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Pakistan’s Quest for a Domestic Fighter (Part 1): On-and-Off Efforts to Build a Fighter Aircraft

The impetus for manufacturing fighter aircraft at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) was instigated by the Pressler Amendment, i.e. US legislation that was designed to discourage Pakistan from developing and deploying nuclear weapons. Pressler was brought into force in the early 1990s and, by 1995, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) signed onto a proposal by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) to pursue the Super-7, which would – in 2003 – be re-designated as the JF-17.[1] Today, the JF-17 flies with six PAF squadrons.

However, the PAF’s pursuit of domestically manufacturing fighters did not originate with the JF-17. In fact, Pakistan’s interest in the matter extends to as early as 1949 when an industrialist and advisor to Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence – Mir Laiq Ali – broached the matter with the US. Ali had opened talks with Lockheed Martin to initially supply, assemble and eventually manufacture the F-80 in Pakistan.[2] The initiative failed (due to apparent pressure from Britain on the Pakistani government).[3]

Granted, in hindsight the F-80 might not have been a prudent idea. The 1950s and 1960s saw very rapid development and iteration in terms of jet fighters. The F-80 was essentially the single-seat variant of the T-33 trainer, which did join the PAF later as its fighter conversion system. If Pakistan committed to the F-80, it might have been stuck with an antiquated design in only a few years. However, one might argue that the effort could have infused Pakistan with the knowledge to manufacture aircraft decades earlier.

As it had with the nuclear weapons program, a domestic fighter could have been sought as a strategic asset in parallel. Nonetheless, the PAF’s jet fighter needs were addressed with the acquisition of 36 Supermarine Attackers from the UK.[4] Until the mid-1950s, the PAF – alongside the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Navy – maintained the course with surplus British equipment. This changed (permanently) with the infusion of American hardware provided to Pakistan through military aid.

The expansive US military aid program of the 1950s saw the PAF induct 120 F-86F Sabres, which had built the mainstay of the PAF fighter fleet through the 1950s and 1960s. This was followed by the Shenyang F-6 – i.e. China’s MiG-19 derivative – in the 1970s and, by the 1990s, the Chinese MiG-21 derivative, F-7P. In the decades between 1950 and 2010, the PAF’s backbone fighter was not only a low-cost – and widely manufactured and adopted – platform, but a generation behind the ‘current’ design.

Basically, the mainstay fighter (e.g. F-86, F-6 and F-7) had operated in tandem with a newer-generation, markedly superior platform. These marquee platforms had included the F-104, Mirage III/5 and F-16, each inducted in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, respectively. The constraints that prevented the PAF from using its counterparts in the US or Europe included, simply, the lack of necessary funding. Moreover, a high-low mix of this nature was commonplace in the developing world.

But the ‘mix’ – especially one where a previous generation fighter was operating with a current generation one – was not as pronounced with countries operating contemporary Soviet aircraft. For example, where the PAF was rebuilding its fleet with surplus F-86s and F-6s in the late 1960s, the Indian Air Force (IAF) had begun fielding the MiG-21 in-mass. The MiG-21 was a contemporary of the Mirage III/5, i.e. deploying the same type of technology, though one can argue variances or differences in performance.

However, for a developing world air force such as the PAF, trying to achieve a similar role was not possible by just relying on a Western design alone. Ultimately, a marquee Western fighter – the F-16 in the 1980s – was going to be an essential piece, but a relatively capable backbone was required. Thus, the savings or cost-difference cannot be had by omitting current technology (e.g. multi-mode pulse-Doppler radars), but through range, performance, airframe life and other performance-related elements.

Thus, in the 1980s the PAF approached Grumman Aerospace and CAC to develop an extensively modified variant of the Chengdu F-7M. The result of the idea was the ‘Sabre II’ proposal.[5] In 1987, Grumman sent a design proposal which involved incorporating a new canopy and nose cone to the F-7M.[6] Moreover, it also supplanted the F-7M’s WP-7 turbojet engine with a turbofan engine and side-fuselage intakes.[7] The radar and electronic subsystems were to be of US origin.[8] One can assume US munitions were also sought.

Source: Flight International (1987)

It would be disingenuous to cast the Sabre II as simply an F-7 or MiG-21 upgrade. The Sabre II was basically a new fighter, albeit based on an existing design. Grumman and CAC’s preliminary turbofan engine options were notably interesting. For example, they had considered powering it with a self-starting engine and, in turn, they identified the Turbo-Union RB.199 (thrust: 74.3 kN), the Volvo RM12 (thrust: 80.5 kN) – it was the General Electric F404 license-built in Sweden – and Pratt & Whitney PW1120 (91.56 kN).[9][10]

Thus, the PAF sought a significant performance improvement. In fact, the pursuit of a self-starting engine indicates that the Sabre II was to serve as an essential air defence asset (e.g. standby for scrambling as an Air Defence Alert or ADA fighter). In other words, the Sabre II was to handle the same aerial threats as the PAF’s F-16s, including opposing marquee platforms. To substantiate this point, one need only look at the proposed radar and electronics subsystems suite Grumman proposed for the Sabre II.

The Sabre II was to use the AN/APG-66, i.e. the same radar as that of the F-16A/B Block-15.[11] In effect, the intent was likely to not only arm the Sabre II with the same munitions as the F-16, but in time, secure an active beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). In fact, the ill-fated Northrop F-20 could be a good reference point to understanding the Sabre II; the F-20 was a new fighter built on the F-5 Tiger II’s design, but with the aim of delivering the technology and combat capabilities of the F-16.

Through Sabre II, the PAF laid-out its intentions for a modern, lightweight multi-role fighter to support its F-16s, of which another 71 were ordered in 1989. The PAF had planned for 150 Sabre IIs to replace the F-6, which had supplanted the F-86 as the PAF’s mainstay fighter by the 1980s.[12] If not for US sanctions, the PAF fighter fleet in the 1990s could have comprised of 110 F-16A/B Block-15s, 150 Sabre IIs and 96 Mirage III/5 (the latter, potentially, might have been upgraded as well).

However, major political events in the late 1980s and early 1990s scuttled the Sabre II. It started with the US imposing sanctions on China in response to the Tiananmen Square Protests. Although the Sabre II was in a tenuous position due to concerns over cost, its viability was rendered nil when Grumman withdrew. In the early 1990s, the US legislated the Pressler Amendment into law, which delivered arms sanctions on Pakistan and blocked the delivery of F-16s to the PAF.

In the early-to-mid 1990s, Chengdu continued working on a lightweight fighter program. Unlike the Sabre II, this was a clean-sheet design – designated Super-7 – and was proposed to the PAF. The PAF signed onto the Super-7 program in 1995.[13] The core design was frozen in 1999 and in 2003, the first prototype flew.[14] PAC began manufacturing JF-17 subassemblies in 2008 and, in 2010, the first JF-17 squadron was raised.[15] Though it was not a Western-oriented design, the PAF ultimately got what it sought through the Sabre II.

If there is a point-of-concern for the PAF, it was the time it took to reach the JF-17. Be it external influence by the UK in the 1950s, reliance on US aid in the 1960s, structural shifts in the 1970s, presuming trust in the US in the 1980s or sanctions in the 1990s, the PAF could not reach an optimal solution soon-enough. The PAF would have likely preferred building a fleet of Sabre IIs than F-7Ps through the 1990s, especially with the F-16. Such a result would have been more preferable to simply F-7Ps.

Moreover, while the JF-17 certainly stands as an inherently strong asset, the ‘goal post’ of acceptability is now shifting. Like the Sabre II, the JF-17 was intended to fly in concert with larger and markedly superior fighters (in terms of range, payload and electronics quality) such as the F-16 Block-52+ and FC-20. But the mix of funding shortages and supply constraints from the US (which affected the PAF’s funding capacity) dampened the PAF’s new F-16 plans; likewise, the FC-20 was also abandoned due to cost issues.

In effect, the PAF’s next fighter would have to meet a higher threshold in terms of capability, including its range, endurance and payload parameters. The PAF would basically have to assume that imports are not an option it can rely on to achieve its goals; its next-generation fighter must, categorically, meet each and every ASR requirement. That said, it will take time to get to that eventuality, and in that time the push to bring the JF-17 beyond its originally-set confines might be critical. We explore this idea in Part 2.

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

[2] “The PAF’s Lifeblood”. The Story of the Pakistan Air Force: A Saga of Courage and Honour. Shaheen Foundation. 1988. p.99

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Grumman reveals Sabre II for Pakistan.” Flight International. 1987. URL: https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1987/1987%20-%201745.html?search=Sabre%20II (Last Accessed: 16 September 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Grumman to upgrade Chinese F-7M.” Flight International. 1988. URL: https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1988/1988%20-%203360.html (Last Accessed: 16 September 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Military Aircraft of the World.” Flight International. 1989. URL: https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1989/1989%20-%202539.html (Last Accessed: 16 September 2018).

[11] “Grumman to upgrade Chinese F-7M.” Flight International. 1988.

[12] “Grumman reveals Sabre II for Pakistan.” Flight International. 1987.

[13] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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