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Realigning Project Azm: Balancing Ambition and Pragmatism

Author Profile: Syed Aseem Ul Islam is a Research Scholar 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 and Ph.D. degrees in flight dynamics and control from the University of Michigan.

The flagship project of Project Azm is the development of a 5th-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA). However, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) has no prior experience developing a fighter jet, let alone an FGFA. The design and development of the 4th-generation JF-17 were primarily carried out in China with small design inputs from the Pakistani side.

Clearly, this limited input into the design process of the JF-17 does not provide PAC with the requisite experience or industrial base required for the design and production of an FGFA.

However, according to public statements made by the PAF, it is known that PAC is embarking on the design and development of an indigenous FGFA design.

Through publicly released videos it can be surmised that the aircraft design under consideration is a twin-engine, low-observable aircraft, similar to the Northrop YF-23. This potentially puts the Azm FGFA in the heavy-weight fighter aircraft category.

Figure 1: Azm FGFA design as seen in a promotional video.

Publicly disclosed Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) documents have shown that PAC has completed at least one cycle of the conceptual design of the FGFA.

Personnel involved with project Azm have informed the author that the design was primarily focused on CFD analysis of the airframe’s aerodynamics and flight dynamic characteristics.

Furthermore, the author has learned that PAC is now struggling with how to proceed since it does not have the requisite experience or industrial base required for moving a conceptual design into the detailed design phase, let alone producing a locally designed airframe with all its subsystems and complexities. PAC does not have the experience, human resources, or infrastructure for a task of this magnitude.

It is for this reason that PAC is seeking foreign partners for collaboration in the development of the FGFA. In lieu of this avenue, serious discussions are being held with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) on the possibility of merging the TAI TFX program into Project Azm’s FGFA so that TAI, with its much richer experience in aerospace R&D, can take Azm’s cause forward.

TFX and Azm’s FGFA.

Interestingly, the TAI TFX is very close in mission requirements and weight category to the design being studied under Project Azm.

One can speculate that Azm’s FGFA may be more strike-focused while TAI TFX is geared more towards being a heavy-weight multirole aircraft. However, the requirements behind the two aircraft appear to be quite similar. Thus, it is natural that there would be efforts to combine the TFX and Azm’s FGFA into a single program given the increasingly close defence relationship between Turkey and Pakistan.

For Pakistan, the key requirement for FGFA is that it should be completely free of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) inputs. This conflicts with Turkish plans to use a General Electric (GE) powerplant for the initial prototypes.

Therefore, Pakistan would want that the possibly combined aircraft (TFX-Azm) to be powered by a Russian or Chinese engine. With the cooling of the relationship between Turkey and the West, TAI may be more open to the possibility of an Eastern-bloc engine for the TFX.

Furthermore, PAC would like the FGFA to be focused more on strike, with an ability to carry large payloads internally. In return, TAI would likely want Pakistan in the TFX program to generate the necessary economies of scale to lower costs and divide risk, especially since the NGFA would be the first in-house program for both Turkey and Pakistan.

Unfortunately for PAC, the TFX design is in a much more mature stage than Azm’s FGFA. In particular, detailed studies have been done for the TFX, and mockups have been displayed in defense exhibitions. Massive investments in infrastructure and human resources are also evident.

On the other hand, the Azm design exists only as 3D models on which CFD analysis has been performed and no detailed design has been carried out. There is also very limited investment in infrastructure and human resources at PAC for Project Azm.

In contrast, TAI, and Turkey’s aerospace ecosystem as a whole, is much more evolved than that of Pakistan, which is almost exclusively dominated by PAC. Therefore, TAI has the much greater capability, industrial base, and human resources available for the development of fighter aircraft. It is for these reasons that TAI is unlikely to accept major changes to its TFX design to combine it with the Pakistani design, which is in its infancy.

In all likelihood, TAI could offer PAC an Eastern-bloc engine-powered TFX that that can be co-produced in partnership with PAC. In turn, this will allow PAC to gain valuable experience in the design and manufacture of vital inputs for a modern fighter aircraft. At the same time, this can bring aerospace jobs to Pakistan which will allow the retention of skilled human resources in the aerospace sector, which has been a major challenge for Pakistan.

Consequently, it would be foolish for PAC to expect TAI to collaborate heavily and accept its FGFA design as the design for the TFX. Therefore, the PAF ought to realign project Azm’s objectives to be in line with the realities and capabilities of PAC and Pakistan’s aerospace ecosystem. Thus, Pakistan should take a pragmatic approach to develop its aerospace ecosystem. After all, the development of Pakistan’s aerospace ecosystem is the primary goal of Project Azm.

What can PAC contribute?

The preceding discussion begs the question: what can PAC bring to the collaboration table with TAI? There should be two guiding principles for PAC: do what you are good at and get better at what you are doing.

Developing subsystems and technologies

Modern aircraft are systems of systems. Thus, PAC should focus on the development of subsystems and the technologies required for them. This approach narrows down the scope of the goal to a manageable size as opposed to the nebulous goal of the development of an FGFA.

For example, PAC could focus on the development of a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, which it is already reported to be working on. Additionally, PAC could focus on the development of an onboard oxygen generation system (OBOGS) for TFX-Azm. Other parts that PAC could contribute to the TFX-Azm are altitude and heading reference systems, distributed low-observable air-data systems, electrical harnesses, and mechanical assemblies. Focusing on these subsystems is within the reach of PAC and allows PAC to focus on tangible goals.

Figure 2: Enhanced EW Suite listed as a feature of JF-17 Block 3 at PAC.

PAC could also focus on the development of electronic warfare systems for TFX-Azm using experience gained from the integration of a similar system on the JF-17 Block 3. Other examples of systems that PAC can develop are air-to-air refueling systems, cockpit systems, electrical power bus systems, and auxiliary power systems.

Loyal Wingman Project

As mentioned in several previous articles, a loyal wingman project may be the ideal level of complexity for a PAC-led project. Perhaps the best project for PAC to focus on is the design, development, and production of a loyal wingman unmanned combat aerial vehicle to accompany the FGFA. This loyal wingman UCAV should be designed to work with the TFX-Azm and other PAF aircraft to enhance their air-to-air, strike, and SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) capabilities. As an added benefit any deficiencies in the TFX-Azm’s strike capabilities can be accounted for by the loyal wingman UCAV.

A loyal wingman UCAV should also fit in with the PAF’s doctrinal need of force multipliers. Since the PAF is designed to fight a numerically superior opponent, it has had to rely on force multipliers like the DA-20, Erieye, and ZDK03. However, in any conflict with India that lasts more than a week, we can expect PAF to lose its fighting ability simply due to attrition as the IAF can bring many more aircraft to the fight. In this regard, a loyal wingman UCAV can serve as a special kind of force multiplier that not only multiplies the force but also provides additional numbers.

By most measures, designing and producing an attritible unmanned system is a much simpler goal than doing the same for a manned aircraft. Furthermore, PAC has already developed a MALE UAV, which demonstrates the ability of PAC to design and manufacture a large, unmanned aircraft. Moreover, the developmental costs for an unmanned system are low for a plethora of reasons: much fewer systems need to be developed; the reduced size and weight allow more traditional production methods to be used, and the safety and redundancy requirements are not as stringent as they are for a manned system.

All of this means that a much smaller investment in terms of money and human resources are required for the development of a loyal wingman drone. This is ideal for PAC, which does not have the funds or intention to hire thousands of engineers that are required for a full-fledged fighter program, which is something that TAI has done for its TFX.

PAC can design and produce these loyal wingman UCAVs with a much smaller investment and get to a working prototype quickly. This relatively low-risk and gradual approach to building an aircraft R&D capability is much better suited to PAC’s realities, as opposed to directly going for a full-fledged FGFA having never designed and built any type of aircraft from scratch.

Another fact that makes the development of a loyal wingman UCAV a realistic goal is that a lot of the required subsystems are already present in some form or another already since a MALE UAV has already been developed and produced. For example, the air-data system, the attitude and heading reference system, the flight control system and software, and the electromechanical systems are all present on the MALE UAV produced at PAC. In parallel, Air Weapons Complex (AWC) also developed the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which is also, technically speaking, an attritible drone.

Conclusions

Considering the stages at which TAI’s TFX and PAC’s Azm are and considering the limitations and strengths of TAI and PAC, the projects that are being pursued under Project Azm need to be realigned. In particular, PAC should abandon the unrealistic goal of developing a completely indigenous FGFA and let TAI take the lead on a combined TFX-Azm FGFA. Being freed from pursuing the colossal task of developing an entire FGFA on its own, PAC should focus instead on supporting the TAI effort for TFX-Azm, and the development of a loyal wingman UCAV, which can serve as an entirely achievable goal for Pakistan’s aerospace ecosystem. This has the potential to be a project that will invigorate and expand Pakistani aerospace R&D and become a vital piece of PAF’s future war-fighting capability. A future article will present a possible detailed roadmap for a loyal wingman program at PAC.

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