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The Post Swift Retort Environment

On 27 February 2019, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) conducted Operation Swift Retort as a retaliatory strike against the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) operations at Balakot in Khyber Pakthunkhwa.

The PAF’s operation comprised of a composite strike force consisting of F-16A/B Block-15 Mid-Life Update (MLU) and/or Air Defence Fighters (ADF), JF-17s, Mirage III/5s, and, potentially, Saab 2000 Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and Falcon DA-20 electronic warfare (EW) aircraft.

Swift Retort had shown that the F-16s and Mirages are critical elements of the PAF’s offensive capability, and that the PAF would use them together. However, another aspect to Swift Retort is that it was also the PAF’s first use of multiple assets in conflict, its first network-enabled large-force engagement (LFE).

However, as pleased as the PAF might have been with the results of the brief air skirmish, it must contend with the reality that India is hastily working towards closing the advantages Pakistan enjoyed.

India’s efforts center on the acquisition of the Dassault Rafale fighter and Almaz-Antey S-400 air defence system, both of which are poised to increase the risk of attrition to Pakistan in future operations.

Furthermore, the production of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas, procurement of a new multi-role fighter, and ongoing induction of capable surface-to-air missiles (SAM) will make entering India by air high-risk to an exceptional degree. This new reality would challenge the PAF with waves of modern multi-role aircraft plus layers of sophisticated medium and long-range SAMs, both in high concentrations.

In short, the PAF would be wise to not look at improving upon Swift Retort from exclusively the reality of that specific operation, but rather, as a luxury it might not enjoy in the future.

The Post-Swift Retort Environment

In one sense, Swift Retort should not have come as a surprise. The assets for an LFE of that scale were all present in the PAF’s inventory. Moreover, the ability to execute had been developed through exercises – such as Red Flag and Anatolian Eagle — as well as a contemporary internal culture of learning.

The worrying read of this situation would be that India will invest in eroding that capability through major acquisitions, not least the Rafale and S-400. However, an optimistic view could be that it would require a massive fiscal expenditure to credibly thwart another Swift Retort.

Unfortunately, India is capable and willing of investing those resources. The IAF hopes to procure 114 new off-the-shelf fighters plus 123 HAL Tejas combat aircraft. Moreover, India plans to acquire 1,000 Barak 8-based MRSAM (Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile) systems. The Barak 8 has a range of 70 km, while a long-range version with a range of 150 km is also under development.[1]

These investments will have multiple consequences on the PAF, regardless of where it chooses to operate.

Eliminating the PAF’s Operational Flexibility in India

The first and most obvious results of India’s fighter and air defence acquisitions is that they could seal the gaps available to the PAF within India. India will likely center more of its resources around what it thinks are its high-value targets (HVT), so those areas will be denser in coverage.

It is unclear to what extent the PAF used gaps over India in Operation Swift Retort, but dissuading any PAF entry into India will be the IAF’s primary goal. In turn, the PAF will have to focus more of its strikes from within Pakistani territory, basically through the use of stand-off range weapons (SOW).

Limiting the PAF’s Ability to Use SOWs

India can theoretically employ the S-400 as a means to stifle Pakistan’s ability to use SOWs. The S-400’s 40N6 missile, which offers a range of up to 400 km, could potentially cross into Pakistan.

Granted, its utility in that context would be against high-altitude targets within its coverage umbrella. The PAF could use the gaps afforded through the curvature of the earth to employ SOWs, but at low altitude.

However, firing SOWs at low-altitude can have its disadvantages in that it could limit the range of gliding munitions, such as the H-2, H-4, Range Extension Kit (REK), and Indigenous REK (IREK). For these precision-guided bombs (PGB) to achieve their maximum range potential, they must be launched at higher altitudes.

In other words, the PAF will not be able to leverage the 60 km, 100 km and 120 km range coverages of the H-2, H-4, and REK/IREK, respectively, in an environment involving India’s S-400.

If the PAF is stuck using these munitions at low altitude, it will not extract the full range potential. But the PAF could employ alternative types of SOWs to work within any apparent altitude limit. The most obvious of these SOWs would be air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and, possibly, rocket-powered PGBs.

Currently, the PAF’s land-attack ALCM inventory comprises of Ra’ad and Ra’ad II, they offer a range of up to 350 km and 550 km, respectively. In addition, the JF-17s are configured with the C-802 anti-ship missile (AShM), and while these are meant for ships, the PAF can use them for land-attack as well.

The benefit of cruise missiles is that if launched at lower altitudes, these munitions can still reach most of their stated range. In fact, they can leverage terrain hugging to mask themselves from opposing radars as well as other sensors, and cruise at low altitudes and maneuver to avoid interception.

The challenge today is that the PAF seems to have dedicated the Ra’ad/Ra’ad II for strategic purposes, but it seems the REK/IREK are to carry the conventional SOWs in the coming years. However, in light of the S-400, PAF would need a conventionally oriented ALCM that builds upon the benefits of the H-2/H-4.

So, for example, it could develop a solution similar to the Roketsan SOM (Stand-Off Missile), a 600 kg-class ALCM with a 230 kg warhead (available across different types). This ALCM could basically be a smaller and lighter Ra’ad, but meant as a lower-cost option that could work from both the Mirages and JF-17s.

Moreover, the PAF can re-use the engine and flight control system of the Ra’ad in this new ALCM, so the cost of developing it should not be infeasible. Finally, the infrastructure to undertake an original design is now in place thanks to the creation of the Aviation Design Institute (AvDI).

The PAF could also look at the Denel Dynamics Raptor III. The Raptor III is an ALCM, but Denel appears to have developed it using the design attributes of the Raptor I/II (i.e., the basis of the H-2/H-4). It seems to retain the Raptor I/II’s 600 kg warhead, but leverages an air-breathing engine to give it a range of 300 km.

The interesting aspect of the Raptor III is that it also leverages Denel Dynamics’ new imaging infrared (IIR) seeker with automatic target recognition (ATR). Thus, it offers a measure of autonomous capability (like other ALCM), but it likely still has the option of remote-operation the PAF leveraged with the H-2/H-4.

Are Cross-Border Strikes Out of the Question?

The above discussion would suggest that the PAF would not be capable of mounting offensive operations that require its aircraft to cross the border. Though the PAF is likely to aim for that capability in the long-term through the development of a next-generation fighter, it could still attain it in the near-term.

Yes, the S-400’s high-altitude coverage would put dedicated assets – such as the Erieye AEW&C and DA-20 – at risk of loss. However, the main purpose of an EW asset is to mitigate the opposing side’s radars in their ability to build situational awareness and target one’s assets.

With the JF-17, the PAF can leverage the flexibility of building a sufficiently large fleet wherein it primes a significant portion for suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) and EW. It could basically swell its strike package to include an EW/SEAD force to identify and deprecate India’s air defence capability.

Operationally, it would be a high-risk move, one likely to incur loss over enemy territory. Practically, this approach would require a large contingent, one consisting of fighters, tankers, and a combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) force. The CSAR force itself would need helicopters with EW and a special operations forces (SOF) unit through the PAF’s Special Service Wing (SSW).

However, a benefit of having a relatively low-cost contemporary fighter such as the JF-17 is the ability to sustain such loss. In other words, the PAF should look at building up the numbers and, in turn, equipping the fighters with the best available subsystems. In terms of EW/SEAD, this would mean acquiring a modern integrated electronic countermeasures (ECM) and EW suite as well as high-powered EW pods.

The PAF can also look into expanding its dedicated EW aircraft fleet. Aselsan’s HAVASOJ could be an option in this regard, and – besides active electronically scanned array (AESA) based transceivers, high-powered jamming, and other capabilities – it also offers the ability to locate ground-based radars.[2]

Finally, the PAF can work in close coordination with the Pakistan Army to locate and deprecate an S-400 system near the border. Besides undertaking long-term signals intelligence (SIGINT) work (again, an asset like the HAVASOJ would be useful) and image intelligence (IMINT) in peacetime, the two service arms can combine their attack capabilities. Thus, the Army could employ guided artillery shells and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) alongside ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) at nearby air defence targets.

However, a combined services approach would suggest that any PAF incursion into India will only occur if the Army also intends to enter through that location. In other words, a PAF EW/SEAD plus deep-strike LFE will not happen if there was no intent to immediately follow-up with a ground-assault. Thus, at least in the near-term, the focus will likely center on SOW development (that can undercut the S-400) and gaining the ability for deep-strike, but without raising the escalation ladder (by moving assets across the border).

[1] Robin Hughes. “IAI en route to extended range Barak-8ER.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 10 August 2015. URL:

[2] Product Information. HAVASOJ. Aselsan. URL:

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