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Report: Pakistan’s Air Warfare Plans for the Decade

The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) development efforts for this decade are driven by three factors: First, Pakistan’s skirmish with India in 2019. Second, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War. Third, the increasing availability of advanced military technology from key partners like China and Turkiye.

Of these, the initial catalyst the skirmish with India, which led to Operation Swift Retort, the PAF’s air operation over India in retaliation to the latter’s incursion in Balakot, Pakistan.

The Balakot episode exposed both tactical gaps for the PAF and, for the Pakistani military generally, a strategic concern. The tactical gap was the freedom India had in undertaking stand-off range strikes from its side of the border. While such an attack was an eventuality (since the PAF also had comparable munitions), the fact that it occurred in peacetime was a problem.

Up until 2019, Pakistan had relied on the idea that its nuclear weapons capability would deter enemy attacks, be it nuclear or conventional.[1] The basic rationale was that any adventure would result in escalation which, eventually, will lead to a nuclear exchange and, therefore, mutually assured destruction (MAD). Nuclear weapons were supposed to prevent military incursions by India.

Not only has India disregarded the nuclear umbrella, but it also created another problem: the risk of additional ‘probing.’ From Pakistan’s standpoint, if the PAF did not respond to the Balakot attack with Operation Swift Retort, it would be at risk of India carrying out additional strikes. These strikes could extend deeper into Pakistani territory and, in turn, create widespread insecurity and instability across Pakistan’s frontiers, especially Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas.

Nuclear weapons will not deter this activity; thus, Pakistan had to start investing in its conventional capabilities from land, sea, and air. Basically, it began taking conventional deterrence seriously, even amid economic uncertainty and fiscal vulnerability.

For the PAF, this conventional deterrence posture would require building upon the template of Swift Retort, arguably its largest air operation to date. Swift Retort involved a composite mix of 12 to 18 fighter aircraft, an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, and an electronic attack (EA) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft.[2] To the PAF, Swift Retort was a success in that it not only demonstrated a retaliatory capability, but it also inflicted greater damage unto India than what the IAF achieved through Balakot, at least in technical terms. For example, the IAF lost a MiG-21bis alongside a Mi-17 and, according to the PAF’s claims, a Su-30MKI.[3]

If Swift Retort was a template for success, then the PAF needs to demonstrate that it can undertake Swift Retort-type operations at scale, either in quick succession or, possibly, simultaneously. If India concluded that incursions in Pakistan would lead to equally, if not more, costly reprisals, it may walk away from such adventures. Thus, the PAF’s offensive capability must greatly improve.

However, strong retaliatory capability only forms one-half of the conventional deterrence equation. The PAF also worked to improve its area-denial capabilities such that it can neutralize an incursion, which would not only mitigate damage in Pakistan but, in turn, lessen the pressure on the PAF to carry out a retaliatory strike. Moreover, an increased risk of failing to carry out a successful strike may also deter India from engaging in an adventure in the first place.

Thus, the PAF’s air warfare plans for the rest of the 2020s aim to achieve two overarching goals: area denial and the ability to sustain large-scale air operations. The PAF is working to fulfil these goals via seven core areas of work, namely:

  1. Replacing Legacy Platforms
  2. Taking a Holistic Approach to Area Denial
  3. Enhancing Tactical and Strategic Situational Awareness
  4. Incorporating Drones into the Air Attack Element
  5. Expanding Air Lift and Logistics Capabilities
  6. Revising the Advanced Air Training Regimen
  7. Building Dedicated Offensive Wings

 

1. Replacing Legacy Platforms

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.[4] 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.[5] 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).[6]

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).[7]

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.[8] 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.

2. Taking a Holistic Approach to Area Denial

In 2019, the PAF had largely leaned on its fighter fleet to deny enemy aircraft access and control of its airspace. Surface-to-air missiles (SAM) did not figure much in the PAF’s approach, especially as its longest-range ‘vector’ at the time was the MBDA Spada 2000-Plus, which had a range of 20 km.

PAF mostly used its SAMs to protect installations, not deny – much less deter – enemy air activity near or across the national border. While it continued investing heavily in fighters since 2019, the PAF also revealed that it built a new and robust ground-based air defence system (GBADS). AHQ likely appreciated Ukraine’s deft use of GBADS as a way of mitigating enemy air power over one’s territory and, in turn, adopted the idea to defend Pakistani airspace.

However, it is worth noting that in addition to medium- and long-range SAMs, the PAF also set the groundwork for leveraging directed energy weapons and passive air defence measures. This was likely done to address the threat of loitering munitions and swarming drones.

Multirole Combat Aircraft

Moving forward, the PAF’s combat aircraft inductions will solely comprise of solutions with AESA radars, integrated ECM, helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S), and compatibility with long-range air-to-air missiles (LRAAM) and high off-boresight (HOBS) AAMs.

The PAF’s procurement roadmap for the rest of this decade – and possibly well into the 2030s – will center on the J-10CE and JF-17C/Block-III in a hi-and-lo mix, respectively. Both fighter types will be used for air-to-air and air-to-surface engagements, with the JF-17C managing the bulk of stand-off weapon (SOW) deployment in the near-term. Combined, the two fighters will play the leading roles in supplanting the remainder of the PAF’s old F-7P/PG and Mirage III/5s.

J-10CE Dragon

The PAF inducted the Chengdu J-10CE in March 2022 as part of a longstanding effort to acquire an off-the-shelf fighter to augment its F-16 and JF-17 fleets. Quwa was able to visually verify a total of 20 J-10CEs in PAF service, substantiating an apparent leak of the contract signed with AVIC, which also listed the sale of 240 PL-15E LRAAMs.

While Swift Retort catalyzed AHQ to sign the deal, the PAF sought an off-the-shelf fighter since at least 2015. It originally wanted to acquire additional new-built F-16C/Ds (for which it once aimed to build a fleet of at least 55 aircraft before the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir). Unfortunately, a chill in defence ties with Washington derailed those efforts, pushing AHQ to look to Russia and China.

Realistically, the only viable alternative to the F-16s was the J-10CE. Not only did the PAF maintain close ties with China, but the J-10CE could also readily leverage many of the PAF’s existing air-to-air munitions stocks (like the SD-10 and PL-5E). The J-10CE was already interoperable with the JF-17. Moreover, AVIC also worked to deliver the first batch of fighters within only eight months after signing the contract, a major feat seeing how net-new inductions can take 18 to 24 months.

While the PAF has a lower cost alternative in the JF-17C, the J-10CE offers its own advantages, like a higher thrust engine, more range, greater payload, and, potentially, the capacity to support higher output electronics, like a more powerful AESA radar. The J-10CE has the basis to deliver better air-to-air and air-to-surface capabilities than the JF-17C.

For the PAF’s current needs, a superior air-to-air capability is of paramount importance. It wants to achieve and maintain a ‘first-shot’ advantage, so the J-10CE’s radar range must exceed that of the JF-17C and, in turn, be fully capable of deploying the PL-15E LRAAM (which offers a stated range of 145 km). There are rumours of the PAF possessing the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) standard PL-15 LRAAM, which reportedly offers a range of 200 km. Quwa was not able to verify the reports. However, even the PL-15E has a longer range than any of the PAF’s other LRAAMs.

From an area denial standpoint, the J-10CE would help the PAF intercept incoming enemy aircraft; but it is unlikely to be a primary defensive asset. Rather, the PAF likely acquired the J-10CE to form up its offensive capabilities as an escort/top-cover asset for the JF-17B/C (which will deploy SOWs like ALCMs, gliding PGBs, etc). The current fleet of 20 aircraft would be too small for the offensive or, for that matter, defensive role; thus, the PAF will use the remainder of this decade to grow the J-10CE fleet to at least 80 to 90 units, i.e., five squadrons.

However, from 2030, the PAF could start inducting the Shenyang J-31 and, possibly, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to form its offensive wings. From that point, the J-10CE could shift to the area denial role alongside the JF-17B/C.

JF-17B/C Thunder

While the J-10CE dominates the conversation, the PAF is still invested in the JF-17, especially the latest models, the dual-seat JF-17B and the JF-17C or Block-III.

While the PAF’s baseline fighter, the JF-17C uses an AESA radar with HMD/S and ECM. The KLJ-7A radar has a range of 170 km against targets with a radar cross-section (RCS) of 5m2. It can track 15 targets simultaneously as well as engage four at once. It uses a Chinese HMD/S (likely the same model used onboard the PAF’s J-10CE) paired with a HOBS AAM. It can also leverage the PL-15E.

The JF-17B/C lacks the aerodynamic performance or reach of the J-10CE, but the Thunder is still a viable defensive fighter, one the PAF can afford to acquire at scale thanks to its existing operating infrastructure, local production capacity, and lower costs.

The PAF had originally planned to acquire 50 JF-17Cs; thus far, it only committed to 30 units.[9] The PAF likely split its JF-17C order with the dual-seat JF-17B. It is worth noting that the JF-17B is still largely similar to the JF-17C – i.e., it uses the new fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system, has the capacity to support an AESA radar, and other improvements.[10] Thus, the PAF can bring its JF-17Bs towards a common configuration with the JF-17C, giving it 56 ‘advanced model’ JF-17s in total.

Through the 2020s, the PAF will likely use the JF-17C alongside the J-10CE as an offensive asset, but as the primary platform for deploying SOWs. For example, the JF-17 integrated its Taimur and Ra’ad-series of ALCMs to the JF-17; these ALCMs offer a range of 300 km to 600 km, respectively. Likewise, the PAF will configure the AZB-series of glide PGBs to the JF-17, which can offer a range coverage of 80 km to 220 km, depending on configuration and launch altitude.

That said, the defensive qualities of the JF-17B/C will matter, even in the 2020s, but through the JF-17 Block-II. There is reportedly an upgrade plan for the Block-II, but whether it includes the KLJ-7A AESA radar and HMD/S system of the JF-17C is unclear. However, adding those subsystems to the JF-17 Block-II would be a prudent step as it would add around 60 fighters with the capacity to use the PL-15E LRAAM and HMD/S-paired HOBS AAM to the fleet. It would greatly reinforce the PAF’s area denial and defensive capabilities in a relatively short time.

It seems that the approximately 50 JF-17 Block-Is will soldier on in their current configuration. The aircraft are among the PAF’s older JF-17s and, by the mid-2030s, will start reaching the end of their airframes’ service lives. However, the Block-Is are still capable of deploying the SD-10 LRAAM and C-802 ASCM, thus making them valuable air defence and stand-off attack aircraft.

L-15B

Compared to the J-10CE and JF-17B/C, the L-15B is less certain as the PAF has yet to officially confirm if it is actively pursuing the platform. That said, the L-15B can operate as a functional fighter aircraft, one that could deploy the SD-10 LRAAM. This could be valuable as an internal security or point air defence asset behind the J-10CE, JF-17C, F-16, and JF-17 Block-I/II.

 

Surface-to-Air Missiles

The PAF is no longer relying on only fighter aircraft for area denial; rather, SAMs will help improve its first-response mechanism against enemy air activity. To this end, the PAF has begun investing in both medium-to-long-range SAMs and long-range SAMs.

Until recent years, the PAF’s primary SAM solutions were the MBDA Spada 2000-Plus, French Crotale 2000, and Mistral man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS). Traditionally, the PAF’s GBADS was not built for territorial defence, but point-defence over installations, like air bases and radar sites.

Now, however, the PAF considers its GBADS a crucial asset for territorial defence, one meant to work in close concert with its fighter fleet. The new PAF GBADS is a multi-layered system made up of long-range, medium-range, and short-range SAMs plus other active and passive anti-air systems, such as directed energy weapons (DEW) and electronic attack (EA) systems.

HQ-9BE

In its promotional video, the PAF confirmed that it inducted the HQ-9BE, a long-range SAM system. It can intercept a variety of target types, including:

  • Combat aircraft at a range of up to 260 km and altitude of 27 km
  • Air-to-ground missiles (AGM) at a range of up to 50 km and altitude of 18 km
  • Cruise missiles at a range of up to 25 km and altitude greater than 0.02 km
  • Tactical ballistic missiles (TBM) at a range of up to 25 km and altitude of 18 km

The HQ-9BE missile’s guidance suite uses an inertial navigation system (INS) aided by a land-based targeting radar via datalink and a terminal-stage active radar-homing (ARH) seeker.

Unlike the older HT-XXX series of guidance radars found on the FD-2000, the HQ-9BE uses the JSG-400 TDR guidance radar, which is designed for TBM interceptions, and the JPG-600 TDR surveillance radar. Furthermore, the battery utilizes a command-and-control (C2) system and electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) system, plus several decoy vehicles.

The HQ-9BE is marketed as a limited theater air defence solution that could intercept fighter aircraft and long-range munitions. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) says that the HQ-9BE can intercept TBMs with ranges of up to 1,000 km. The HQ-9BE can respond against TBMs in 10 seconds and non-TBMs within 15 seconds. It is basically the PAF’s most advanced SAM system.

The PAF specifically highlighted counter-TBM and counter-cruise missile capabilities. While this was likely in reference to the HQ-9BE, it may indicate that the PAF is interested in the idea of building anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capabilities in the long-term. The HQ-9BE could be the starting point.

HQ-16FE

In addition to the HQ-9BE, the PAF also revealed that it acquired the Chinese HQ-16FE, which is also designated as the LY-80B. This is a vastly improved variant of the LY-80 already in service with the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Navy. The HQ-16FE seems to form the PAF’s medium-to-long-range air defence layer.

The HQ-19FE offers a range of 25 km to 160 km with a minimum/maximum intercept altitude of 15 m to 27 km against fighter-sized targets. It leverages a datalink-aided INS guidance system as well as a dual-mode semi-active and active-radar homing (SARH/ARH) seeker. The HQ-16FE’s main guidance radar is a 2D active-scanning phased-array system with a range of 250 km against “normal” fighter-sized targets, likely in reference to a radar cross-section (RCS) of 5m2. It can simultaneously track 12 targets and engage 8 at once.

Like it had with the HQ-9BE, the PAF acquired the HQ-16FE to give itself another area-denial system in addition to its fighter fleet. By acquiring both systems, the PAF is building a densely layered GBADS that provides defensibility against fighters and munitions alike.

The PAF likely wants to emulate the impact Ukraine is seeing through its use of SAMs against Russian air power. For the PAF, SAMs may offer a quick-response mechanism against incoming enemy aircraft and, if successful, a means to deprecate an offensive attack before friendly fighters are in the air.

Spada 2000-Plus and its Conversion to Spada CIWS

The MBDA Spada 2000-Plus will likely soldier on. The PAF operates 10 batteries, which it ordered in 2007 from Italy for $475 million US. The Spada 2000-Plus uses a SARH seeker in conjunction with the Falco-Plus fire control radar (FCR) and RAC-3D radar. The PAF will likely continue using them to defend its air bases and other installations, perhaps as a short-range/point-defence system.

Interestingly, at the 2022 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), the PAF indicated it would upgrade its Spada batteries by turning them into a close-in-weapons-system (CIWS) by adding anti-air guns (AAG). In its recent ceremonies at the National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP), the PAF showcased several potential iterations of this Spada CIWS concept.

The first model involves one Falco-Plus FCR and C2 suite mounted to a 6×6 truck, a six-cell Aspide-2000 missile launcher mounted to a 6×6 truck, and a rear-mounted Oerlikon GDF 35 mm AAG. It was complemented with an RAC-3D radar for surveillance and situational awareness.

An alternative model was also shown at NASTP. This system adopts the same configuration as above, but with one major difference with Pakistani sensors in place of the Falco-Plus FCR and RAC-3D.

Interestingly, a Pakistani state-owned entity is working on a ‘LOMADS’ SAM system with a range of 7 km to 100 km. With the HQ-9BE and HQ-16FE in service, the PAF would be in no rush to acquire such a system. However, if it materializes, this in-house LOMADS join the Spada 2000-Plus as the PAF’s lower-ranged complement to the HQ-16FE in the medium-range layer.

Crotale

The PAF has been a longstanding operator of the Thales Crotale, and it currently fields both legacy variants – the Crotale 2000 and Crotale 4000. Though aged, the PAF considers them effective, hence it intends to upgrade the Crotale 4000. Its upgrade plans for the Crotale 4000 involve two phases: an upgrade of the Crotale’s ACU (Acquisition Unit) – i.e., radar – and an upgrade of the FU (Firing Unit) as well as its missiles. Plans for these upgrades were showcased at IDEAS 2022 and at NASTP.

The modernized ACU apparently leverages a modern 4×4 Hino truck. The radar is to be mounted to a retractable mast. The electronics will be redesigned and enclosed in a modern cabin. The ACU would use new solid-state receivers, giving the ACU greater range.

SHORADS

The PAF has long relied on its Mistral MANPADS as its last line of defence. However, the PAF has been looking as of late to upgrade its SHORAD capabilities. For example, it acquired FN-16 MANPADS.

CIWS

Footage from the PAF’s promotional video also shows a system called ‘CIWS’ (typically short for the term, ‘close-in-weapons-system’). In addition to the Spada CIWS concept, the PAF is also interested in procuring one of the Chinese Type 730 or Type 1130 system.

It is worth seeing how the PAF further develops its point-defence capabilities in the coming years. It has an overt focus on intercepting munitions, such as cruise missiles. This focus could push the PAF to invest in dedicated solutions, like Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) or point-defence missile systems (PDMS). The PAF has several C-RAM and PDMS options available on the market, like the Denel Cheetah, Emirati EDGE Group SkyKnight, and Turkish Aselsan Levent. These C-RAM/PDMS systems could form the PAF’s inner-layer coverage of its wider air defence environment.

Electronic Warfare

For the PAF, electronic warfare (EW) was traditionally an essential part of its offensive operations; but it is now leveraging EW for area denial. In its promotional video, the PAF highlighted at least three new land-based EW systems: HISAR-1, MIGAES, and EADS.

It is unclear what each of these systems are specifically; however, it is seems that MIGAES and EADS represent various EW systems that are coupled together to provide an electronic attack (EA) element against enemy radar and communications use over Pakistani territory. The PAF is also improving its electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) capabilities to degrade EA/ECM use over Pakistan.

EADS

The PAF EADS seemingly consists of various EW/ECM systems of mostly Chinese origin – but unified under one core framework.

In its official calendar for 2024 and promotional videos, the PAF showed the JN-1199. The JN-1199 is a next-generation long-range communication jammer that may use the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation’s (CETC) AESA arrays. It consists of a C2 system, a possible electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) jamming station, a very-high-frequency (VHF) and ultra-high-frequency (UHF) signals jamming station, an L/S/C-band jamming station, and X/Ku-band jamming station. The JN-1199 has at least five different types of ECM jamming stations, but it is unlikely the PAF acquired all of them.

In addition, the PAF also acquired additional radar jamming systems. Some observers suggest that the PAF acquired the Chinese CHL-906 and/or the ELINC LDK-190.

Capable of working alongside the CHL-906, the LDK-190 can engage frequencies from 500 MHz to 40 GHz. In addition to data-links/communications, it can, in theory, engage satellite communications (SATCOM) signals so as to interfere with drones, precision-guided munitions, and cruise missiles.

As for the CHL-906, the system comprises of six core subsystems, namely:

  • CHL-906C: Defined as a ‘long-range radar jamming station,’ the CHL-906C is capable of operating in L, S, and P-bands. It offers a stated jamming range of over 300 km, with ELINC claiming it can interfere with airborne early warning (AEW) radars.
  • CHL-906E: ELINC markets this system as a ‘multi-function radar jamming station’ that can interfere with radar systems onboard enemy fighters at a range of over 250 km.
  • CHL-906F: This is marketed as a jamming system against synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagine. It might be a solution aimed at mitigating enemy intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition (ISTAR) aircraft.
  • ESM/ELINT: Quwa could not verify its designation, but this is an electronic support measures (ESM) system with electronic intelligence (ELINT) capabilities. It is a passive system that monitors radar and other electromagnetic signals emissions in real time at a frequency range of 0.1 GHz to 40 GHz. This is likely an essential piece to the overall CHL-906 suite because it offers around-the-clock monitoring of signals which, in turn, the system will record in data/threat libraries for EA/ECM jamming later.
  • 3D Passive Radar: This is a passive sensor designed to monitor for and track different types of radar emissions. It is used for identifying, tracking, and locating enemy radar activity. It provides a range of 600 km. This is likely a system meant for building situational awareness, especially in EA/ECM dense conditions where radar use is not tenable due to enemy SEAD/DEAD activity.

Observers suggest that the PAF also acquired the Chinese CEW-035 Integrated Communications Jamming Systema as part of its EADS, supplementing the JN-1199 and/or CHL-906.

Integrated Electronic Warfare System (IEWS)

The foundation of the PAF’s land-based EA/ECM system is based on the IEWS, which is domestically produced by the Defense Science and Technology Organization (DESTO). According to observers, it is a mobile system that comprises of seven supporting systems.

These reportedly include three electronic support measures (ESM) systems for managing electronic intelligence (ELINT) tasks, such as monitoring radar and/or communications signals for building the threat library for electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems. The system can reportedly scan as well as jam from 30 MHz to 6,000 MHz. The IEWS is managed by a portable C2 system.

The PAF uses two different local systems for communications jamming, mainly tailored for counter-unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) and communication electronic warfare (C-EWS). These are derived from the IEWS. Both systems were showcased at NASTP and are likely being offered for export.

The C-EWS system appears to adopt a multi-vehicle configuration similar to the IEWS. However, the PAF likely uses modified software and jammer configuration, one better suited for communications jamming at long range. The PAF apparently uses two different ECM units. The first is a directed multi-sub-band array mounted to a trailer, which is towed by the ECM vehicle. The second unit is the ECM system itself, which leverages long-range jamming attentions. The multi-band-array is likely utilized for long-range denial of radio-frequency data-links/navigation against both manned and unmanned aircraft alike, and precision-guided munitions.

The C-UAS system (thought to be called “HISAR-1”), on the other hand, leverages a single vehicle configuration mounted to a truck. It uses an integrated ECM and ESM on one vehicle. For ECM, the system adopts both omni-directional jammers as well as a steerable multi-band directed jamming array. The system has a reported range of 10 km against UAVs.

ELINT System

The PAF traditionally relied on imported ELINT/ESM systems to create threat libraries against hostile radars. Recently at NASTP, however, the PAF showcased that it inducted an indigenous ELINT system. Specific details about the system are unknown, but it uses a single vehicle configuration mounted to a 6×6 truck with, possibly, an integrated C2.

Directed Energy Weapons

The PAF showed that it is looking at the future of anti-air warfare (AAW) by investing in high-energy laser (HEL) and high-powered microwave (HPM) systems. Currently, both systems are likely geared towards countering enemy drone activity, especially swarming drones and loitering munitions. These directed energy weapons likely do not offer significant range at this time, but they may form the basis of a longer-term strategy to incorporate higher output systems.

3. Enhancing Situational Awareness

The PAF is using a range of radars and passive sensors to build its situational awareness, not just over Pakistani territory, but, potentially, across its borders too.

Multi-Layered Radar Coverage

The PAF’s radar coverages use a combination of land-based radars and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) systems. Together, these assets monitor Paksitani airspace across multiple radar bands while also providing support for different missions, including offensive operations.

Horizon-7

It appears that the PAF has begun designating its Erieye AEW&C as the ‘Horizon-7’. The PAF operates seven to nine Erieye systems, with the latest unit being inducted as recently as January 2024.

With the Saab 2000 as its aircraft platform, the Erieye is an S-band active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar with a range of 450 km. It also has five onboard mission operator consoles for managing connected air and surface assets for air-to-air and air-to-surface maneuvers.

Being an airborne radar system, the Erieye also gives the PAF with over-the-horizon (OTH) coverage, which it can leverage to monitor the airspace of its neighbours, especially India and Iran.

It appears that the PAF is standardizing its AEW&C fleet on the Erieye. Moreover, its latest unit – i.e., 23-058 – exhibited some different hardware compared to the PAF’s preceding Erieye units. This unit is unlikely to be the Erieye-ER, but it may have updates similar to Brazil’s E-99M, which is an upgraded Erieye system. That said, the PAF may seek the Erieye-ER in the future, but as an offensively oriented asset that can support its long-range strike wings.

YLC-8E

The PAF also confirmed that it has inducted the YLC-8E radar from the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). The YLC-8E is marketed as an ‘anti-stealth radar system,’ but to the PAF, it likely serves as a land-based early warning radar system.

The YLC-8E is an ultra-high-frequency (UHF) system that covers L-band, S-band, and C-band radar frequencies. It can reportedly detect and track aircraft at over 500 km, and missiles at up to 700 km. According to CETC, the YLC-8E is resilient against jamming or spoofing. It may complement the PAF’s six Lockheed Martin AN/TPS-77 long-range surveillance radars, which offer a range of 450 km.

Prior to the acquisition of the YLC-8E, the PAF also trialed the YLC-8B and JY-27A long-range ‘anti-stealth’ radars. However, it seems that the PAF chose the YLC-8E over these other systems.

TPS-77 MRR

The PAF also confirmed that it inducted the Lockheed Martin TPS-77 Multi-Role Radar (MRR). While it did not disclose how many units it acquired, some observers peg the number at over 20 radars. The PAF acquired the TPS-77 MRR for its low-level gap-filler radar requirement.

The TPS-77 MRR uses gallium nitride (GaN)-based transceiver modules (TRM) to provide a range of 10 km to 463 km and altitude reach of up to 30.5 km. The PAF may be using the TPS-77 MRR as either a fixed or mobile system (or both). In 2020, the PAF issued a tender to the domestic industry to build radomes for the TPS-77 MRR. However, the TPS-77 MRR is not the only PAF’s low-level radar.

YLC-18A MRR

The PAF also acquired CETC’s low-level radars to complement its TPS-77 MRR. There are at least five YLC-18As in service to help fill the PAF’s low-level gap-filler radar requirement. The YLC-18A offers a range of over 250 km.

Legacy Radar Systems

Since the 1980s, the workhorse of the PAF’s low-level radar was the Siemens Mobile Pulse-Doppler Radar (MPDR), which was bought in three variants with ranges of 45 km, 60 km, and 90 km. With a mix of both fixed and mobile systems, it helped set the groundwork of the PAF’s modern GBADS with real-time sensor feeds to networked C2 sites. Being mechanically steered pulse-Doppler systems, however, the MPDRs are dated and lack the necessary ECCM, range coverage, and targeting capabilities of modern AESA radars.

While the TPS-77 MRR was sought to resolve these deficiencies, it does not seem to be the PAF’s only solution for this required. The PAF also ‘upgraded’ its MPDRs with Hensoldt’s assistance.

In 2019, the PAF acquired 60 solid-state transmitter kits for an ‘MPDR upgrade’. However, the legacy MPDRs were not solid state-based systems. So, this was less of an ‘upgrade’ and more of a net-new acquisition. The kits were used to upgrade the range of the radar and improve its ECCM. Likewise, the PAF carried out a similar upgrade of its Chinese YLC-6MS radars, i.e., upgrading its range and making its ECCM capabilities more resilient to modern jamming threats.

New Potential Radar Systems

Pakistan’s state-owned entities are developing a new low-level radar. According to Global Industrial and Defence Solutions (GIDS), the “G-RAD” is an S-band active phased-array 3D radar. It will offer a range of 100 km against targets with radar cross-sections (RCS) of 1m2 and detection height of up to 25,000 feet. GIDS is marketing it as a solution for point and area-defence. It is expected to offer strong ECCM capabilities. There are reports of GIDS supplying several G-RAD units to the PAF for testing.

In addition, a ‘Multi-Function Air Defence Radar’ (MFADR) is also under development. It is an active phased-array radar system with solid-state transceivers. The specifications have not been disclosed, but given its stated applications, such as “omni-surveillance and tracking” and “sector surveillance and tracking,” it may be an analogous option to systems like the Hensoldt TRML-4D. Thus, it provide a range of 200 km to 300 km. It is also an X-band system, which indicates that it will be integrated to SAM systems, possibly local programs like the 100 km-range ‘LOMADS.’ In early 2023, the PAF issued a tender for hardware for a “3D surveillance radar,” indicating that a prototype may be in production.

Passive Sensors

The PAF confirmed that it inducted at least one passive sensor, among them the ERA VERA-E and a Chinese system (that may or may not accompany the CHL-906, as explained above).

VERA-E

The VERA-E is an ESM/ELINT system with a range of 400 km. It does not actively emit radio waves to identify and track airborne objects. Rather, it just ‘listens’ for electromagnetic activity, such as enemy radar emissions. It aims to turn the strength of high-powered radars into a weakness by using those higher outputs to expose the aircraft using those radars.

It is unclear if the VERA-E is similar to the VERA-NG marketed by ERA, or a bespoke version developed for the PAF. The VERA-NG can track emitting targets in 2D and 3D. It can also augment GBADS through its passive capabilities; for example, the VERA can identify an object and, in turn, send the vectors to the radars and/or SAM systems, or even EA/ESM systems like the CHL-906.

The VERA-E is likely not the PAF’s sole passive ELINT/ESM system. As noted earlier, the CHL-906 also has its own ELINT subsystem. The PAF may also be working to integrate ELINT/ESM to airborne assets like the Erieye/Horizon-7 or, potentially, drones.

4. Incorporating Drones into Air Attack Element

Drones are not new to the PAF. For example, the Leonardo Falco has been a fixture of the PAF’s ISTAR capability since at least the late 2000s. From the early 2010s, however, the PAF started using armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the ground attack role via the NESCOM Burraq.

In the subsequent years, the PAF has steadily increased its investment in drones, including medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) and high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs. By acquiring a wide range of drones, the PAF may be planning to use UAVs in a variety of missions/roles.

MALE and HALE UAVs

The PAF’s growing drone inventory leverages a mix of foreign and domestic designs across many size and weight classes, from the 700 kg Bayraktar TB2 to the 6,000 kg Bayraktar Akıncı.

Bayraktar Akıncı

In 2023, the PAF revealed that it inducted the Bayraktar Akıncı, a HALE UAV with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 6,000 kg. It is the largest UAV in use by the PAF, offering an endurance of 24 hours and a payload capacity of 1,500 kg across eight hardpoints.

Through its promotional footage, the PAF confirmed that it intends to use the Akıncı in the strike role; for example, it has configured the Akıncı with the IREK, which can reconfigure Mk82 and Mk83 general purpose bombs (PGB) into gliding PGBs.

The Akıncı design is capable of deploying other stand-off range weapons (SOW) as well, such as air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). The PAF seems to be pursuing this option via a collaborative effort with Baykar Group. For example, the two entities are jointly developing the KaGeM V3, a lighter weight ALCM that may complement the Taimur/Ra’ad-series ALCMs.

The Akıncı may serve as a ‘bomb truck’ of sorts in future PAF offensive operations, augmenting its air groups with additional ground attack capabilities. In such missions, the Akıncı would deploy its SOW payload from a safe distance within Pakistani territory.

The PAF may also use the Akıncı as a COIN/CT asset by leveraging its payload to drop Mk82 and Mk83-based PGBs and laser-guided bombs (LGB). The UAV offers an alternative platform to fast jets which – in lieu of any serious AAW threat – may not be necessary for such operations.

It will be worth seeing if the PAF leverages the Akıncı for ISTAR and ELINT/ESM missions. The UAV can serve as a lower-cost alternative to manned special mission aircraft in such roles.

Wing Loong II

In 2022, the PAF signaled that it will acquire the Chengdu Wing Loong II MALE UAV. Boasting a MTOW of 4,200 kg, the Wing Loong II is the PAF’s second-largest drone. It has an endurance of 20 hours and payload of 480 kg across six hardpoints.

The PAF may use the Wing Loong II for timed targeted strikes (TTS) and/or ISTAR mission for COIN/CT operations. The 480 kg payload limits the Wing Loong II’s munitions options to 50 kg to 100 kg air-to-ground munitions, such as anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) or 100~125 kg-sized PGBs.

Shahpar-II

The PAF also inducted the domestically developed and manufactured Shahpar-II, which as a MTOW of 1,075 kg and payload capacity of 180 kg across four hardpoints. It offers an endurance of 12 hours when armed and 20 hours in an ISTAR role. Thus far, the Shahpar-II’s primary munitions option is the 50 kg-class Barq AGM/ATGM.

Bayraktar TB2

The Bayraktar TB2 is the PAF’s lightest MALE UAV. It has a MTOW of 700 kg,  payload of 150 kg, and an endurance of 27 hours. The PAF is arming the TB2 with the Barq AGM and the 22 kg Roketsan MAM-L ‘smart micro munition.’

The heavy investment in UAVs will likely drive the PAF to seek domestic munitions tailored for drones. The Pakistani company Harobanx is marketing light-weight munitions, like the Hassam series, which comes in three subvariants: the 50 kg Hassam-20, 25 kg Hassam 15, and 10 kg Hassam 10. As noted earlier, the PAF is also developing a lighter weight ALCM in the form of the KaGeM V3.

Thus far, it seems that the PAF will use the drones to share the strike or ground-attack role alongside its fighter fleet, if not assume the role entirely in certain situations, such as COIN/CT. The PAF might have taken a page from Ukraine and sought the drones for some conventional warfare scenarios. In this case, maintaining a large drone fleet is essential as such conflicts will result in significant aircraft attrition. Besides operating large number of UAVs from the onset, the most scalable way to support such a force over the long-term is to drive domestic development and production.

Loitering Munitions

The PAF also revealed that it has inducted a loitering munition, i.e., the ‘YX’ jointly produced by the National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP) and Baykar Group. Though inducted, this ‘YX’ appears to be an iterative program as there is a newer version – or evolution – in developed called the ‘Python.’ In either case, this design seems to be stand-alone in that it does not depend on a launch platform; rather, it launches independently.

However, more complex loitering munitions are likely in development. The PAF might leverage ALCM technology (via NESCOM Taimur or Baykar-NASTP KaGeM V3) to develop a longer-ranged and more sophisticated system, like a dual-role decoy/jammer munition. The PAF might emulate the model of Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI) where it enlarges a high-speed target drone into an attritable drone-munition system similar to the Super Şimşek. Pakistan already has the foundation for such a system.

5. Expanding Air Lift and Logistics Capabilities

Though it is apparently retiring its four CN-235s, the PAF is expanding its airlift capabilities as a whole, with a stronger focus on growing its Hercules fleet. To that end, the PAF ordered seven second-hand C-130H aircraft from Belgium. Four of these aircraft have been inducted as of 2023; it is unclear what will happen with the remaining three units.

C-130H

The ex-Belgian C-130Hs will join the PAF’s 5 C-130B and 9 to 11 C-130E. The PAF upgraded its C-130B and C-130E between 2014 and 2017. It will be worth seeing if the PAF configures its C-130H’s avionics suite along similar lines of its C-130B/Es, which use the Rockwell Collins Flight2.

The ex-Belgian C-130Hs could enable the PAF to raise a third Hercules squadron alongside the No.06 Antelopes and No.21 Pegasus units. One could expect the PAF to seek additional C-130Hs from other sources, such as Sweden. However, the PAF may pursue a mix of flight-worthy and grounded aircraft, using the latter for spare parts to keep its existing fleet operable.

Currently, the PAF does not appear to be interested in smaller tactical airlifters, such as the Leonardo C-27J or the Airbus C-295. The PAF had operated its four CN-235 for nearly 20 years without growing that fleet. It appears that the PAF prefers consolidating on medium-sized airlifters, hence its push to grow its C-130 fleet through second-hand airframes.

6. Revising Advanced Air Training Program

The PAF’s entire fighter fleet will shift to 4-generation and 4-generation-plus aircraft by the end of this decade, with the bulk of the fleet leveraging AESA radars, HMD/S, and integrated ECM. Thus, the PAF sought a dedicated LIFT to familiarize its new pilots with these technologies before jointing a frontline J-10CE, JF-17, or F-16 squadron. Beyond 2030, these new pilots may join a stealth fighter unit.

In 2015, the PAF stated that it was interested in using the JF-17B as a lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT); and it was frank about its disinterest in a smaller aircraft for the role. Its main concern was that the dedicated LIFT like an L-15 would have high operating costs, potentially at-par with the JF-17.

However, in 2017, the PAF pivoted from the JF-17B to exploring dedicated LIFT designs, namely the AVIC L-15B and Leonardo M-346. In 2023, the PAF reportedly began negotiations for the L-15B.

L-15B

When discussing its LIFT requirements, the PAF highlighted three core requirements: afterburning engine, multi-mode radar, and tactical datalink (TDL).

In effect, the PAF wanted a functional fighter, one that may help new pilots acclimate to the frontline fighters and, where necessary, join the fleet as a supplementary fighter aircraft for point-defence and internal security missions.

The L-15B leverages twin afterburning AI-222-25F turbofan engines, an X-band passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar, and glass cockpit with multifunction displays (MFD) as well as head-up display (HUD). The L-15B can deploy the SD-10 LRAAM, PL-8 and PL-5EII WVRAAM, LGBs, PGBs, and specialized pods, such as targeting pods and ECM pods.

These features could make the L-15B a suitable platform to familiarize new pilots with the capabilities of the PAF’s frontline fighters. In addition, the PAF could also use the L-15B for dissimilar air combat training (DACT) and a COIN/CT-focused ground attack aircraft.

If the L-15B is inducted, the K-8 could become the PAF’s primary intermediary and basic jet trainer, fully replacing the T-37. The Super Mushshak will likely continue as the basic flight training aircraft.

7. Building Dedicated Offensive Wings

The Balakot episode exposed the need for an improved rapid response, area-denial capability; hence why the PAF acquired the HQ-16FE medium-to-long-range SAM and HQ-9BE long-range SAM. These will augment the PAF’s growing force of AESA radar- and LRAAM-equipped fighter aircraft.

However, building a retaliatory capacity was equally important for deterrence purposes. Mitigating a cross-border strike is not enough, but in Pakistan’s view, it must be followed up with a measured, yet impactful and rapidly employed, response. From Rawalpindi’s standpoint, establishing the threat of extensive conventional retaliation by air and from land could deter a future Balakot issue entirely.

To achieve this goal, the PAF likely concluded that it must build the capacity to support multiple Swift Retort-scale operations, be it in quick succession or simultaneously.

Operation Swift Retort leveraged a composite force of multirole fighter aircraft, AEW&C, and EA/ECM jamming aircraft. Through the rest of this decade, the PAF could orient more of its squadrons for the offensive role so that it can support more Swift Retort-type operations. The induction of the HQ-16FE and HQ-9BE could free up additional units (that might have otherwise been dedicated entirely for an air defence function) to take on more strike/attack duties. Chief among these units would be the JF-17C and J-10CE squadrons; the Bayraktar Akıncı may complement them as a SOW carrier (that would deploy ALCMs and gliding PGBs from a safe distance within Pakistani territory, like the Mirages did).

The near-term composition could involve the J-10CE in the top-cover and the JF-17B, JF-17C/Block-III, and Akıncı in the strike roles, respectively. Potentially, the JF-17 Block-II may be upgraded with an AESA radar, updated avionics suite, HMD/S, and improved ECM capability. However, the Block-II may be employed for the defensive area-denial role (alongside the F-16s and JF-17 Block-Is).

However, this composition would only be effective in this decade. India is also building a robust – if not standard-bearing – area-denial capability through a plethora of advanced SAMs (e.g., Barak-8) as well as cutting-edge 4+ fighters, like the Rafale and Tejas Mk1A. The PAF likely anticipates a markedly tougher threat environment in India in the future, hence why it is now actively bringing NGFAs into the conversation. The Shenyang J-31 is at the center of this push.

Shenyang J-31

The centerpiece of the PAF’s future offensive air element will be the J-31, a twin-engine stealthy next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA). The PAF has officially committed to acquiring the J-31.

The PAF’s focus is likely on building an optimal mix of range, payload, and low-observability (LO) – or stealthiness on radar and infrared – in one multirole platform. This one fighter could potentially drive the necessary long-range air-to-air and air-to-surface work of the PAF’s offensive wings.

One could take the PAF’s pursuit of the J-31 at this stage as a sign of respect for India’s area denial/air defence capabilities. The qualitative edge of India’s SAM network and tactical fighter fleet will at least mitigate, if not severely limit, the PAF’s offensive capabilities in the near future. Hence the need for a LO fighter, i.e., a platform that could mitigate the ability of IAF fighters (configured with X-band AESA radars) to gain early awareness of incoming PAF fighters.

The high-threat environment in India would likely push the PAF to pursue an assortment of drones to complement the NGFA in future offensive wings. These could include the full gamut of drones, from stealthy attack-oriented UCAVs to loyal wingman UCAVs to decoys and loitering munitions.

Manned-Unmanned Teaming

A sign of the PAF’s interest in UCAVs was the reference it made to manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T). The PAF did not reveal how it will build MUM-T capabilities, but one can reasonably see it using the wider industry’s general direction as its reference point.

Attritable Decoy Drones

The closest entry point for MUM-T would be to acquire – if not develop – an attritable decoy drone and loitering munition system. These UAVs can be an evolution of high-speed target drones, if not directly based on target drones. The TAI Süper Şimşek, for example, is based on the Şimşek target drone, but larger, longer-ranged, and higher-speed. The Süper Şimşek offers a range of 700 km and a payload of 35 kg to 50 kg. It will be capable of supporting 11 mission applications, including EA/ECM jamming, decoy operations, swarming, ISR, and others.

The PAF could develop an attritable UAV based on the Hadaf target drone, or the NASTP target drone. In fact, Baykar Group is engaging in R&D studies at NASTP, with several early results, like the Python-series loitering munition and KaGeM V3 lightweight ALCM. Moreover, Pakistan also seems capable of manufacturing the key inputs, such as miniature turbojet engines. Thus, the foundation to develop attritable UAVs is already present, and with vision to gain MUM-T capabilities, the PAF may produce and induct something similar to the Süper Şimşek relatively soon.

Stealthy UCAVs

Most countries and industry vendors envision the future of MUM-T to involve a mix of NGFAs and an assortment of drones, including strike-oriented UCAVs. The PAF is likely following the same principle, and a reveal of its future UCAV ideas/concepts, if not concrete designs, will emerge in several years.

One option for the PAF is to pursue off-the-shelf designs. It seems that Baykar Group is marketing its Bayraktar Kızılelma to Pakistan (e.g., presenting scaled mock-ups of the UCAV to Pakistani officials, inviting officials to visit facilities where the UCAV is produced, etc.).

The Kızılelma has a MTOW of 8,600 kg, a top speed of Mach 0.9, cruising speed of Mach 0.6, a combat radius of 900 km, and payload capacity of 1,500 kg. It is meant to fill the role of both a strike UCAV and a loyal wingman drone to support manned fighters in air-to-air engagements.

Conceptually, adding stealthy UCAVs to dedicated offensive wings makes sense. They would give the PAF additional flexibility for high-risk missions. While costly, losing UCAVs would not cost as much – nor be as demoralizing – as losing a manned fighter, especially an NGFA.

Thus, the PAF could utilize UCAVs more aggressively, perhaps by making them the lead asset in SEAD/DEAD operations, leaning on them for deep strike, and other high-risk missions. These UCAVs could be accompanied by attritable UAVs, which can serve as decoys to absorb losses, undertake radar jamming, and serve as loitering munitions or swarming drones.

New Airborne Standoff Jammer(s)

The PAF has also (albeit indirectly) announced that it will be augmenting its EA/ECM fleet with at least one new airborne stand-off jamming aircraft (ASOJ). This new ASOJ will use the Bombardier Global Express 6000 as its platform. It is unclear if the PAF will acquire the Aselsan HAVASOJ suite or develop an original solution of its own. The number of ASOJs acquired will likely correspond to the number of dedicated offensive wings the PAF is able to raise in the 2020s.

Overall, the induction of NGFAs and UCAVs would shift the J-10CE and JF-17C to the defensive, area-denial role. In turn, the future composite offensive wing would consist of the NGFAs, UCAVs, an ASOJ, and an AEW&C platform. It will be worth seeing how the PAF pursues its AEW&C options through the long-term. As noted earlier, while the Saab GlobalEye is a far costlier system compared to the PAF’s Erieye ($500 million US per unit compared to $80-90 million per unit), its value in terms of its longer-ranged radar could justify the premium.

8. Potential Goals

Thus far, the PAF’s development efforts for this decade have been comprehensive in scope, fighter aircraft, drones, SAMs, land-based EW/ESM, land-based EA/ECM, airborne and land-based radars, airlift expansion, and a new stand-off jamming aircraft.

However, there are several underdeveloped areas that the PAF may begin focusing, possibly by the end of this decade, with work carrying through into the 2030s.

Attritable Loyal Wingman UCAV

With a stated focus on MUM-T, the PAF will likely procure attack-capable UCAVs (similar to the Bayraktar Kızılelma or TAI ANKA-3) and an attritable decoy UAV based on a target drone.

But there may be room for an additional type, a design that could fill the space between a sub-1-ton decoy and 9-10-ton UCAV. This could be a 2-4-ton loyal wingman UCAV, which would be capable of deploying air-to-air missiles and small air-to-surface munitions. It could accompany the NGFA and help sustain losses by being the primary decoy and attack option in high-risk environments.

Supersonic-Cruising Air-to-Surface Missile

The PAF revealed that it inducted the CM-400AKG. It is an air-launched rocket supported by both the J-10CE and JF-17. Though a supersonic – and by some reports, hypersonic – missile at terminal stage, the CM-400AKG is not a cruising missile. It follows a ballistic trajectory. In contrast, missiles like the BrahMos, for example, leverage air-breathing engines to fly supersonic speed through their entire course, from launch to impact.

That said, the PAF does have the option to acquire an air-launched supersonic-cruising missile – i.e., the HD-1A from China’s Poly Technologies. Interestingly, this company marketed its missile with scale mock ups of the JF-17, suggesting a concerted push to sell the system to the PAF.

Adding an HD-1A-type missile would help diversify the PAF’s high-speed munitions mix, giving it a way to stress enemy air defence systems more.

New Multirole Tanker-Transport (MRTT)

The PAF operates four Ilyushin IL-78 aircraft for the air-to-air refueling (AAR) and heavy-lift transport roles. It inducted the aircraft in 2009 after buying them from Ukrainian stocks. The aircraft can carry 100,000 kg of fuel, making it an effective, though aging platform.

Factors such as operating costs and inefficiency (at least compared to airliner platforms) may push the PAF to evaluate newer MRTT platforms. AVIC, for example, has seemingly begun to market the Y-20, while the Embraer C-390 could also be an option, if made available to Pakistan.

The C-390 could be an intriguing option for the PAF. It uses the same powerplant as older Airbus A320 variants (IAE V2500). Pakistan likely already has the infrastructure to operate, if not maintain and even overhaul, the engine via its airlines. If not, setting up the infrastructure for the IAE V2500 may not cost as much as a dedicated military powerplant. Thus, the C-390 may offer relatively efficient operating costs, which could make it a compelling logistics asset. While its performance on unprepared and/or short airfields may be questionable, it could at least connect the PAF’s main operating bases (MOB) into an efficient air logistics network. In turn, the C-390 could free the PAF’s C-130s to focus more on specialized missions and/or connecting less developed areas.

However, the C-390 has a much lower fuel capacity than the IL-78. This may not be a significant issue for the PAF as it would not use a tanker for strategic reach. Rather, the tanker may be more of a tactical asset that can enable light- and medium-weight fighters like the JF-17 and J-10CE extend station-time for air defence purposes. The C-390 can be a dual-role tanker and transport; thus, a relatively larger number of aircraft can be sought to provide tactical refueling to units throughout the country.

For the PAF, the ideal platform would be the A330 MRTT directly from Airbus Defence and Space. It is a tested, capable, and widely adopted platform. While expensive, two aircraft could provide, if not exceed, the four IL-78. Being an airliner, the A330 is more fuel efficient and benefits from a significant global support network. However, Pakistan’s strained relations with France and probable U.S. pressure on Airbus will likely prevent such a deal from materializing.

Thus, the PAF will likely seek the Y-20 from China, either by waiting for it to enter AVIC’s catalog, or, possibly, directly engaging Beijing to acquire the Y-20 outside of standard export procedures.

Conclusion

Overall, the PAF’s recent acquisitions and future plans show a strong dependence on China. In itself, this neither surprising nor suboptimal. China has been a primary supplier of the PAF since the 1960s, following U.S. sanctions on Pakistan amid the 1965 War with India.

However, China is no longer the PAF’s supplier of last resort – quite the opposite. Today, China stands as an economic superpower with turnkey industrial capabilities, a status it shares with only the U.S. Combined with economies-of-scale via domestic use and a strategic need to mitigate threats posed by U.S. armaments (in use by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan), the Chinese weapon systems provide a credible solution. In a way, China has become the end-to-end supplier Russia was for India, giving the latter a consistent avenue of affordable and capable modern arms.

The PAF will rely on the Chinese for its core systems, like combat aircraft and SAMs; however, the PAF will also work with other suppliers, but for niche solutions. For example, the PAF will likely continue looking to Sweden’s Saab for AEW&C solutions, or Turkiye for UCAV technology. Pakistan’s domestic contractors will also play a role, as one can see in their work on radars, for example. The PAF can also task the local industry with low-cost, scalable air systems, like attritable UCAVs.

Basically, at this point, the primary bottleneck to the PAF’s plans is Pakistan’s perennially tenuous – and constantly growing – economic challenges. Factors like mounting debt payments, lack of foreign currency gains (due to anemic exports), and dependence on foreign energy suppliers will strain the country’s fiscal means and, in turn, the PAF’s budget.

 

[1] Sadia Tasleem. “Pakistan’s Nuclear Use Doctrine.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 30 June 2016. URL: https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/30/pakistan-s-nuclear-use-doctrine-pub-63913

[2] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 35. URL: https://airforcesmonthly.keypublishing.com/the-magazine/view-issue/?issueID=8176

[3] Ibid.

[4] “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

[5] “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

[6] 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/

[7] 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.

[8] 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).

[9] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan’s roaring Thunder.” Air Forces Monthly. May 2021.

[10] Alan Warnes. “Two-seat JF-17B progresses.” AirForces Monthly. April 2017

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