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Will Pakistan Procure an Off-the-Shelf Fighter?

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) may induct an off-the-shelf fighter in the 2020s. This would not a new move or alteration of its plans. In fact, the PAF had sought an off-the-shelf fighter since 2016, especially after it was unable to secure follow-on F-16C/D Block-52+ with Foreign Military Financing (FMF) support from the United States.[1] In 2016, the PAF reportedly voiced interest in the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) J-10 and United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) Su-35.[2] Though not direct confirmation, the PAF’s Chief of Air Staff (CAS) at the time, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, said, “Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.”[3] The goal was to induct a new fighter sometime in the 2020s as an interim solution ahead of the next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA).[4]

The challenge with an off-the-shelf fighter is that it would be a significant use of resources. Not only would it strain Pakistan, which is in a precarious economic state, and it could force the PAF to divert funds from its long-term endeavours, especially Project Azm (under which the PAF is working on an NGFA). However, an off-the-shelf fighter for induction in the 2020s was the original plan, especially if the PAF was unable to acquire follow-on new-build F-16s. When the PAF started emphasizing Project Azm, its commitment to an off-the-shelf fighter became unclear. The lack of near-term funding may have pushed the PAF to focus on the long-term (i.e., NGFA) while improving upon the JF-17 so that it stands as a good baseline solution.

However, the PAF is also aware of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) modernization efforts. In particular, the PAF has not stopped noticing the impact the Dassault Rafale could have on South Asia’s air warfare conditions in the coming years. For the IAF, the Rafale delivers a series of important capability upgrades, especially a world-class – if not the industry standard – beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), i.e., Meteor. In response to the Rafale causing a potential imbalance in South Asia’s air warfare dynamics, the current CAS of the PAF, ACM said, “we have to be aware of modern technologies, and if the acquisition of a new fighter fits into our doctrine then we will try to acquire it. The balance has to be maintained.”[5] Thus, at the highest level of the PAF’s decision-making, the option to acquire an off-the-shelf fighter is still on the table.

The question is, ‘at what cost?’

Pakistan’s current economic conditions and its relationship with the United States and Europe precludes any possibility of a Western fighter. Originally, follow-on F-16s – especially in the form of the F-16 Block-70/72 – could have been the preferred option. Not only would it have allowed the PAF to continue using its existing support infrastructure for the fighter, but also leverage new technologies, especially an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Moreover, the PAF had originally banked on leveraging funding from the U.S., such as FMF, to offset some of the cost of the F-16s. Thus, the F-16 route could have allowed the PAF to avoid inducting an entirely new fighter, save on the cost of acquiring a new jet, and induct new technologies and munitions to match-up with the Rafale.

With a change of administration in the White House, the PAF will likely try reviving the F-16 case again, as it has in the past. However, the F-16 would not be the primary off-the-shelf fighter solution, especially as it does not involve consistent factors (i.e., funding and approvals from Washington). Thus, the main option for an off-the-shelf fighter would come from China, and, in all likelihood, in the form of the J-10CE.

The J-10CE would be the most feasible and realistic option for the PAF. First, the Chinese are now offering that platform for export, which was not the case until 2019-2020. Second, the J-10CE likely fits within the PAF’s fiscal limitations and, if more funding is required, the PAF could secure a loan or financing program from Beijing. The latter would serve a critical role in enabling such purchases. However, this route would eat into the PAF’s cashflow for development (e.g., acquisitions), and it will likely divert attention from its other programs to support the complete induction of the J-10CE.

In general, the PAF would not induct a new platform without committing to 90-150 of those aircraft. This was the rule with the F-6, Mirage III/5, F-16, F-7P/PG, and the JF-17. Yes, the PAF did induct some aircraft in limited numbers, such as the F-104. However, those situations often tied into aid from another country – when it came to the use of national funds, a large induction plan was always in the roadmap. Even with the F-16, the PAF had sought a total of 110 F-16A/Bs under the Peace Gate program, while the roadmap for the F-16C/D had started with a minimum 55 aircraft (before the earthquake of 2005).[6]

Thus, while the PAF may start with 18-24 J-10CEs in the beginning, it will likely build the fleet to a minimum of 90 aircraft through the 2020s. That is the only way to justify the cost of raising infrastructure for a new fighter type. The new fighter will not be a peripheral solution, but a mainstay asset. It could, ultimately, replace the Mirage III/5s. However, to sustain such a large investment, the PAF will likely shift resources from its other programs, such as Project Azm, the lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT), and, potentially, the JF-17.

The shift away from the JF-17 may not be a pivot. The PAF had always maintained that it was seeking 150 JF-17s for its requirements. Not only will it reach that point with the Block-III, but the twin-seat variant – i.e., JF-17B – resulted in the PAF crossing that threshold. Rather, it will have 188 JF-17s by 2030. Instead, a shift to the J-10CE could mean the PAF is sticking to its original roadmap from 1999.

There may be other factors involved with capping the JF-17 to the Block-III. First, the types of munitions and electronics the PAF needs to build parity with the IAF in the future may not be available to the JF-17. This could be due to limitations in the JF-17’s design, or a lack of willing and able suppliers. Second, the inherent design limitations of the JF-17 (e.g., stable design and limited internal fuel, payload, and range) may prevent it from properly matching up to the Rafale. To solve those issues, the PAF would need to re-open the design of the JF-17, and at that point, selecting the J-10CE could be more feasible.

Thus, the PAF would not pivot away from JF-17. Rather, it is reaching a ‘fork in the road’ where it can opt to either re-design the JF-17 into a larger and more complex fighter – or buy the latter off-the-shelf.

By wrapping up the JF-17, the PAF could potentially sustain both a J-10CE program and continue investing heavily in the forthcoming NGFA. In fact, by procuring the J-10CE, the PAF may be able to develop synergy with the NGFA by bringing in the support of an experienced design partner (i.e., Chengdu) and, potentially, sharing of inputs and technologies (e.g., radar, electronics, and weapons). In other words, the two fighters could have significant commonality and, in the long-term, form a tightly integrated offensive capability at scale for the PAF. However, the J-10CE is also a sign that the NGFA is also a much longer-term prospect – the PAF would not time two high-tech, high-cost inductions close to one another.

[1] Farhan Bokhari. “Defending the Borders.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 02 November 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amir Zia. Interview of Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman. Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017. URL:

[4] Farhan Bokhari. “Defending the Borders.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 02 November 2016.

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

[6] “Pakistan Raises F-16 Requirement.” Flight Global. 09 May 2005. URL:

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