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The Pakistan Air Force’s Plans for this Decade

With a new Chief of Air Staff (CAS) – Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Zaheer Ahmad Babar Sidhu – at the helm of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), the service arm is looking ahead to its modernization pipeline for the 2020s.

JF-17 Block-III

Having delivered 26 dual-seat JF-17B aircraft to the PAF, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex’s (PAC) Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF) is focusing on the JF-17 Block-III. The Block-III is the most significant update to the platform to-date, and for the PAF, it will deliver a range of new technologies to its fleet.

The most important new subsystem the PAF is expecting is the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The PAF selected an air-cooled version of the Chinese KLJ-7A radar, which reportedly offers a range of 170 km against ‘fighter-sized targets.’ It can also track up to 15 targets at the same time and engage as many as four aircraft at once. However, the unique added benefit of an AESA radar comes from its 1,000+ transmit/receive modules (TRM), which allow for improved defensibility against enemy radar jamming.

The PAF will integrate a new set of long-range air-to-air missiles (LRAAM) to the Block-III. However, it has not disclosed the make, model, or specifications of these new LRAAM. Though there have been rumours of the PAF using the PL-15, Quwa was told that other Chinese LRAAMs were under consideration as well. In fact, one source told Quwa that the PAF will likely pair an evolution of the SD-10 (i.e., with longer range, improved seeker, and new electronic counter-countermeasures) to the Block-III. However, that does not preclude the possibility of the PAF adding other LRAAMs so as to maintain diversity in its inventory.

In addition to a new LRAAM, the PAF is still focused on adding a high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBS AAM) capability to the JF-17. This will see the integration of a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S), which the PAF is now pursuing through an original design involving Pakistani and Chinese companies.[1] The shift to an original solution could be a sign that off-the-shelf HMD/S solutions were inaccessible. While an original solution will cost more, it frees the PAF to define the features and specifications from the onset.

Interestingly, the PAF has only committed to an order of 30 Block-IIIs (out of the 50 it required). This may be a result of re-allocating funding to the JF-17B (which is fundamentally a Block-III without the AESA radar and final subsystems). However, the PAF was open-ended about its commitment to the Block-III in that it may order the final 20 aircraft once the first tranche of 30 aircraft near competition. The PAF was open to adding 12 Block-IIs on top of its original order of 50 aircraft, for example.

Lead-in-Fighter-Trainer (LIFT)

The previous CAS, ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan, had outlined that the PAF required a new LIFT to bridge the gap between the K-8 and the JF-17B. The PAF had evaluated the L-15, M-346 and T-50. It is unclear if the PAF is still interested in a dedicated LIFT as it has not announced a final selection.

Ultimately, the decision to acquire a LIFT will depend on funding availability and whether the PAF sees the JF-17B as too valuable a combat asset to spare for training new pilots. The PAF is looking to integrate the KLJ-7A to the JF-17B, and thus far, the PAF is looking at the JF-17B with the same lens as the F-16B, i.e., a combat-ready conversion asset. Thus, the PAF could still acquire a dedicated LIFT.

However, that dedicated LIFT could come in the form of a specially-configured JF-17B. The PAF has started marketing the JF-17B as a LIFT to the Middle East. Thus, the PAF could opt for additional JF-17B units once the cost of the subsystems and other inputs drop. The PAF may also wait for other options (e.g., Hurjet).

Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE) Updates

In February 2021, ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan reportedly told ARY News that the PAF is expecting a new air defence system in 2021. It is unclear what the ex-CAS was alluding to, though it could be the induction or operationalization of new gap-filler radars (to replace the Mobile Pulse-Doppler Radars) or a new surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. New gap-filler radars were a long-standing requirement and, in 2017, the PAF signed a $130 million US contract with an unknown supplier for 10 such radars.

There was a report in 2018 of Pakistan seeking the FD-2000 long-range SAM system from China. However, it is unclear if the PAF will induct a long-range SAM in the near-term. In fact, the Pakistan Army developed its modern ADGE using Chinese SAMs (e.g., HQ-7 and LY-80), so one could argue that it is better suited to add the FD-2000 than the PAF since its C3 stack should already be compatible. Regardless of which service arm inducts it, Pakistan is equipped to add a long-range SAM system in the near future.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Adoption

The PAF is committed to building its UAV force. It seems to have inducted the Shahpar, Burraq, and Falco in respectable numbers. However, with the development of the Shahpar II and PAC UAVs – both of them being medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones – show a commitment to advance the capabilities and technical sophistication of Pakistan’s drone forces in the coming years.

Currently, the PAF seems to be focusing on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and attack roles for its drones. However, the establishment of the Centre of Artificial Intelligence & Computing could point to an interest in more sophisticated applications (e.g., ‘loyal wingman’ and ‘swarming’ drones).

But this work is, at best, in its early stages at this time. The PAF’s focus will be on more achievable gains based on the drone technology it already has and, as importantly, proven wartime applications (e.g., how Turkey used its MALE UAVs in its various Middle East campaigns).

Next-Generation Fighter Aircraft (NGFA)

In March 2021, the PAF revealed that it is aiming to get its in-house NGFA, Project AZM, to fly in 2028.[2] It is difficult to see how the PAF could achieve this target date unless it was either working off a design that already exists (e.g., FC-31), or joins a consortium. In terms of the latter, Turkey had invited Pakistan to join the TFX. Interestingly, the PAF scheduled its target flight-date of AZM in the same timeframe as the TFX.

Thus far, there had been mixed messaging surrounding AZM, but the one constant thus far is that the PAF is open to joining a consortium, but with the condition that the solution is not bound by ITAR. China would be the most obvious avenue since it has functioning demonstrators (e.g., FC-31) and an industrial base to fully support such a program. Turkey is the other option, but it is not at the same stage in terms of original designs and industrial capacity as China. Rather, Turkey is working towards creating feeder industries and original inputs (e.g., an in-house turbofan engine) to support the TFX.

Quwa expects the PAF to freeze its NGFA direction in 2021. It will likely sign onto a consortium with either China or Turkey, and, in turn, expect a serviceable fighter by the early 2030s. Through the 2030s, the PAF will likely use the NGFA to gradually phase out the strike-capable Mirage III/5s and older F-16s. Quwa was made aware of the investment the PAF has currently put into AZM to-date, and based on those cost and manpower figures, Quwa expects the PAF to buy a 10-20% share in a joint-program.

Wild Card: Off-the-Shelf Fighter

Given the complexity and risk involved with NGFA development (especially in partnership with a maturing aerospace player like Turkey), the PAF will likely seek an off-the-shelf fighter. In fact, the PAF leadership since ACM Sohail Aman (i.e., 2015-2018) maintained that it will need a new fighter to fill its capability gaps and serve as a bridge for the NGFA. The preferred option was additional F-16s, but due to tenuous defence ties with Washington, the PAF looked at alternatives from China and Russia.

The likeliest option is the J-10CE. However, its procurement will depend on funding availability. Not only does the PAF have to contend with Pakistan’s structural economic woes, but it may have to contend with competing programs from within its own pipeline. Finally, the PAF will not induct a new platform for only one or two squadrons, but it will work to build a fleet of at least 90 aircraft through the long-term.

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

[2] Ibid.

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