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The Sonmiani WTR supports domestic munition development

Introduction

On 02 February, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) announced that it established an instrumented Weapon Test Range (WTR) at the Sonmiani Firing Range. This is an important induction for the PAF – and the Pakistani armed forces as a whole – for evaluating, qualifying and certifying munitions. In a statement, the PAF said the “facility, developed in collaboration with Chinese authorities, is equipped with real-time tracking and measuring equipment to qualify the indigenously developed and procured weapon systems.”[1] Showcasing the WTR’s real-time tracking capabilities, the PAF had a JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter test-fire a SD-10 beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM) and a PL-5EII within-visual-range (WVR) AAM over the WTR.[2] Under Project Azm (Resolve), the PAF committed itself – through Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Aviation Design Institute (AvDI) – to domestically produce ‘advanced’ munitions.[3] Pakistan’s new – and its first – instrumented WTR will serve an integral role for not only Project Azm, but munitions development and procurement in the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Navy as well.

Background: Sonmiani Firing Range

Sonmiani (also spelt Somiani) is located in Sindh, northwest of Pakistan’s commercial capital and principal port city Karachi. The site began its role as an instrumented firing range with the Rehbar-I sounding rocket fired by the Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO).[4] Since then, Sonmiani has been Pakistan’s principal firing range for tactical and strategic munitions testing.

The Strategic Plans Division (SPD) has been using Sonmiani to test-fire its medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), such as the Shaheen II.[5] The Army, Navy and Air Force use Sonmiani regularly to examine their respective inventories in offensive (e.g. strike), but defensive terms (e.g. air defence).[6][7] Located at the south and along the Arabian Sea, Sonmiani is accessible for tests relevant to Pakistan’s conventional warfare environment. First, access to the sea enables the Pakistan Navy to examine sea-to-land (and vice-versa) scenarios, most notably the deployment of naval land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) such as the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) and Harba dual-anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM)/LACM. Second, the desert environment is applicable to Pakistan’s land warfare conditions, namely for its armour.

Sonmiani Instrumented Weapon Test Range

The PAF did not disclose the Sonmiani WTR’s specific systems, but an instrumented range such as this may include optical-tracking systems, telemetry systems, radars, meteorological station and command, control and communication station. Although Pakistan built its WTR through the Chinese, Sonmiani’s position as a test-site for each of the service arms and SPD could indicate a comprehensive instrumentation set. In this vein, South Africa’s Overberg Test Range – built and managed by Denel Group – could be a plausible template of what to expect from the Sonmiani WTR as it too is meant for comprehensive testing purposes.

The Overberg WTR is equipped to simultaneously track five flying objects, enabling the facility to readily track the munition, launch platform and the target drone.[8] This enables the Overberg WTR to examine – in real-time – the elements affecting each factor in the munition’s launch and engagement process. For example, the WTR can validate an anti-radiation missile’s (ARM) effective range when deployed at low or high-altitude. This validation can feed into the ARM’s qualification prior to induction. The Overberg WTR is capable of tracking air-to-air missile (AAM), air-to-surface missile (ASM), surface-to-air missile (SAM), surface-to-surface missile (SSM) and even anti-tank guided-missile (ATGM) as well as artillery shell tests.[9]

Based on the multimedia released by the PAF, it appears that the Sonmiani WTR uses a cinetheodolite (i.e. an electro-optical) system, instrumentation radar(s) and telemetry system. It is unclear if Pakistan has other systems in place, such as a meteorological station. However, considering that Sonmiani is the main – and effectively, the only – area where aerial instrumentation tests have been known to occur, be it from the nascent space program to the strategic weapons program, it would make sense that Pakistan would invest enough to ensure that the Sonmiani WTR is an industry-standard facility. The investment made in this one facility will enable savings (by not having to undertake detailed instrumentation tests abroad) on practically every munitions program, from evaluating imports to development to qualification work.

In terms of the specific systems in use at the Sonmiani WTR: The cinetheodolite (i.e. EO system) collects the target’s trajectory data through video recording. Its purpose is to enable the evaluation of the flying object’s flight performance or characteristics. Pakistan did not disclose the specifications of the Sonmiani WTR cinetheodolite.[10]

The Sonmiani WTR has at least two telemetry stations, each with what appears to be a receiving antenna. The telemetry station’s purpose is to receive, record, compile and relay the data produced by the test. An essential piece to a WTR is the instrumentation radar. It is unclear if the Sonmiani WTR is equipped with one, but it is likely to be in place considering that it is used to detect and track the flying objects being tested with the aim of determining key metrics, such as range and velocity. In some cases, the testing team may equip the launch platform, target drone and munition with transponders, so as to guarantee that the correct objects are being measured. Finally, a meteorological station is required for determining the desired weather (e.g. temperature, humidity, etc) scenarios for a test.

Domestic Munitions Development

Traditionally, Pakistan had been unenthusiastic of domestic munitions development and production. The rationale for not pursuing such programs stemmed from various factors. First, the lack of scale to justify the expense of production. Prior to the Harba ASCM, the Pakistan Navy imported its ASCMs – i.e. the French Exocet, US Harpoon and Chinese C-802 – in small batches. However, as the Navy’s fleet of delivery platforms grows, as will its required inventory of munitions. Thus, the scale will be in place. In the case of ASCMs specifically, the inputs used for all cruise missile types (be it land, air or sea-launched) could be re-used. In other words, the investment for locally producing guidance suites, flight control systems and the miniature powerplant can be scaled across an extensive and long-term production run.

Second, Pakistan may have also begun responding to the increasing difficulty it is having procuring new technology off-the-shelf. In 2007, the PAF intended to equip the JF-17 with the Thales RC-400 radar and MBDA MICA BVRAAM. The prospective armament contract was worth €1.2 billion, but Paris decided to prioritize a sale of Rafale fighters (and other potential big-ticket deals) to India.[11] Today, the PAF is adamant in its stance of the Chinese KLJ-7A and SD-10 fulfilling its needs, it had apparently viewed the RC-400 and MICA were better (evident in the fact that it pursued those in the first place). If not for India, the French course would have also been costly, especially in terms of foreign/hard-currency loss. Pakistan had also spent €415 million for 10 Spada 2000-Plus batteries with 750 missiles from MBDA Italy.[12]

Had the JF-17 program with France gone through, it would have amounted to €1.6 billion in hard-currency expenditure (note: these are 2007 rates, which was $2.3 billion US). Not only is there the cost of procuring the technology, but services costs as well in the form of integration, testing, qualification and after-sale support set by the original equipment supplier. The hard-currency spent on these imports could have been spent on domestic facilities and controlling the supply of these munitions, refurbishing them and, potentially, packaging them with JF-17 sales to other countries. Like cruise missiles, some AAM inputs – such as single-stage and dual-stage rocket motors – can be scaled to apply in other areas, such as SAM and ARM (enabling the domestic procurement of these would save on hard-currency expenditure). Simply put, persistently importing such munitions is not sustainable, and Pakistan could pivot to rectify the issue.

The establishment of an instrumented WTR at Sonmiani is the surest indication yet of Pakistan staging the course for domestic munitions development and production. It was the PAF that announced its intention to do so under Project Azm, but it was the Pakistan Navy that began executing programs. In January 2018, the Navy announced the successful test-firing of its Harba dual-ASCM/LACM. Although the Harba is likely a component of Naval Strategic Forces Command – i.e. enabling a surface-based naval deterrent to couple the sub-surface Babur 3 SLCM – the Harba’s anti-ship warfare (AShW) capability speaks to a tactical role.[13]

On January 05, 2018 Defense News’ Usman Ansari reported that the Pakistan Navy is also pursuing an ‘indigenous air defence missile’ program.[14] Availability of the Sonmiani WTR strengthens that prospect as it confirms that Pakistan has the capability to conduct in-house missile testing, from the development phase through to qualification and certification. The specific characteristics of the naval SAM program is not known. However, in 2016, the Pakistan Navy had inquired with Denel Dynamics for the Umkhonto IR short-range (20 km) SAM system.[15] For reference, Algeria paid $61.36 million to equip two MEKO A-200AN frigates with 32 vertical launch system (VLS) cells each (i.e. a total of 64) along with an unspecified number of Umkhonto SAMs.[16][17] Pakistan could plausibly seek the Umkhonto to retrofit the F-22P, potentially equip the MILGEM provided it has space for a vertical launch system (VLS) suite and from land. However, this is merely a possibility, it could also be man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) mounted to pedestal-based launchers (from a cost and simplicity standpoint, this is the likeliest outcome).

Nonetheless, the prospect of domestic munition development and production also raises the prospect of partnering with other countries to jointly develop solutions. With the intent (e.g. Project Azm) made and the requisite infrastructure (WTR) emerging, Pakistan has never been closer to such action. Pakistan could activate the memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) it signed with South Africa in March 2017. The MoU commits to the “acquisition of defence equipment as well as cooperation in Research and Development (R&D), Transfer of Technology, Coproduction/Joint Ventures in public as well as private sector.”[18]

In 2015, the PAF identified the Denel Dynamics A-Darter as an option (read: the only option) for the JF-17’s high off-boresight (HOBS) AAM requirement.[19] Denel’s willingness to partner in the Marlin BVRAAM program ought to be of interest to Pakistan, this could facilitate the procurement of a domestic BVRAAM and medium-range SAM, the latter deployable from land and sea.[20] Likewise, similar partnerships can be built with Ukraine and Turkey. Between Pakistan and these other states, there is potential synergy thanks to each of them developing munitions of similar objectives (e.g. tactical ASCM, PGB, SAM, AAM, etc). With these countries, Pakistan can consider partnerships to share the burden of investment.

Conclusion

The prospect of Pakistani munitions development might be of concern to foreign suppliers, such as MBDA, which have secured lucrative long-term programs, even in the previous decade (characterized by a slowing of Pakistani expenditure in European arms). However, although Pakistan is now emphasizing the need for local manufacturing, it still requires specific technology inputs from abroad – if not for mature solutions, then to plug-in gaps (e.g. critical components for electronics due to lacking a semi-conductor foundry, the lack of a domestic miniature turbojet engine for stand-off weapons, etc). This is unlikely to change in the near-term, even if policies are inserted to address the issue. The fruits can – at best – materialize in the long-term (notwithstanding the additional time necessary for quality control, design maturation, etc).

One could expect overseas industry players to re-apply strategies used in other countries to secure a spot in Pakistan. For example, proactively adhering to Pakistan’s offset policy, potentially through partnerships with domestic firms wherein some components are built in Pakistan. Others, such as Denel Group, could offer partnerships aimed at fulfilling mutual interests (i.e. bringing Denel programs to fruition in-exchange for Pakistan gaining turnkey capabilities to manufacture those systems for its own needs). In any case, the domestic industry base is becoming a factor with Pakistani procurement, the real question is sustainment and consistency in forthcoming procurement, not only in terms of programs coming to fruition, but with the Pakistani military adhering to its own claims (for indigenous production) as well.

[1] “Air Chief Witnesses Live Missile Firing Of JF-17 Thunder.” The Associated Press of Pakistan. 02 February 2018. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20180202172508/http://www.app.com.pk/air-chief-witnesses-live-missile-firing-jf-17-thunder/ (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman. Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force. 05 July 2017. Speech accessible via YouTube: https://youtu.be/wIUi6xNJue0?t=8s (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[4] History. Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). Government of Pakistan. URL: http://suparco.gov.pk/pages/history.asp (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[5] Feroz Hassan Khan. “Cover Arsenal and Delivery Means.” Eating Grass. Stanford University Press. 2012. p.241

[6] “Army must remain prepared ‘at all times’: Gen Raheel Sharif.” The Express Tribune. 11 April 2014. URL: https://tribune.com.pk/story/694336/army-must-remain-prepared-at-all-times-gen-raheel-sharif/ (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[7] “PAF Demonstrates its Firepower at Sonmiani Firing Range.” Directorate of Media and Public Affairs. Pakistan Air Force. 07 December 2015. URL: http://www.paf.gov.pk/press_release/uploaded/1449546053.pdf (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[8] Promotional Material. “Denel Overberg Test Range Overview.” Denel Group SOC. URL: http://www.denelotr.co.za/products–services/overview-of-capabilities (Last Accessed: 03 February 2018).

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Denel’s Overberg WTR – which is considered an industry standard as it also services European testing needs – uses the Skytrack and Askania EO systems. The Skytrack has two focal length telescopes of 1.5 m and 3 m, respectively. Its camera can record up to 300 fps (frames per second), while the infrared camera can take up to 150 fps. The Askania uses a 1,000 mm lens.[10] Ibid.

[11] Jacques Follorou. “Paris blocks French equipment contract for Pakistani fighters.” Le Monde. 02 April 2010. URL: http://www.lemonde.fr/asie-pacifique/article/2010/04/02/paris-bloque-un-contrat-d-equipement-francais-d-avions-de-chasse-pakistanais_1327919_3216.html (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[12]  Francesco Tosato. “The Spada 2000 Plus System and the Defence of the Pakistani Skies.” Centro Studi Internazionali. 02 January 2013. URL: https://cesi-italia.org/articoli/119/il-sistema-spada-2000-plus-e-la-difesa-dei-cieli-pakistani

[13] The impact of the Harba ASCM/LACM is discussed in greater detail in the Quwa Premium article, “The Impact of Pakistan’s Harba dual-ASCM and LACM.” 09 January 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/01/09/the-impact-of-pakistans-harba-dual-ashm-and-lacm/

[14] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan test-fires indigenous anti-ship missile.” Defense News. 05 January 2018. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/01/05/pakistan-test-fires-indigenous-anti-ship-missile/ (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[15] Chief Petty Officer B. Nkosi. ” Pakistan Navy strengthens diplomatic ties with the South African Navy.” Government of South Africa. 02 June 2016. URL: http://www.navy.mil.za/archive/1606/160602_pakistani_visit/article.htm (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[16] Denel Financial Report 2016-2017. Denel Group SOC. URL: http://admin.denel.co.za/uploads/35ae607a5a1262a29df6c671801de828.pdf (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018). p.117.

[17] By extrapolating this price, a single Umkhonto battery with 16 launchable missiles could cost $15.2 million. If one is using a phased-array radar with the battery, the Saab Giraffe AMB cost the Philippines $12.5 million per radar (URL: http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/philippines-ansps-77-sea-giraffe-3d-air-search-radars). Thus, a complete battery with radar would cost $25 to 30 million.

[18] Joy Nonzukiso Peter. “A memorandum of understanding on Defence and Defence Industrial Cooperation with Pakistan.” Department of Defence. Republic of South Africa. 29 March 2017. URL: http://www.dod.mil.za/news/2017/03/mou_pakistan.htm (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

[19] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.” Note: a special publication released by the Pakistan Air Force during the Paris Air Show of 2015.

[20] The Denel Dynamics Marlin is a next-generation BVRAAM program. It is currently in the early development stage – in 2016, Denel successfully test-fired the demonstrator from an aircraft. It now awaits full-scale development. See: Denel Financial Report for 2016-2017 for additional details (pp. 69). The Marlin’s dual-rocket motor will also be used in a medium-range SAM program. See: “Marlin nears first test [AAD143].” IHS Jane’s. 19 September 2014. URL: http://www.janes.com/article/43439/marlin-nears-first-test-aad143 (Last Accessed: 04 February 2018).

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