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Pakistan’s Quest for a Domestic Fighter (Part 3): Project Azm

Having brought the JF-17 Thunder to fruition, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is now setting its sights on the future, i.e. its next-generation combat aircraft requirements. Under Project Azm, the PAF’s future combat aircraft requirements are being managed by a new office at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). This is the Director General of Aviation Research, Indigenization and Development (AvRID).[1]

According to PAC, the PAF established AvRID to execute parallel projects aimed at bringing the PAF’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) program to fruition.[2] In turn, AvRID will establish parallel lines of work to drive the program, i.e. an Engineering Management and Support (EMS) department, an Aero Structures Design Institute (ASDI), a Mission Electronics Design Institute (MEDI) and Aviation Design Institute (AvDI).[3]

In time, the efforts of these various institutes will converge and culminate in the production of a FGFA. To the PAF, this FGFA is not only its next-generation solution for the long-term, but its means to completely end its reliance on foreign suppliers. Yes, there is a caveat to that point. Because Pakistan lacks the central industry inputs to manufacture aircraft subsystems on a turnkey basis, it will rely on certain states.

Rather, the PAF will not rely on partners that it deems too expensive or untrustworthy. To fulfil this goal, Project Azm would have to fulfill every essential Air Staff Requirement (ASR); in effect, the PAF is looking at Project Azm as a high-tech solution that would aptly handle all of its requirements. In contrast, the JF-17 – at least when it was the Super-7 – was envisaged to fly with more capable aircraft, such as the F-16.

According to the PAF’s previous Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, the PAF is “engaged with Chinese experts in the manufacturing the next generation aircraft.”[4] ACM Aman reportedly added, “it will take five years to initiative the production of fifth-generation aircraft.”[5] It is unclear if ACM Aman’s statements (made in December 2017) represent the actual, frozen timeline of the project.

However, considering the extent of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) modernization efforts – and the potential of follow-on Rafale and other multi-role fighter orders – a relatively fast maturation period is logical, but only if it is possible to achieve. The results of Project Azm will be affected by the PAF’s constraints, i.e. its limited fiscal capacity, limited domestic expertise and limited pool of willing technology partners.

If expediency is a priority, then time also becomes a constraint. This is not to confirm (or deny) whether Azm will enter production in five years, but the constraint of time must not be understated. In the context of the PAF’s other constraints, one might have a plausible idea of what to expect from Project Azm.

How Capable Must Project Azm Be to Fulfill the PAF’s ASR?

The first point to consider is that Project Azm, unlike the JF-17, is not being developed with the assumption of the PAF operating or procuring a foreign, higher-end combat aircraft.

Granted, the previous PAF CAS as well as previous Pakistani government officials had hinted at the Turkish TF-X.[6] In fact, the British aviation journalist Alan Warnes, who has had direct contact with the PAF leadership, stated in May 2017 (when Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) finalized a development deal with BAE), “No [Pakistan] agreement with [TAI] on TF-X, but sometime in near future it’s likely to figure in PAF’s new generation fighter aircraft requirement.”[7]

However, seeing that the TF-X is in its developmental infancy, interest is far from concrete policy. In 2005, the PAF had intended to procure as many as 55 new-built F-16C/D Block-52.[8] In other words, though the JF-17 was intended as the mainstay of the fighter fleet, the F-16 was still to factor in significantly. In 2007 this plan was revised to 36 Block-52 and 36 FC-20 (i.e. J-10A), i.e. 72 new high-end fighters along with 60 F-16A/B Block-15 Mid-Life Update (MLU) fighters were expected.[9]

No such expectation exists with Project Azm. In fact, in an interview with PTV (English), ACM Sohail Aman clearly outlined that the PAF is aiming to free itself from relying on foreign powers for high-tech fighters. Thus, an import at this stage – especially a next-generation fighter such as the TF-X – would be welcome, but it does not appear to be an essential piece to the PAF’s future plans. In other words, Project Azm must meet every ASR requirement set by Air Headquarters (AHQ).

Practically, this would imply that Project Azm would offer greater range, a heavier payload and superior onboard electronic – including electronic warfare (EW) – systems than the JF-17. Project Azm cannot have physical constraints preventing it from offensive counter air (OCA), deep-strike or maritime operations. In effect, Project Azm should be a larger aircraft than the JF-17. However, that leaves significant margin for a design, one that can, in theory, be as large as a twin-engine fighter.

Although China is assisting Pakistan, there is some aversion in Pakistan to the idea of immediately jumping into a FGF, at least in the sense of mature low-observable (LO) technology. Speaking to Defense News, a retired PAF officer, Air Commodore (AC) Kaiser Tufail, stated that Pakistan ought to – in collaboration with Turkey – develop an interim fighter (potentially based on the JF-17) ahead of the FGF.[10]

Granted, the view is an analysis and not a policy of the PAF, but given the constraints (i.e. time, money and expertise), Project Azm could be relatively iterative in scope. This is not to say that the PAF would re-open the design of the JF-17; rather, Project Azm is likely to be a clean-sheet fighter, but the PAF will not pursue technology goals that will push Project Azm beyond its constraints (especially finances and time).

If there is a potential reference point, it might be something analogous to the South Korean KF-X. In fact, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) describes the KF-X as a ‘4.5 generation fighter’, despite the fact that the KF-X does possess a measure of LO design principles and technology.[11] Analysts placed the KF-X’s size and weight at a “hallway between the Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning.”[12]

The KF-X program is reportedly valued at $8 billion US, though it would cost another $8-10 billion for production.[13] KAI is expecting to manufacture 200 aircraft, which would place the total unit cost of each KF-X at $80-90 million US per aircraft (i.e. including development overhead costs). This alone would be a plausible outlay for Project Azm, but seeing that it will not include as much Western technology as the KF-X and will rely on existing Chinese development expertise and industry inputs, Azm should cost less.

It should be noted that the PAF could push the cost even lower. While Azm must be bigger than the JF-17, it need not be big as the KF-X in its current form. In fact, some of the design proposals for the KF-X showed smaller single-engine designs. For the PAF, a next-generation fighter that offers comparable payload and range as the JAS-39E/F Gripen (the Gripen E’s maximum take-off weight is 16,500 kg, while the JF-17’s is 13,494 kg) could be sufficient, especially with some LO technology applied to the airframe design.

Certainly, the advantage of light-medium-weight, single-engine design would be its long-term operating and support costs, which could enable the PAF to build a sizable fleet. Moreover, Turkey and China are developing – albeit at varying stages of progression – larger, twin-engine fighters. Forcing Project Azm to closely emulate those designs (especially the Chinese FC-31) could be a redundancy best avoided. There is value in a lighter, lower-cost – but fully-capable (from the PAF’s ASR standpoint) – fighter platform.

Furthermore, a lighter next-generation fighter design also places Project Azm in a unique segment of the global fighter market. Yes, it echoes the JF-17 in some respects (i.e. a relatively lower-cost, modern multi-role fighter), but it would also be different. The supply pool of affordable next-generation fighters will be much smaller, and one that can adjust to the PAF’s aversion to Western equipment would be even smaller.

Russia had looked to develop such a fighter in partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but it is unclear where that project stands today.[14] Interestingly, just as Mikoyan assisted Chengdu with designing the JF-17, it would not be implausible for the PAF to approach Russia for support in Project Azm, at least in areas where Russia has proven capabilities (e.g. the engine). Nonetheless, Pakistan will look to boosting its exports with high-value items, and a multi-billion-dollar fighter project is likely to draw attention from a return-on-investment (ROI) standpoint.

[1] Aviation Research, Indigenization and Development (AvRID). Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. URL: http://www.pac.org.pk/avrid (Last Accessed: 23 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “‘Pakistan to send satellite mission into space in two years’” ARY News. 07 December 2017. URL: https://arynews.tv/en/air-chief-space-mission/ (Last Accessed: 23 September 2018)

[5] Naveed Siddiqui. “Intruders traced on radar won’t be able to go back, warns air chief.” Dawn News. 07 December 2017. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1375166/intruders-traced-on-radar-wont-be-able-to-go-back-warns-air-chief (Last Accessed: 23 September 2018).

[6] Birol Tekince. “IDEAS serves as a platform to portray a positive and realistic image of Pakistan.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. November 2016. Issue. 31.

[7] Alan Warnes. 11 May 2017. Twitter. URL: https://twitter.com/warnesyworld/status/862664859976126465 Last accessed: 12 December 2017

[8] Marc Selinger. “F-16 fighter sale to Pakistan could involve 80 aircraft.” Aviation Week: Aerospace Daily & Defense Report. 13 October 2005. URL: http://aviationweek.com/awin/f-16-fighter-sale-pakistan-could-involve-80-aircraft (Last Accessed: 24 September 2018).

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

[10] Usman Ansari. “Future Pakistan-Turkish defense cooperation likely to be incremental, for now.” Defense News. 19 September 2018. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2018/09/19/future-pakistan-turkish-defense-cooperation-likely-to-be-incremental-for-now/ (Last Accessed: 24 September 2018).

[11] Gareth Jennings. “ADEX 2017: KAI refining KFX configuration ahead of key milestones.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 17 October 2017. URL: https://www.janes.com/article/74976/adex-2017-kai-refining-kfx-configuration-ahead-of-key-milestones (Last Accessed: 23 September 2018).

[12] Bradley Perrett and Kim Mineseok. “South Korean KF-X Design Approved, First Flight Due In 2022.” Aviation Week. 13 July 2018. URL: http://aviationweek.com/combat-aircraft/south-korean-kf-x-design-approved-first-flight-due-2022 (Last Accessed: 24 September 2018).

[13] “Indonesia to co-develop $8 bln South Korea fighter jet project.” Reuters. 05 October 2014. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/southkorea-defence-indonesia/indonesia-to-co-develop-8-bln-south-korea-fighter-jet-project-idUSL3N0S00Z820141006 (Last Accessed: 24 September 2018).

[14] Tony Osborne. “Russia, UAE To Partner On Fighter Development.” Aviation Week: Aerospace Daily & Defense Report. 21 February 2017. URL: http://aviationweek.com/defense/russia-uae-partner-fighter-development (Last Accessed: 24 September 2018).

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