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Project AZM: Updates on Pakistan’s Next-Gen Fighter Aircraft

Author Profile: Syed Aseem Ul Islam is PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, specializing in adaptive and model-predictive flight control systems. He received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, and his master’s degree in flight dynamics and control from the University of Michigan.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) recently revealed a wide range of updates on its projects, including its next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) program under Project AZM, the status of the JF-17 Block-III, and several other key focus areas.[1]

First Steps Towards Digital Engineering

Air Marshal Noman highlighted that PAC has been using digital engineering tools and processes to refine its JF-17 production line. PAC is applying digitization, where feasible, to boost the output and improve the quality of JF-17-related manufacturing. Air Marshal Noman added that PAC is collaborating (possibly with the newly established Centre of Artificial Intelligence and Computing) with other entities on implementing artificial intelligence (AI). This is a strong indicator that the PAF could be thinking about incorporating new maintenance and support processes, such as predictive maintenance using digital twins, to its workflow.

Preliminary Design of the Azm FGFA

In terms of Project AZM, PAC revealed that the “project is being conceptualized and preliminary designs are ongoing.” In other words, the PAF has yet to finalize the design. This revelation is not surprising – for the PAF, the requirements and technologies that would go into the NGFA are fluid in nature, and subject to change over time. In fact, this is a conscientious way of approaching one’s first in-house fighter (much less a next-generation platform). Moreover, PAC is doing a lot of “learning on the job” as it works to build new design, development, and testing infrastructure from scratch to support the program.

According to PAC, AZM is currently in the preliminary design stage, and as a result, the NGFA is still subject to significant changes in design and mission requirements. PAC said that once the PAF finalizes the initial design, it will put AZM through three additional cycles (each spanning two years) of design work. Basically, one can expect numerous changes (and possibly redesigns) between the point the PAC has a preliminary design and when the PAF freezes the final design. This process will take longer than the six years planned.

It is worth noting that the NGFA’s feature and capability set are subject to change (and possibly omission) until late into the design process and, possibly, well into the production cycles. The PAF had followed the same philosophy with the JF-17 so as to ‘free’ production work from feature absences resulting from the lack or inaccessibility of certain technologies. This is why, for example, the production of the JF-17 Block-III went ahead without a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system (on this note, the PAF said it is working on an original HMD/S in collaboration with Pakistani and Chinese companies).[2] Thus, with AZM, the PAF could end up forwarding the aircraft to production without all of its features (which may be many since next-generation technologies, such as stealth and supercruising, are exceptionally complex).

Air Marshal Noman said that the PAF is aiming to fly the NGFA by 2028. This is an ambitious timeline, and if the PAF is serious about achieving it, then it will certainly rely on foreign partners. Firstly, this is a positive sign in that Pakistan acknowledges its deficiencies and its need for outside help. It will likely seek foreign support for critical inputs, notably engines, flight control hardware and software, and radars. Overall, the availability (or lack thereof) of these inputs could alter the expected timelines for the NGFA. It is likely that the 2028 date is the best-case scenario where the PAF expects it can secure all of the critical inputs from overseas and manage the design and integration process with minimal friction. However, if the PAF runs into internal issues (e.g., design difficulties) or loses suppliers, this target date will get pushed by years.

That said, the newly details suggest that the PAF is tailoring the NGFA for its specific requirements, albeit with a hybrid of foreign and indigenous inputs. The aggressive target date for the maiden test flight shows that the PAF is also aiming to operationalize this aircraft within the foreseeable future. This strategy is the same as the one that drove the JF-17. The main difference between the two aircraft is the PAF’s willingness to try designing the NGFA in-house, albeit with foreign critical inputs.

However, there is a ‘brutally practical’ aspect of the JF-17 strategy – i.e., the PAF’s willingness to omit key features in order to induct the platform sooner than later. In 2019, the PAF revealed that its target design for the NGFA is a twin-engine aircraft with supercruising. However, if the PAF is unable to secure an actual supercruising-capable engine, it will not bottleneck its NGFA to that feature. Rather, the PAF would simply push that feature to a later variant (or omit it entirely).

The Role of the JF-17 Program

The PAC chairman offered several noteworthy comments about the JF-17.

First, the PAF confirmed that it will install the KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to the Block-III and two-seat JF-17B. PAC’s Aviation Production Factory (APF) will also assemble the KLJ-7A (i.e., continuing from the KLJ-7/V2 assembly line already in place to support the Block-I and Block-II). This could be a sign that Pakistan is also looking to locally assemble the AESA radar for the AZM. However, in terms of the next radar, PAC may be looking to incorporate more local input on the system design and integration side (albeit with key inputs, such as transmit/receive modules, still coming from abroad).

Second, PAC also confirmed that it is working with Pakistani and Chinese companies to develop an original HMD/S for use on the JF-17 Block-III. This suggests that the PAF was unable to acquire an HMD/S from the market, which is not surprising considering that there are only a handful of options available (especially outside of the US and Europe). The PAF’s experience with the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System could prove to be valuable in the development of an original HMD/S. Moreover, this original HMD/S could form the basis of a series of systems that could translate over to the NGFA in the future.

Will Azm’s Prototype Fly in 2028?

It is highly unlikely that the first NGFA prototype will fly in 2028, especially when PAC has yet to complete the preliminary design phase of the aircraft. Moreover, several cycles of detailed design work remain, and each of those cycles will take at least two to three years to complete.

That said, the PAF could potentially field a technology demonstrator to verify design decisions and test its key technologies in a relatively low-risk manner. For example, the PAF could emulate the X-36 philosophy wherein it flies a 1/3-scale demonstrator with a miniature air-breathing engine (which the PAF can readily get from the country’s cruise missile program or even its target drone work).

X36 Technology Demonstrator

 

 

These smaller technology demonstrators could help PAC verify structural construction, assess radar cross-section (RCS), flight control system performance, aerodynamic performance, and even undertake several subsystem integration work at a fraction of risk and cost of a full-scale prototype. As an added benefit, a demonstrator could even serve as the basis of a loyal-wingman drone program, which is fast becoming an essential feature of next-generation air combat systems. These drones could spawn a family of unmanned aircraft meant for different roles, such as electronic jamming and decoy operations, among others.

Key Takeaways

Overall, the PAF seems to be aware of the challenges it faces in regards to its NGFA program, and it is fully ready to collaborate with and learn from foreign partners. However, as the PAF delves into R&D at a more serious level, it should be ready to face failure, delays, cost overruns, and embarrassments. The PAF had largely shielded itself from such issues by partnering with well-established R&D partners (usually Chinese companies). However, as the PAF takes on more responsibilities in the way of fighter development, it will face some (if not most) of the issues India had faced with the Tejas. There is nothing wrong with failure – it is a natural part of the development process. Therefore, PAC must shield its researchers and engineers from undue pressures (that result from failure) and, instead, focus on reaching its end-goal of producing a ‘Made in Pakistan’ fighter aircraft.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Pride of Pakistan.” Air International. March 2021. p46.

[2] Ibid.

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