East meets West Pakistan’s fighter AircraftDecember 10, 2009
Not many modern armed forces unite in their inventory, and particularly among their key assets, technology from two – in political terms – entirely opposite origins. It is more common in the countries of the former Soviet bloc where, since the fall of the iron curtain, Western technology slowly but ever increasingly found its way into countries primarily equipped with Russian weapon systems. In the past two decades the Middle East and southern countries of the Asian continent have become areas in which Western state-of-the-art weapon systems competed next to weapon systems from Russia or other former antagonists to lead these countries’ armed forces into a new age – globalisation in the political and industrial defence world.
These countries – not only geographically in between history’s current major players – slowly revolve the old political and economic structures in a natural process and, with their growing political self-confidence, create a new link between the cumbersome super powers which, mostly from behind the scenes, will shape the next decades.
Pakistan is one of these interesting examples, however, with a very unique character. Just as its neighbour and long-lasting political antagonist, India, it develops an increasingly emancipated character in its choice of new weapon systems as well as in its desire to further develop its domestic R&D as well as production capabilities. India currently is in the process of extensive trials for its future fighter aircraft programme (MMRCA) in which aircraft from the US compete against European as well as Russian solutions of the latest generations (see http://www.defpro.com/daily/details/380/). The final choice in this particular race will be a forward-looking one for the face of the Indian Air Force.
On the other side of the Thar Desert, the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) brings together an interesting mix of aircraft from all over the world and, in particular, from the US and China. Due to its historical development, the first aircraft to be used by the Pakistani Air Force were US- and UK-built aircraft. However, in 1965 Pakistan received its first fighter aircraft of Chinese origin: the Shenyang J-6. Since, fighter aircraft of the US as well as from France (the PAF still strongly relies on its French Dassault Mirage IIIs and Mirage Vs) have been operating next to Chinese fighter aircraft. A clear political development can be deduced from the history of fighter aircraft of the PAF: from the post-colonial influences to a regional power at the mercy of the political gravities to a growing national identity and self-determination.
Today, Pakistan is expecting to take delivery of its first of 18 ordered Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 52+ very soon (older versions of the F-16 have already been operating in Pakistan since 1982), bringing the total number of Pakistani F-16s to 54 when the last aircraft will be delivered as scheduled in December 2010. Furthermore, as various press sources have reported mid-November 2009, Pakistan has signed an agreement with China for the procurement of 36 Chengdu FC-20 (J-10 export version) to be delivered by 2015. Finally, Pakistan is also in the process of introducing a growing number of FC-1/JF-17 fighter aircraft, jointly developed by China’s Chengdu and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra. With the first two small batch production aircraft having been delivered in 2007, Pakistan has since received a good dozen of these aircraft and, as reports Flight International, is expecting to introduce at least 150 domestically produced fighters into service (the number has increased to an estimated 200-250 aircraft).
This development would not only provide Pakistan with a significant number of state-of-the-art air combat assets but also brings together technology from the Far East and the West in an interesting unity. Many eyes of these two political and industrial camps will be glued to the PAF to gather information on this process and the other’s craftsmanship.
F-16 … FC-20 … JF-17
As outlined above the PAF has been combining Western and Chinese aircraft since the 1960s, including bombers and trainer aircraft and is, furthermore, expecting to receive four Chinese Shaanxi Y-8W airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft equipped with AESA radar by 2011 that will be operating next to Pakistan’s brand-new Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C aircraft. But let’s take a look at the three state-of-the-art fighter aircraft that will be racing Pakistan’s skies in the near future.
Pakistan’s newest member of the F-16 family, a two seat F-16D Block 52, has been unveiled on October 2009 at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, facility. The ceremony was attended by the PAF Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Rao Quamar Suleman. The current order, dubbed “Peace Drive I”, is for 12 F-16Cs and six F-16Ds, powered by the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engine, with an option for another 18 aircraft.
“The Pakistani and U.S. leadership has worked very hard to develop a strategic partnership between the two countries in order to achieve our common strategic interests,” said Rao Qamar. “If this relationship is to succeed, it has to be built on a solid foundation of trust between the two allies. This F-16 is not just an aircraft, but a capability for Pakistan. It is a symbol of trust and the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.”
As the PAF explains on its homepage, “the PAF had originally planned its force structure to include than a hundred F-16s by the end of the century, but these plans could not be implemented because of the US embargo [of the 1990s due to Pakistan’s testing of a nuclear bomb]. The service is, thus, currently in the process of evaluating other high-tech fighter aircraft for procurement.”
The outcome of this process is quite clear: a stronger co-operation with China which obviously offers Pakistan not only to possibility to acquire new combat aircraft but also of jointly improving its domestic industrial capabilities. The Chengdu FC-20s to enter service in 2015 will replace the aging fleet of combat aircraft such as the Chinese F-7s (a version of the MiG-21 which has been recently upgraded) as well as the extensive fleet of Mirage IIIs and Vs. As the PAF explains, “Chinese systems such as the F-7s provide the staying power to absorb losses and to take punishment in the face of a much bigger adversary. Planned upgrades to equip these less capable fighters with modern radars, better missiles and ECM equipment will help enhance the PAF’s combat capability.”
The FC-20 is not among these less capable fighters. It is the export version, modified to Pakistan’s requirements, of one of China’s most capable multi-role fighter aircraft with a delta-wing and canard design. It was introduced into the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in 2005 and in April 2006 the Pakistani cabinet approved the procurement of 36 of these aircraft which can be compared to the aircraft generation of the F-16, the Gripen or the Rafale.
Although a greater challenge for the Pakistani Air Force than the mere purchase of new assets, the development and introduction of the JF-17 (Pakistani designation for “Joint Fighter”) has continuously and obviously successfully proceeded. The first aircraft of this type took to the skies in 2003. The first small batch of pre-production aircraft was delivered to Pakistan for operational evaluation purposes in March 2007. The first Pakistani-manufactured JF-17 was rolled out and handed over to the PAF on 23 November 2009. On the occasion of the hand-over ceremony Rao Qamar said that 40 JF-17 would be produced by PAC Kamra within next three years and would be inducted in PAF replacing the existing aircraft. Furthermore, he confirmed that the first JF 17 Squadron would be established shortly. The JF-17 is a lightweight and low-cost multi-role fighter aircraft with a high manoeuvrability and beyond visual range (BVR) capability. It has advanced aerodynamics configuration and high thrust.