The PAF had originally planned to only operate the Erieye in the early 2000s. However, in the late 2000s, it complemented its fleet of four aircraft with four KEs from China. In 2012, the PAF had lost three of its four Erieye AEW&C to a terrorist attack on Minhas Air Base. Ironically, the four KEs were a critical asset for the PAF as it filled the coverage gap caused by the loss of Erieye AEW&Cs.

By 2016, the PAF restored its Erieye fleet to its original strength of four aircraft and, in 2017, ordered another three aircraft. This was followed by an order for at least two additional systems in 2020, the deliveries of which took place from 2020 to 2023. Thus, the PAF has a total of nine Erieye AEW&Cs.

To support this enlarged fleet, the PAF may have decided to reassign personnel from the KE to new Erieye aircraft. In turn, the PAF will likely station several Erieye AEW&Cs in Southern Air Command; it would take up the KE’s role of supporting maritime operations in coordination with the PN.

It is also worth noting that the PN is also building its own AEW capability through its next-generation long-range maritime patrol (LRMPA) aircraft, the Sea Sultan. The PN may add the AEW capability via the Sea Sultan’s primary search radar. If the PN opts for the Leonardo Seaspray 7500 V2 (a variant of the radar used onboard the PN’s RAS-72 Sea Eagle MPAs), it would gain an AESA radar with both air-to-air and air-to-surface tracking and imaging modes. Though not as robust as a dedicated AEW&C, the PN can combine the AEW element of its LRMPAs with the Erieye’s coverage via a TDL.

Standardizing on the Erieye also confirms a key factor – the Erieye can indeed support Link-17, the PAF’s in-house TDL alongside Link-16 and NIXS, the PN’s TDL. The PAF could leverage off-the-shelf solutions, like the MilSOFT Multi-Data Link Processor (Mil-DLP), to enable the Erieye to support and manage multiple TDLs simultaneously. Thus, there is no technical limitation stopping the PAF from connecting the Erieye to the F-16s, JF-17s, J-10CEs, or any other platform.

Logistics Aircraft

It also appears that the PAF is phasing out its four CN-235 light transport aircraft. Since acquiring the original batch in 2005, the PAF did not grow the CN-235 fleet with additional units.

It is unclear if the PAF lost interest in building a lightweight/tactical airlift capability or, instead, has conferred the role to even lighter aircraft, like the Piper M-600 or Beechcraft Super King Air. It is also possible that the PAF did not utilize the CN-235 in its intended role as much as it originally intended to; thus, it opted to replace the CN-235 with aircraft more suited for its actual needs.

The retirement of the CN-235 opens the question of how the PAF plans to drive missions for special operations forces (SOF). The PAF may have opted to grow the Hercules fleet via ex-Belgian C-130H aircraft to assume that role as well as grow its wider air logistics/transport capability.

[1] “PAF Checkmates Pakistan’s Enemies.” Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Press Release. 16 January 2024. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_2Osf0r-p4&ab_channel=PakistanAirForce

[2] “Pakistan Air Force Needs to Replace 190 Planes by 2020.” Dawn News. 15 March 2016. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1245714/pakistan-air-force-needs-to-replace-190-planes-by-2020

[3] Bilal Khan. “Pakistan’s Next – Near-Term – Steps for Bridging Airpower Gap.” Quwa. 25 March 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/03/25/pakistans-next-near-term-steps-for-bridging-airpower-gap/

[4] Alan Warnes. Interview. Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, Chief of the Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

[5] 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).

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