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A New Fighter Aircraft for Pakistan Air Force?

Image Credit: Global Village Space
A New Fighter Aircraft for Pakistan Air Force

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is contemplating upgrading its fighter fleet. It is already working on developing a next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) under Project Azm. However, Project Azm is not going to materialise during this decade. The current fleet of PAF, the upgrades to F-16 in limbo, and the additions being made to the Indian Air Force (IAF) require PAF to induct a new aircraft system as a stopgap or interim solution before the induction of a fifth-generation aircraft happens in the 2030s.

Traditionally, the PAF has been a technology-intensive force. Its emphasis has been on technological superiority than numerical parity to counter the much bigger IAF. However, with stalled upgrades to the F-16s fleet and no new inductions, the technological parity is increasing in IAF’s favor. IAF operates a large fleet of capable Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs, which are also set to get upgraded with new sub-systems. It is also inducting the French Rafale, a versatile aircraft with some potent weapons, and the controversial HAL Tejas. It has also planned the induction of 114 multirole fighter aircraft in the future along with a fifth-generation aircraft. On the other hand, PAF’s primary induction is the JF-17s, whose Block III variant is a capable fourth-generation plus aircraft.

The Case of F-16s

The PAF was meant to get eight more Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block-52 from the US with shared financing of $700 million by the US and Pakistan in 2016. However, the US Congress rejected the US contribution of the sale under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF), and the deal eventually ended without success.

However, the future upgrades and sale induction of new variants remain linked to the geopolitical interests of the US in the region. This requires Pakistan to look for other options, including China and Russia.

Earlier, the reliability of the US as a trusted partner was tested when it refused to deliver 28 F-16s after the end of Afghan Jihad. The new episode of the Pak-US F-16 saga started with the US selling Pakistan 18 F-16s when it required Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan after 9/11. It also provided upgrade kits to Pakistan for earlier aircraft. But this episode of cooperation also ended when the US started to justify its failures in Afghanistan by blaming Pakistan for not doing enough.

Nonetheless, F-16 remains the elite fighter of PAF today. However, the future upgrades and sale induction of new variants remain linked to the geopolitical interests of the US in the region. This requires Pakistan to look for other options, including China and Russia.

JF-17s as the Mainstay  

PAF considers the JF-17 as its mainstay aircraft as it is going to replace the ageing F-7s. The JF-17 has become a mature platform with the Block III variant in the assembling lines. The Block III variant of the aircraft features several modern sub-systems like the KLJ-7A airborne active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, advanced infrared missile approach warning system, integrated cockpit display, and PL-10 and PL-15 air-to-air missiles (AAM). However, the JF-17 can not provide all the solutions to PAF alone.

Project Azm

Initiated in July 2017, under Project Azm, PAF is developing a fifth-generation aircraft powered by twin engines, has stealth features, and will be a heavy fighter aircraft. It will also develop medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE), new munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and multiple other projects. Pakistan has the option to cooperate with China and Turkey in the development of the project, and senior PAF officials have hinted at this multiple times.

However, the next-generation aircraft under Project Azm is not going to make its flight by the end of this decade, due to which PAF is looking for a new system due to the geopolitical and geostrategic situations of the region. Even if PAF plans to buy an off-the-shelf fifth-generation aircraft, it is likely to take years to materialise, leaving PAF firepower short of its operational requirements.

A New Aircraft before NGFA

According to Ex-Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, if PAF does not induct fifth-generation aircraft by the end of this year, its disparity with IAF will increase. He said that Pakistan had both Russian and Chinese options to induct new aircraft and help stop the disparity from growing. Federal Minister Shaikh Rasheed has hinted in an interview during March 2019 about Pakistan buying J10s from China.

The induction of a new aircraft that is more capable and agile than the existing platforms is necessitated due to a set of factors that include the induction of Rafale by IAF. Not mainly because Rafale is more capable but also because of the Indian perception that it has achieved a technological edge over PAF after inducting Rafale. A system like J10C can benefit PAF in this regard to set aside that narrative. J10C is considered one of the most capable single-engine fighters in the world and is comparable to Rafale in size, aerodynamic characteristics, aviation, and weapon systems. Although Rafale is a twin-engine fighter, its engines’ thrust is similar to J10C. The J10C also incorporates thrust vectoring on its engine for enhanced maneuverability, which the Rafale lacks. The J10C also has the upper hand in speed, climb rate, and operational altitude over Rafale. J10C’s 19.3 tons maximum take-off weight is much better than both F-16 and JF-17, however short of Rafale’s 24.5 tons. The larger the take-off weight, the larger payload and fuel an aircraft can carry. Thus, J10C can perform close to Rafale, giving it an upper hand against the current aircraft in the PAF fleet.

Due to the above-discussed factors, PAF currently needs a new aircraft to supplement both F-16s and JF-17s. The J10C or any other similar platform will enhance operational capability and increase strike range.

Similarly, the IAF is keeping a balance between the numerical and technological upgrades to its fleet. It is buying 24 Mirage 2000s and 21 MiG-29s from Russia. Although these are old designs and not technologically inferior to Su-30 MKIs and Rafale, they still add to the number of the IAF depleting fleet due to the slow-paced new inductions. The IAF has been struggling to meet its sanctioned operational squadron strength of 42, and the primary reason for the procurement of these systems is likely to keep up the numbers. On the other hand, upgradation to SU-30 MKIs, induction of Rafale, and other planned inductions will bring technological upgrades to the IAF.

Pakistan’s approach looks similar as it wants to keep up the numbers and does not want to be left behind in technological terms as well. Consequently, it plans to induct a new fighter aircraft that is operationally more capable than its current assets as an interim solution before the induction of next-generation aircraft.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali works on nuclear and strategic issues at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He tweets at @samranali6.

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