Andrew Brookes analyses the Pakistan Air Force which, with the lifting of a Western arms embargo, is in the process of modernisation.
Formed on August 15, 1947, with only a handful of aircrafts and men, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) now compromises around 330 combat aircrafts and 45,000 uniformed personnel. Under the Chief and Vice Chief of Air Staff., PAF Air HQ has five Deputy Chiefs responsible for operations, engineering, personnel, administration and training respectively. Geographically, the PAF is divided into three regional commands – Northern (HQ at Peshawar), Central (HQ at Sargodha) and Southern (HQ at Masroor, Karachi). These serve as the equivalent of the RAF Fighter Command groups during the Battle of Britain. Within the Commands are four sector operations centres (SOCs) – North (Peshawar), West (Quetta), Centre (Sargodha) and South (Karachi) – with seven subordinate control and reporting centres. As in so many other ways, if you want to see how the British military once did business, you need to look no further than the Indian subcontinent.
The PAF has nine main operating bases that are fully functional in both peace and wartime. These are supplemented by eleven forward bases which become fully operational in time of war, nine forward attack bare bases while the 211-mile (340km) long M-2 motorway has dispersal strips in the Swedish Air Force fashion.
The PAF has some 22 combat squadrons, six squadrons flying Aerospatiale Alouette IIIs on search and rescue/liaison duties and a composite air transport wing. Pakistan Naval Aviation looks after maritime air operations with Lockheed martin P-3C Orions, Breguet Atlantics, Fokker F-27s, Westland Sea King Mk45s, Westland Lynx HAS3 and Alouette IIIs. Pakistan Army Aviation Corps flies a mixture of fixed and rotary wing aircraft in close support of ground operations. Its main firepower is provided by Bell AH-1s Cobras.
Perceived Threat & Global Challenge
From its creation, Pakistan has believed itself ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place”. Although it shares a border with China, the most populous nation on earth, what really matters in the relationship with India. In 1947 the departing British craved India into Muslim and Hindu majority states. It was a bloody business and as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs turned on each other, around a million people died and 17 million fled to which ever state offered them the security of majority status. This legacy explains why Pakistan devotes a s crushing share of its resources to defense. The country has been on a war footing for the whole of its existence, and has been ruled by military governments for around half that time. India’s obsession with Pakistan is less intense, but the sense of siege each instills in the other palpable. It is arguable that abiding disputes with India over Jammu and Kashmir, the Siachen glacier and control of Kashmir are what keep Pakistan together, but the idea of standing ready to deter any malign Indian intent is what underpins PAF doctrine and strategy.
During three weeks last September the PAF carried out Exercise High Mark 2005. This involved all major PAF main and forward operating bases and the scenario centered on air operations against increasing Indian Air Force (IAF) activity over the hilly terrain of Kashmir. The PAF commands divided their aircraft to form ‘Blue’ (PAF) and ‘Fox’ (IAF) Forces, and the PAF simulated the use of AIM-9P/L, R-550 Magic, R-Darter, Exocet, Maverick and cluster bomb weaponry. Two operation headquarters were set up from where ‘Blue and ‘Fox’ air forces engaged in simulated fully-fledged actions in concert with ground troops and army aviation. During High Mark 2005, Pakistani aircrews flew over 8,000 sorties.
The Pakistani strategy was defensive in nature, and aimed to culminate on a favorable note to give political leaders an edge on the negotiation table. The PAF is in no position to do other than make any opponent think long and hard before attacking. The IAF outnumbers it in uniformed personnel by some 4:1, and the ratio is high when it comes to modern, latest technology aircrafts of which the Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI Flanker and Dassault Mirage 2000H have deeper penetration capabilities. The IAF is also bless with larger reserves, a greater beyond visual range (BVR) capacity, a larger inventory of specialist weapons, and unchallenged strategic reconnaissance capability, more surface-to-surface missiles, more potent terminal defenses, up to three times as many attack helicopters, a much superior air lift capability, satellite facilities and stealth technology. That said, the Pakistan media took it for granted that of course ‘Blue’ forces will have the quality and training edge over the ‘Fox’ forces, plus the vision and the planning capacities of the PAF leadership will serve as a booster.
During the Cold War, non-aligned India was regarded as pro-USSR while Pakistan enjoyed a close relationship with the US and France. French Mirages entered service with the PAF in 1967, and subsequent orders followed in the 1970s. In general terms, Dessault Mirage IIIs are high-speed, all weather, long-range interceptors and flight-bombers while Mirage 5s are ground attack derivations. In 1990, the PAF received 43 second-hand Mirage IIIs and Vs from France. The US provided 40 Lockheed Martin F-16A/B Fighting Falcons in the 1980s and the PAF ordered another batch in 1990, but delivery was blocked by the US Congress to punish the Pakistanis for their nuclear weapon development programme.
India and Pakistan currently have around 40 nuclear warheads apiece. The two nations are going head-to-head in developing ballistic missile delivery system capable of covering each other’s territory. Until Pakistan’s Shaheen II missile with its 1.080nm (2,000km) range enters service. PAF F-16s and Mirage 5s are the long-range nuclear platforms.
As the smaller nation, Pakistan cannot afford to engage in an attack with India. Unlike India, Pakistan does not have a tri-service Strategic Forces Command. Pakistani warheads and army’s or air force delivery systems are based separately. Its minimum nuclear deterrence relies on conventional forces holding the line for as long as it takes for nuclear warheads to be deployed forward and loaded as the PAF lacks a quick reaction alert capability. A PAF F-16s and Mirage 5s are not as potent as their IAF Mikoyan MIG-27M Flogger, Mirage 2000H and Su-30MKI equivalents. Pakistani deterrence relies on qualitative upgrades and survivability. High Mark 05 culminated in testing Pakistan’s nuclear operational preparedness.
“These past 15 years have been particularly difficult as we had no access to contemporary technology and lacked the resources to launch major acquisition programmes,” admitted Ex Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat, Ex-Commander in Chief PAF, in a recent interview. “So this was a period of improvisation and struggle as the PAF sought to maintain a combat capability with adequate deterrent value.” Faced with the Western embargo, Pakistan turned to China as its principal arms supplier, from whom it had already obtained Chengdu F-7P and F-7G multirole fighters and Nanchang A-5III close air support ground attack aircraft. The F-7 is the Mig-21 Fishbed built under Chinese licensed manufacture, and the PAF acquired 55 of the latest F-7PG medium technology variants from 2002 to keep its aircrew current pending the introduction of more capable platforms and weapon systems.
During the period of sanctions, Pakistan felt sidelined as its Indian neighbor received more advanced combat aircrafts, plus new capabilities such as airborne early warning and control aircraft, air-to-air refueling, balloon-borne surveillance radars, real-time reconnaissance through unmanned air vehicles, beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air weapons, and frequency-hopping and secure radio communications. Consequently, the PAF relied on self-help and collaboration. Pakistani technicians modified the South African T-Darter medium-range, active radar-guided air-to-air missiles (AAM) into the H-4 BVR missile capable operating out to a reported distance of 65nm (120km). A lighter infra-red version, the H-2 was designed to hit targets out to 32nm (60km). H-2 and H-4 can be carried by Mirages, with the former comparable to the Python 4 and the H-4 to the AA-12 Adder in the IAF arsenal.
Pakistan has also developed a cruise missile system – unsubtly named ‘Babur’ after Mogul emperor who invaded India five times – with rumored design help from Chinese or Ukrainian engineers as well as some help from Turkey. This high-speed, lo level terrain hugging missile is said to have a 270nm (500km) range and either a conventional or nuclear warhead. Babur initially is capable of being launched by land and submarine launch, but the longer term goal is to make it an air-to-surface weapon.
Pakistan Air Force
The state-owned Pakistan Aeronautical Complex is rightly proud of its Karakoram-8 (K-8) co-produced with China, and Super Mushak developed from the Swedish Saab MF1-17. The K-8 tandem-seat basic jet trainer has been sold to eight Middle East countries while the 260hp (194kW) single piston-engined Super Mushak light primary trainer has been sold to Saudi Arabia and Oman. The PAF has recently signed a contract for 27 K-8s to add to the 12 it already possesses. In future, the PAF flying training system will compromise the MF1-17 Mushshak in primary, the K-8 in basic and the dual-seat version of the JF-17 in the lead-in-fighter-training role.
In 1999, China and Pakistan agreed on a 50-50 joint development of the FC-1/Super 7, later to be known as the JF-17 Thunder. Designed to match the Indian Light Combat Aircraft, the JF-17 is expected to be in full production by the end of the decade. The PAF is understood to be interested in purchasing 150+ of these fourth generation, multi-role agile light fighters to replace all its F-7s, Mirages and A-5IIIs by 2020. Five JF-17s prototypes now exist and this fully fly-by-wire aircraft has a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. Although of shorter range than the F-16, the JF-17 will have an all-weather navigation and attack capability, will carry a full range of ordnance and be able to engage at all speeds and altitudes. The fairing on its fin tip may be an electronic countermeasures housing. Although the JF-17 may be initially armed with less capable Chinese weaponry, such as the semi-active radar guided PL-11 AAM. “As part of the JF-17 programme we will be able to train engineers and pilots in the field of aircraft design, development, manufacturing and flight testing. This will contribute towards indigenization, self-reliance in meeting the country’s defense requirement and enhancement of economic prosperity of Pakistan, which is totally in line with the government’s policy and our national aspiration,” said Air Chief Marshal Saadat.
The Way Forward
It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and ‘9/11’ certainly marked a turn for the better for Pakistan. When Karachi decided to support Washington in the global war on terror, the Bush administration, together with other Western governments, erased sanctions on sophisticated weaponry. American officials were also haunted by the possibility that a nuclear-armed Pakistan could, if isolated from western support, become a breeding ground for international terrorism and a fomenter of regional instability. In the words of Air Chief Marshal Saadat: “The country obtained economic assistance, debt rescheduling and favorable trade conditions. This saw the Pakistan Government embark on a planned development of its armed forces and the PAF was granted a major allocation of resources.”
This is not before time. On August 25, 2005, a PAF Mirage crashed near the town of Badin, 105 miles (169km) east of Karachi. The pilot was able to eject safely and an air force spokesman gave ‘technical reasons’ as being responsible for the accident. Asked about frequent PAF crashes, the Commander-in-Chief PAF admitted that the attrition rate “was a bit high” and they had lost some aircraft at low level. He said the ageing Mirages were over 30 years old and the PAF was facing problems in acquiring spares because Dessault had stopped production of some components. However, Pakistan could not ground these aircraft because they formed part of the nuclear deterrent.
This explains why the PAF bough 50 Mirages, 150 sealed pack engines and a huge quantity of Mirage spares from Libya for cash in 2004. Like Pakistan, Libya owned Mirage IIIs and Vs but, although these were in excellent condition, the Libyan Air Force had been dormant for sometime following sanctions imposed after the Boeing 747 was blown up over Lockerbie. With the ex-Libyan airframes, Pakistan now operates more Mirages than the French Air Force. Most of the Libyan aircraft, however, are being cannibalized for spare parts to sustain the PAF fleet of Mirages for the next seven to ten years. Given that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) likened its Mirages with their rudimentary avionics to ‘Sopwith Camels with reheat’.
Pakistan also plans a phased upgrade and refurbishment of its oldest Mirages with new radars and avionics. Indeed work is underway for the avionics upgrade by French company SAGEM on what is believed to be a total of 14 Mirage 5EFs.
In September 2004, the US agreed to the sale of seven RAAF Lockheed Martin C-130E Hercules, including one for spares: the first of these aircraft arrived with relief goods for Kashmir earthquake survivors in November 2005. The PAF has also signed a contract with Indonesia for four CASA CN-235 transport aircraft. In the new era of international co-operation. Pakistani F-16s deployed to Konya Air Base in Turkey for air combat training in October 2004. The USAF has given Lockheed Martin an $89 million contract to supply six long-range AN/TPS-77 transportable radar systems for Pakistan under the Foreign Military Sales programme. This L-band, tactical radar provides continuous 3D surveillance of air targets out to 243nm (450km) and at altitudes up to 100,000ft (20,480m). Pakistani naval aviation is being strengthened by the gift of eight Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion long-range maritime patrol aircraft to replace existing Atlantics, by the acquisition of Harpoon Block-11 missiles for carriage on the P-3C, and by making its two grounded P-3Cs maritime patrol aircraft operational by the end of this year. All will greatly enhance Pakistani maritime battle management. Pakistan is purchasing six HAI Z-9C helicopters from China and the PAF plans a mix of Chinese and Western equipment in case sanctions are ever imposed again. However, what really matters to Islamabad is access to latest network-enabled warfare technology, and that means support from the West. Air borne early warning (AEW) is vital to Pakistan’s defensive posture and the Swedish Erieye system its active phased array AEW radar (which would be mounted on SAAB 2000s) is close to winning a $1 billion ($560 million) contract to counter Indian interest in the Isreali Phalcon system for use on Ilyushin Il-76s. The Ericcson Erieye is tried and test over the cold mountainous regions that the PAF patrols, but release of some of the avionics to Pakistan depend on US export licenses.
The ‘jewel in the crown’ was the Bush administration’s announcement in March 2005 that it would sell F-16 to Pakistan again. This was seen as a reward for President Musharraf’s efforts in the war on terror, and came in response to Islamabad’s pleading for over two years. The PAF would like to equip three to five squadrons and initial indications were that Pakistan had plans to buy 79 F-16s from Lockheed Martin. Fifty-five of them would be new C/Ds and the rest second-hand, the deal including the upgrade of the 32 1980s vintage F-16s in PAF service. Two F-16s were flown to Pakistan at the end of November 2005, but the deal is now on hold as it would seem insensitive to expend US aid on fast jets while thousands are still suffering in the wake of the devastating Kashmir earthquake. President Musharraf stated that the order for the latest F-16C/Ds will enhance Pakistan ‘strategic capability’ and make a major difference to its ‘strategy of defensive deterrence.” For all the talk of the aircraft being equipped with the latest AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles to defend Pakistani airspace, the new F-16s are Justas much about enhancing the effectiveness of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.
The PAF has never had things easy. For nearly 60 years it has had to safeguard national airspace and deter as much more powerful India, a task made all the more arduous by the recent embargo on acquiring the latest technology. The PAF coped by co-operating with China, and by exploiting the undoubted expertise and professionalism of its technicians to upgrade its facilities and weaponry indigenously.
Close assistance in the global war on terror has allowed the PAF to become adept to anti-insurgent operations around the Afghan border and it has learned to deliver air-weapons with decisive effect. More modern airframes are entering service but the PAF required surveillance UAVs and precision-guided munitions to attack militant hide-outs while avoiding collateral damage. Efforts to upgrade the Pakistan ground-based air-defenses need further foreign investment to bring the PAF into the network-centric age and enable it to respond to ume-sensitive targets.
Simultaneous acquisition of complex system requires significant financial and human resources. In addition, the assimilation and efficient utilization of high technology will pose a huge challenge. That said, the PAF has a lot going for it. Foreign military observers attending High mark 2005 were impressed with the professionalism of both PAF air crews and ground personnel. Ability is rewarded and at least two females are going through flying training. However, the PAF hierarchy knows that a huge efforts will be required to upgrade training systems and syllable to prepare their personnel for the future.
The Indian Air Force has its weakness. It lacks the infrastructure to support all its air efforts, especially in the southern sector. There are gaps in its low level radar coverage, its spread of Russian and Western aircraft makes for a logistic nightmare and the unreliability of many of its MiGs has led to an appalling rate of flying accidents. That said, the arrival of BAE Systems Hawk trainers will revolutionize the IAF flying training system and Washington has balance its military sales to Pakistan by allowing Lockheed Martin and Boeing to offer the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F/A-18 Hornet as candidates for the IAF’s multi-role programme. The Bush administration has also stated that it will support Indian requests for other ‘transformative system in areas such as command and control, early warning and missile defense’. This means that even when new F-16s arrive in PAF service there may still be the same relative capability gap with India.
Pakistan Air Force
In summary, the PAF may not have enough state-of-the-art equipment but for its budget and the size of its organization, it is an operationally ready and professional air force. It is on the verge of a major acquisition programme, but funding will be an abiding concern, compounded by high oil prices and the costs of the Kashmir earthquake. However, whatever the obstacles, the PAF will retain is deterrent value by virtue of the professionalism and motivation of its personnel. Whatever the challenge, the PAF will remain Pakistan’s scimitar and shield.