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Why Reinforcing the JF-17 Program is a Valid Strategic Move

As recently as 08 April 2019, the Indian government and the Indian Air Force (IAF) insisted that the IAF had shot down a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16, showing apparent radar images of the incident.

Not only did Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) – which is the media arm of the Pakistani Armed Forces – reject New Delhi’s assertion, but it issued its own claim of the PAF downing a second IAF jet in addition to the MiG-21bis. Thus far, the only verifiable kill was that of the IAF MiG-21bis and, more broadly, the only other loss during that period was that of the IAF Mi-17 helicopter.

A Conflict Between Air Warfare Systems

However, that has not stopped either side from pushing its own narrative, which, arguably, has become an extension of sorts to the actual fight that took place. Though the cross-fire of narratives is an important dimension of the situation, there is another – more traditional – dimension: the fact that this was the first orchestrated battle between two comparable air forces in the network-centric warfare age.

Both the PAF and the IAF had used their respective airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasure (ECM) systems, stand-off weapons (SOW), and in the PAF’s case, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM).

In effect, this engagement set the reality that fighter aircraft, no matter their technical specifications, will seldom operate on a stand-alone basis without AEW&C, EW, and supporting fighter units. Moreover, it is also plausible that within this framework, a fighter as old as the MiG-21bis could down a newer and more advanced adversary provided it leverages contemporary technology, such as EW/ECM.

The Fighter Cannot Work Alone

The Drive provides a detailed look at this reality using the IAF’s MiG-21bis as an example of this reality put to practice. However, in terms of understanding the PAF’s future procurement priorities, this specific point (from The Drive’s article) could set realistic expectations and projections:

“…the side with the more capable sensor and networking architecture and most potent electronic warfare capabilities, as well as a creative tactics playbook and experience to leverage it, can have a far greater advantage regardless of ‘airframe versus airframe’ performance differentials.”

There are three major points in that one statement:

  1. Today, even a single air battle is, ultimately, a fight between two complete air warfare systems equipped with AEW&C, EW/ECM, etc. Thus, the side with weaker supporting systems and/or less experience using it is at a disadvantage, regardless of the individual aircraft’s capabilities.
  2. The individual fighter will not function as effectively as it needs to in this environment without a supporting network of AEW&C and EW/ECM assets behind it.
  3. The individual fighter serves a very specific purpose, i.e., to deliver the air-to-air missile (AAM) or the air-to-ground munition (AGM) – basically, it is the ‘spear tip’ of the kill-chain.

In light of these three points, the PAF’s decision to limit its near and medium-term fighter acquisitions to just the JF-17 Block-III is not solely due to limited funding and options, but also a deliberate choice.

Understanding Pakistan’s ‘System Fighter’

In terms of a ‘system fighter’, the JF-17 checks all of the boxes. To complete the kill-chain, you do not need the most sophisticated – and, in turn, the costliest – fighter on the market.

Rather, the fighter should have a credible radar, a tactical data-link (TDL) terminal, an integrated EW/ECM suite, and very-effective air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions. In addition, the loss of attrition is a major constraint in an all-out conventional conflict, so this fighter must also be affordable enough to procure as well as operate and replace in sizable numbers.

Radar

In terms of the radar, the PAF will likely select one of the KLJ-7A or LKF601E active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar. The JF-17 will rely on AEW&C support for situational awareness, but an AESA radar of the KLJ-7A or LKF601E’s caliber will provide it with the capability to target ‘fighter-sized’ objects at a range of 170 km on its own, if need be. Likewise, the LKF601E can target surface targets at a range of 200 to 220 km. An AESA radar will provide the JF-17 with defensibility against enemy EW/ECM pressure.

TDL

The PAF already has a functioning TDL in the form of the Link-17. This proprietary protocol likely enables the JF-17 and the Mirage ROSE to leverage the Karakoram Eagle/ZDK03 and the Saab Erieye.

The idea that the Link-17 could work with the Erieye may seem surprising, but it is a probability. First, the Erieye is not a NATO system, though it is NATO-compatible, it is compatible with third-party proprietary systems too. Second, Saab itself offers the integration of “in-house” TDLs as part of its package (see Quwa Premium’s earlier article for more information on the PAF Erieye program).

Integrated EW/ECM

The PAF is also not short on any EW/ECM options. First, it is responsible for building its own threat library via its electronic intelligence (ELINT) efforts. Second, it can procure ITAR-free (i.e., unaffected by American regulatory approvals) EW/ECM equipment from Italy’s Elettronica and other suppliers. Like an AESA radar, an effective integrated EW/ECM suite – potentially of Western make, though not guaranteed – will come.

New Munitions

Currently, the remaining ‘wild card’ or ‘uncertainty’ are the Block-III’s munitions. Though it has positively alluded to it, the PAF has not concretely committed to a longer-ranged BVRAAM, or high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBS AAM), a smaller air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) analogous to the Turkish SOM (for long-range conventional strikes), or a supersonic-cruising anti-ship missile (AShM).

This is where the PAF’s limited fiscal capacity could constrain its efforts to make the JF-17 the best possible system fighter. Fortunately, it appears that the PAF is taking munitions development seriously as it is both a key aspect of Project Azm and a priority through collaboration with China, Ukraine, and Turkey.

In lieu of procuring a larger off-the-shelf fighter, the PAF must equip the JF-17 with the munitions it needs to fulfill every mission role to a credible degree of effectiveness.

Overall, the idea is not to match the Rafale or some other fighter ‘airframe-to-airframe’, but to equip the JF-17 with contemporary systems so that it serves as a credible threat to other aircraft (and other objects, such as ships and fixed high-value targets). Thus, there is a level the JF-17 must reach in terms of weapons and subsystems to ensure that it can operate in the modern environment.

Instead of Other Fighters, Could Pakistan Focus on Special Mission Aircraft?

The fighter is just one part of the system, for the PAF to maintain an effective system, it will also require capable special mission aircraft. The PAF already has eight AEW&C aircraft split between the Saab Erieye and the Karakoram Eagle. It also has the Falcon DA20-based dedicated EW aircraft.

However, for the JF-17 to amount to the highest possible threat the PAF needs it to be, the PAF’s special mission aircraft fleet cannot remain static. The supporting AEW&C and EW/ECM capabilities must evolve.

AEW&C

In May 2017, the PAF reportedly ordered three additional Erieye AEW&C. According to sources, a look at public Export-Import (EXIM) registries, and a recent report by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly[1], the first was delivered and deployed by the PAF. However, it is unclear if orders for the remaining two proceeded.[2]

It is unclear if the PAF requires additional AEW&C aircraft, but there is an opportunity in place to upgrade both the Karakoram Eagle and Erieye. Granted, this would basically amount to changing the radars of both without changing the aircraft. However, this route would be comparatively lower-cost than new off-the-shelf fighters and it would bolster the JF-17’s effectiveness as a system fighter.

For example, the Saab Erieye ER uses gallium nitride (GaN)-based TRMs to generate a range improvement of 70% over the Erieye (Aviation Week). In an environment that will be fraught with targets with smaller radar cross-sections (RCS), this is an important gain as it would enable the PAF to potentially identify and target these threats before they are too close.

Dedicated EW Aircraft

Currently, the PAF appears to be satisfied with the Falcon DA-20. Fortunately, should its plans change, and it require a new platform, it is not short on options. In fact, Turkey is already working on a program to fit two Bombardier Global 6000 business jets with Aselsan’s AESA-based EW/ECM equipment.

The advantage of this program is that Turkey is already absorbing the cost of designing, integrating, and testing the sub-systems and platform. The PAF could join as a customer and pay comparatively less versus making its own solution alone. That said, in terms of the latter option the PAF could emulate the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) ATR-72 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) program by fitting commercially-off-the-shelf systems from Leonardo or Elettronica, but get the work done by a third-party contractor in Germany or the UK.

Reportedly, the PAF has a potential scope of procuring up to 275 JF-17s. If the PAF reaches this potential, then the majority of its aircraft would be based on the Block-III, i.e., with AESA radars, integrated EW/ECM, three-axis digital fly-by-wire, and other subsystems right from the onset. It would be a sizable fleet, and if supported by enough special mission assets, a credible threats across both air-to-air and air-to-surface.

[1] Guy Anderson. “Swedish exports remain static after reforms.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 20 March 2019.

[2] Ibid.

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