Pakistan — Modernisation of the PAF

Chi­na (besides France) con­tin­ued to be a major source of PAF weapons and this increased after the US arms embar­go in 1990. About 90 A‑5s were obtained in 1983–84 for the price of US$ 1 mil­lion per air­craft. Pro­cure­ment of around 95 F‑7 series air­craft was done adding to the quan­ti­ta­tive ele­ment in the PAF.

Amer­i­can mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic aid came to a halt fol­low­ing the sanc­tions in 1990. The sanc­tions were high­ly dam­ag­ing in nature as they not only sus­pend­ed the US mil­i­tary aid and assis­tance but the pro­cure­ment of essen­tial spares was also blocked. The Brown amend­ment in 1995 per­mit­ted tak­ing pos­ses­sion of the mil­i­tary equip­ment frozen in the Unit­ed States, with the excep­tion of nuclear capa­ble F‑16 com­bat air­craft. The decade of 1990s was a set­back for PAF mod­erni­sa­tion due to the Amer­i­can sanc­tions and also Pakistan’s crip­pling econ­o­my. Eco­nom­ic growth record­ed a steep decline and Pak­istan was under severe pres­sure from the inter­na­tion­al finan­cial insti­tu­tions to cut down the spend­ing on defence. Despite the US sanc­tions, low GDP and a col­lapsed demo­c­ra­t­ic struc­ture, Pak­istan tried hard to acquire the air force equip­ment. Ayesha Sid­di­qua Agha states that in 1990, 50 Mirage‑3 were acquired from Aus­tralia for a pal­try sum of US$ 28 mil­lion along with engines and spares. These Mirages were appar­ent­ly retired from the RAAF and most of them had about a hun­dred fly­ing hours remain­ing on their air­frames.

Pakistan’s nuclear test in 1998 fol­lowed by Gen­er­al Musharraf’s mil­i­tary coup a year lat­er led to fur­ther US sanc­tions lay­ing fur­ther restric­tions on acquir­ing high tech­nol­o­gy weapons from the West. The result was China’s pre-emi­nence in Pakistan’s arms imports.

Sino-Pak­istan defence col­lab­o­ra­tion flour­ished under the umbrel­la of the US sanc­tions. While the K‑8 jet train­er has been under pro­duc­tion at the Pak­istan Aero­nau­ti­cal Com­plex, Chi­na and Pak­istan entered into deal for the co-devel­op­ment of a fourth gen­er­a­tion fight­er air­craft, the JF-17 (ear­li­er called the FC‑1). The JF-17 is des­ig­nat­ed to be a low cost com­bat air­craft to meet the tac­ti­cal and strate­gic require­ments of the Pak­istan Air force with the reduced reliance of Pak­istan on imports. The JF-17 is co-devel­oped by Pak­istan and Chi­na and is being built by China’s Cheng­du Air­craft Indus­try Cor­po­ra­tion (CAC) and Pak­istan Aero­nau­ti­cal Com­plex (PAC). Pak­istan has increased its ini­tial tar­get of buy­ing 150 JF-17s to acquir­ing up to 250 air­craft. The PAF inven­to­ry cur­rent­ly pos­sess­es 16 JF-17s. Inter­est­ing­ly, begin­ning of May this year, imme­di­ate­ly after Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan’s high secu­ri­ty mil­i­tary com­pound of Abbot­tabad, Chi­na announced the deci­sion to deliv­er 50 JF-17s free of cost to Pak­istan, by the end of 2011. This rep­re­sents a quan­tum jump in Pak­istan air­craft indus­try. Deal for two squadrons of Chi­nese J‑10 has been finalised and the deliv­er­ies are sched­uled in 2014–2015. Chi­na has also con­firmed the sale of six ship-based medi­um sized Z 9C heli­copters to the Pak­istan Navy.

Con­sis­tent demands for high tech­nol­o­gy weapons clear­ly indi­cate the mod­erni­sa­tion of the Pak­istan Air Force and Naval air, even more than the Army and Navy which implies that they expect the Air Force to play a major role in any future con­flict.

Inflow from the US has been at a rapid pace post 9/11. Although the ini­tial US sup­plies to Pak­istan con­sist­ed of items like UH-II util­i­ty heli­copters, VHF/UHF air­craft radios, air traf­fic con­trol radars, night vision equip­ment and oth­er equip­ment and sup­port sys­tems includ­ing intel­li­gence gath­er­ing devices, Pak­istan did receive major US equip­ment boast­ing the capa­bil­i­ties of the PAF. Pak­istan did receive the F‑16s includ­ing the 12 F‑16 C/D Block 52 (6 more on order). The oth­er impor­tant PAF acqui­si­tions include C‑130E Her­cules Trans­port air­craft and air sur­veil­lance radars — AN/TPS-77 and L‑88 LASS.

On the Naval Avi­a­tion front Pak­istan received 8 P‑3C Ori­on Mar­itime patrol air­craft. Out of which 2 were destroyed in the ter­ror­ist attack car­ried on at Mehran Naval Air­base, on May 22, 2011. It is impor­tant to note that Pakistan’s Non-NATO Ally sta­tus allows the sale of used US weapons well below their depre­ci­at­ed val­ue. For exam­ple the F‑16s sup­plied to Pak­istan in 2005 with the orig­i­nal unit acqui­si­tion val­ue of US$ 16.2 mil­lion have been trans­ferred at a cur­rent unit val­ue of US$ 6.48 mil­lion. The eight P‑3 air­craft were deliv­ered free of cost to Pak­istan in 2006. Deal for 100 Har­poon anti-ship mis­siles for the P‑3Cs was also finalised.

With the uncer­tain­ty relat­ed to the inflow of the US equip­ment owing to the expe­ri­ence in the past and increas­ing­ly strained rela­tion­ship between the two coun­tries, Pak­istan has been aggres­sive in diver­si­fy­ing its sources of weapons sup­ply. A deal for the pur­chase of 40 Mirage inter­cep­tor / ground attack air­craft from Turkey was finalised in 2004. The air­craft will be used as spares for the PAF’s exist­ing fleet of Mirages. The Grifo‑7 radar from Italy, designed to improve air to air and air to ground per­for­mances is pro­duced with the objec­tive of equip­ping 46 F‑7 PG air­craft with the radar, togeth­er with approx­i­mate­ly 45 Mirage IIIOs

Pak­istan has focused on build­ing force mul­ti­pli­ers in the last decade. Pak­istan entered into the pro­cure­ment of air­borne ear­ly warn­ing sys­tems from Swe­den and Chi­na. In 2005, Pak­istan entered into a deal with Swe­den for the pur­chase of 4 SAAB-2000 tur­bo­prop air­craft equipped with Eri­eye Air­borne Ear­ly Warn­ing and Con­trol sys­tems (AEW&C). The nego­ti­a­tions for pur­chase of Chi­nese built air­borne ear­ly warn­ing air­craft – ZDK-03 have been finalised. Pak­istan is the first coun­try to buy the Chi­nese air­borne ear­ly warn­ing air­craft. 2 SAAB tur­bo­prop Eri­eye and 1 ZDK-03 have been deliv­ered to the PAF. Air­borne Ear­ly Warn­ing would cer­tain­ly be an addi­tion­al asset for offen­sive air strikes at sea. Deal for 4 aer­i­al refu­ellers from Ukraine has been finalised. The Il-78 will give the PAF its first air­borne refu­elling capa­bil­i­ty. Once oper­a­tional these will be used to refu­el Mirage III, F‑16s and even­tu­al­ly JF-17s. Acqui­si­tion of the aer­i­al refu­elling would pro­vide extend­ed range and deploy­ment radius.

The PAF capa­bil­i­ty would increase sig­nif­i­cant­ly by 2020 as seen in the table below:


*It is inter­est­ing to note that the com­bat num­ber in the table does not give the true pic­ture. Out of the total com­bat air­craft in 1990 just around 10 per cent were fourth gen­er­a­tion. But by 2020 more than 90 per cent would be fourth gen­er­a­tion air­craft in the PAF inven­to­ry.

Pakistan’s grow­ing defence coop­er­a­tion with Chi­na and sup­port from the Unit­ed States has been a major fac­tor con­tribut­ing in the mod­erni­sa­tion of the PAF in the last nine years. The US sanc­tions in the 1960s and then in the 1990s not only gave space for Chi­nese and French defence equip­ment in the Pak­istani mar­ket but also, Pak­istan made con­cert­ed efforts towards defence pro­duc­tion which has pro­vid­ed an expo­sure to Pak­istan defence indus­try in the inter­na­tion­al mar­ket. The defence exports are esti­mat­ed to increase to US$ 1 bil­lion in the next 10 years.


To sum up fol­low­ing con­clu­sions can be drawn based on the pub­licly known infor­ma­tion and analy­sis of trends in the cur­rent phase of mod­erni­sa­tion of the Pak­istan Air Force:

1. Pak­istan Air Force is engaged in a mas­sive mod­erni­sa­tion since 1990 (boost­ed after 9/11) both qual­i­ta­tive­ly and quan­ti­ta­tive­ly. The think­ing, writ­ing and arms pro­cure­ment in Pak­istan indi­cates the his­tor­i­cal con­sis­ten­cy of approach to mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty — the desire and efforts to acquire high tech­nol­o­gy arms to take the ini­tia­tive to com­pen­sate for asym­me­try in num­bers and increase options for offen­sive strat­e­gy.

2. The cur­rent and future acqui­si­tions of the PAF would enhance both the qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of equip­ment.

3. Pak­istan is mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant efforts to add force mul­ti­pli­ers in the PAF inven­to­ry.

4. Con­sis­tent demands for high tech­nol­o­gy weapons clear­ly indi­cate the mod­erni­sa­tion of the Pak­istan Air Force and Naval Air, even more than the Army and Navy which implies that they expect the Air Force to play a major role in any future con­flict.

Gen­er­al Zia-ul Haq man­aged to nego­ti­ate an elab­o­rate mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty relat­ed aid pack­age of US$ 3.2 bil­lion. The US mil­i­tary assis­tance pro­gramme includ­ed the sale of 40 F‑16 Fal­con mul­ti-role com­bat air­craft, one of the most advanced mil­i­tary air­craft in the world at that time. Pak­istan also received attack heli­copters and sec­ond-hand destroy­ers.

About the Author:
Shali­ni Chawla
The writer is a Senior Fel­low at the Cen­tre for Air Pow­er Stud­ies (CAPS), New Del­hi. She joined CAPS in 2006 and spe­cialis­es in Pak­istan stud­ies. She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to var­i­ous jour­nals and mag­a­zines on defence and secu­ri­ty issues.

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