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The Post-Swift Retort Environment: Four Years Later

In February 2019, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Indian Air Force (IAF) clashed in a brief, two-day and two-event skirmish involving both air-to-air and air-to-surface exchanges. In the midst of all the narratives, claims, and counter-claims, the clash resulted in the definite loss of one IAF MiG-21bis.

However, since the clash, both Pakistan and India both carried out a series of major modernization steps – some a result of plans predating 2019, or in response to it. Hence, the air warfare climate of South Asia is, arguably, one of the most complex and highest-stakes environments in the world.


On 26 February 2019, the IAF had sent six Mirage 2000Hs armed with Rafael SPICE 2000 stand-off range (SOW) weapons. The IAF’s Mirage 2000Hs were reportedly escorted by Su-30MKIs and further supported by a pair of ERJ-145-based airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.

The IAF apparently initiated its attack at stand-off range (i.e., from within Indian airspace) against targets in Balakot in Pakistan. The PAF claims that it sent F-16s and JF-17s to respond to the incoming IAF fighters.

The next day, in the early hours of 27 February, the PAF send its retaliatory package comprising of two JF-17s, four Mirage III/5s, and a large assortment of multirole fighters (F-16 and JF-17) in the escort as well as patrol roles. This force was further supported by the PAF’s Saab 2000-based Erieye AEW&C and Falcon 20-based electronic attack (EA) and electronic countermeasure (ECM) aircraft.

In total, the PAF may have deployed upwards of 18 to 24 fighters, most of which were multi-role, though the remainder (i.e., four Mirage III/5s) were SOW specialists. The PAF dubbed its operation, “Swift Retort.

If the PAF believed it was successful with Swift Retort, then it certainly stood up for it by investing in the exact areas that worked in 2019. For the PAF, the success of Swift Retort rested on the following pillars – i.e., multi-role fighters with long-range air-to-air missiles (LRAAM), electronic support assets, and long-range air-to-surface strike capability through a variety of SOWs.

New Fighters

Following Swift Retort, the PAF ordered and inducted an entirely new fighter type into its fleet – i.e., the J-10CE alongside the PL-15E LRAAM. In 2020, the then PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) said, “…if the acquisition of a new fighter fits into our doctrine then we will try to acquire it.”[1]

It seems that the experience of the operation played a role in seeking the J-10CE. In fact, the PAF seemed to have expedited the induction program as it received the aircraft within a year of inking the contract. In most cases, it would take at least two years to induct a new aircraft from the time of closing a deal.

However, the J-10CE acquisition was likely in lieu of the PAF’s inability to acquire additional F-16s (new-built and used) from the U.S. and third-parties in earlier years. From a technical standpoint, it would have been easier to add F-16s to the fleet and leverage the existing operating infrastructure.

Hence, the J-10CE filled a gap in the procurement roadmap left by the apparent block on new advanced-model F-16s (like the Block-72). In fact, through the J-10CE, the PAF added an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar paired with a new LRAAM (with a range of at least 145 km), and an actual combination of helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) with high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBS AAM). Prior to the J-10CE, only the F-16 had an HMD/S, but it lacked a HOBS AAM like the AIM-9X.

Thus, the J-10CE is a ‘complete’ package, especially from an air-to-air standpoint. However, the PAF seems to be bringing a similar package to the JF-17 via the Block-3. It seems that the JF-17 Block-3 will utilize the same HMD/S as the J-10CE alongside the PL-15E LRAAM and PL-10E HOBS AAM.

Now, unlike the F-16 and JF-17 mix in 2019, the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-3 combination may be much more interoperable thanks to shared platform inputs. Yes, one should expect the J-10CE to have an AESA radar with a higher transmit/receive module (TRM) count than the Block-3. However, because the PAF single-sourced the radars and other avionics inputs, the level of network-enablement between the two platforms may be deeper compared to say the JF-17 and F-16.

Moreover, the two fighters would use the same LRAAM and HOBS AAM stocks, so the PAF can generate economies-of-scale and logistics streamlining.

While the PAF will procure J-10CEs and Block-3s through the rest of the 2020s, its next greatest avenue for capability growth would occur by upgrading the JF-17 Block-2s and, if feasible, Block-1s.

Not only would doing so unlock many additional squadrons with AESA radars, HMD/S, and ECM, but it would expand the technical interoperability between the PAF’s cutting-edge fighters and its workhorse fighters at a deep, fleet-wide level.

In this scenario, the F-16 would be the outlier due to its older technology stack. However, despite that, it is still a credible platform within South Asia, especially since India would also continue operating aircraft with similar technology and capabilities, like the Mirage 2000H and (for now) un-upgraded Su-30MKIs.

Stand-Off Range Weapons

In terms of SOWs, the PAF continued investing in acquiring new capabilities and, remarkably, relied more on the domestic industry base to deliver. In addition to trusted entities like Air Weapons Complex (AWC), the PAF is also apparently working with new producers, like Harobanx and Qaswa, to acquire SOWs.

Arguably, the flagship of this effort may be the new “Taimoor” air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). While touted for export, the Taimoor will likely enter inventory of the JF-17 Block-3 and, possibly, older variants, like the Block-2 and Block-1. The Taimoor has a range of 290 km; this is likely capped to meet the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). However, if the PAF used the Taimoor as a conventional asset, it will likely leverage more range (possibly up to 600 km as shown by the strategic-purpose Ra’ad 2).

However, other producers are pitching different types of SOWs to the PAF. For example, Qaswa Industries is offering a Range Extension Kit (REK)-type kit for MK-80-series general purpose bombs (GPB). These kits transform dumb bombs into precision-guided bombs (PGB).

The REK is not new to the PAF; in fact, it used several REK PGB kits in Swift Retort. However, the Qaswa PGB kits offer more versatility. For example, there is a variant of the Qaswa kit – i.e., AZB-VI – that can be fitted to a MK-84 (a 925-kg GBP) and, in turn, provide a range of up to 100 km. The AZB-V can be configured onto a MK-82 or MK-83-sized GBP and provide a range of 190 km to 220 km.

Qaswa is even claiming that the AZB-series of PGB/REK kits can be configured with imaging infrared (IIR) seekers for more precise and, possibly, fire-and-forget-type engagement capabilities.

Thus, the PAF is building upon the H-4 and REK by adding heavier and longer-ranged munitions. However, it is also trying to incorporate more scalable solutions. For example, while the H-4 is a long-range, heavy-warhead munition, it seems to be custom built from the ground-up. However, the AZB-series can offer as much range and payload, but work with the MK-80-series GPBs, which are more plentiful and cheaper to produce. Finally, the AZB-series would work from a greater variety of aircraft, e.g., J-10CE, JF-17, and the Mirage III/5; currently, only the Mirage III/5s can deploy the H-2 and H-4.

Between the Taimoor and Ra’ad-series ALCMs, and the REK/AZB-type PGB kits, the PAF’s sow capabilities are splitting between ‘cruising’ systems and ‘gliding’ systems.

During Swift Retort, the PAF had only used ‘gliding’ systems, and that too at a short range (60-120 km) compared to the SOWs it is now inducting – i.e., start at 60 km and reach up to 220 km via the AZB-series. In addition, the ALCMs offer range coverages of 290 km to 600 km.

The combination of the Taimoor/Ra’ad ALCMs and REK/AZB PGB kits will enable the PAF to carry out deep strikes in different ways. Basically, the PGBs will offer a quantitative-capability that should enable the PAF to field large numbers of SOWs to carry the bulk of its strikes. Thus, the majority of the PAF’s aircraft need to be able to carry the PGBs, be it the J-10CEs, JF-17s, or Mirages. Though the F-16s cannot use the AZB-series, they do have access to the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kit.

The ALCMs, on the other hand, will likely be reserved for high-value targets. The longer range and cruising capability opens up different types of benefits compared to gliding munitions. These include low-altitude flight and terrain-hugging, mid-course correction and waypoints, and autonomous engagement through a combination of seekers, INS/GPS, and TERCOM and DSMAC.


The PAF has largely kept its plans for additional ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) aircraft under wraps. It is not known if it will enlarge its AEW&C or dedicated EA/ECM fleets, at least in terms of manned aircraft like the Saab 2000 or Dassault Falcon 20.

However, its swelling investment in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), including large high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) designs like the Bayraktar Akıncı, could hint at its plans.

Basically, the PAF could use the Bayraktar Akıncı as its primary ISTAR asset in offensive operations. Doing so would eliminate the risks posed to manned aircraft, like the Erieye AEW&C, in such situations. In fact, given the immediate proximity of India and Pakistan to each other, many potential operations may be too dangerous for manned ISTAR assets. Both sides will have fighters with long-range radars and missiles that can put high-value AEW&C and other ISTAR assets in danger.

HALE UAVs, in contrast, could be acquired for a lower cost and, if lost, would not result in the deaths of a crew. If the PAF is aiming to scale its ability to carry out Swift Retort type of operations in succession and simultaneously in different areas, HALE UAVs are the clearest sign. They offer a relatively low cost and scalable way to amass, distribute and deploy ISTAR assets to different mission zones.

Of course, the bottleneck in UAVs would be energy output. Thus, it is not known how much coverage and targeting support something like the Bayraktar Akıncı could realistically provide. But UAV-based AEWs are areas that Turkey and other countries are actively studying.

Overall, the PAF has a clear roadmap of how to modernize its fighter fleet, munitions inventory, and other key assets and capabilities. Through the remainder of the 2020s, the PAF will work to develop its capacity to undertake operations as large as Swift Retort in a more scalable and efficient manner. Showing that it can carry out such complex operations in rapid succession – or simultaneously in different locations – can establish a level of credible conventional deterrence.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 35. URL:

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