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Diversification is the Key.

Byline: Air Vice Marshal (R) Dr. M. Abid Rao

Maintaining a combat-ready and efficient air force is very expensive for any nation. Pakistan is no exception, more so, when its adversary is almost five times bigger in area, population, economy and armed forces. India is hostile and has always desired to subjugate Pakistan. It has no intention of giving space to Pakistan.

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited the PAF College in Risalpur on April 13, 1948 and gave the PAF a mission that states, "A country without a strong air force is at mercy of an aggressor. Pakistan must build an efficient air force ... second to none." Look at the Quaid's vision - it is so true even today. The PAF followed this directive in true spirit. Today it has a record of excellence in proving its combat readiness equally at home and abroad.

The wars of 1965 and 1971 with India, 1980-89 with the Soviet/Afghan air force and protection of Kahuta nuclear plant in the eighties against a potential attack by Israel/India are some of the honours to mention. The PAF provided assistance to the Arab countries in 1967 and 1973 wars and bagged kills against the Israeli air force. The PAF also raised air forces in the UAE and Libya and trained hundreds of pilots from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, UAE, Libya, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Today, the PAF is providing surgical strikes against the terrorists in Zarb-i-Azb. The PAF can safely claim more than 90% success in its share in destroying their network.

Relevance of the Air Force

The first flight was recorded in 1903 that lasted a few seconds only. Look what aeroplanes have become today. Such rapid development has not been seen in any other combat machine with surface or sea craft. There is no comparison at all. Space machines are also in a way an extension of aircraft. It can be correctly said that the air force has become a Game Changer in any war theatre. A country that employs its air force better will win the war regardless of size. Let us search through major events in aviation history.

The air force took definite shape after 1930 and was first employed in the Second World War. The Royal Air Force saved England from a German invasion. The Battle of Britain was won by the Royal Air Force against a much superior German Air Force by better employment of aircraft. Winston Churchill acknowledged this by saying, "Never in the history have so many owed so much to so few..." In the European theatre, the USAF defeated Germany, finally using its heavy bombers and freed all countries from German occupation. On the Eastern front, the Japanese were silenced by the USAF using nuclear weapons (the only platform at that time for such a weapon). Had the US Air Force not been employed so effectively, the world today would have been divided between the Germans and the Japanese.

Then there are numerous localized conflicts that establish the ability of the air force to win wars. The 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict has even more impressive statistics. The Israel Air Force destroyed around 350 Egyptian aircraft on the ground in the first three days of the war and rendered it ineffective for the rest of the war. Similar treatment was rendered to other air forces at war. The Bekaa Valley operation saw the Syrian Air Force losing almost 100 aircraft without loss of even one Israeli aircraft. The Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 saw complete air supremacy of the allied air forces against the much inferior Iraqi Air Force. The allied air forces made it possible for the ground forces to move in quickly and occupy vast territories. The ground forces have since then been reduced to sweeper roles. The air force takes the lead role in the outcome of any war. This applies to Pakistan as well.

The PAF gained potency in the late fifties when Pakistan became a member of CENTO and SEATO. This made Pakistan a frontline ally of the free (western) world against the communist bloc. This was the peak of the cold war. Pakistan received F-86, F-104, B-57, T-33, T-37 and C-130 types of modern aircraft, weapons like air-to-air missiles, radars and, above all, excellent training in air combat, air power employment, etc. In the 1965 war against a much superior IAF, the PAF achieved air superiority and produced an ace like Sqn. Ldr. MM Alam, who shot down five Indian aircraft in 30 seconds and totaled 9 kills and 2 aircraft damaged in the 17 day conflict. The PAF also holds the record of achieving the first air-to-air missile kill in aviation history. However, US military aid came with one serious negative condition. The equipment could only be used against communist countries. This condition is valid even today.

When the PAF went to war with India in 1965, the US slammed sanctions which remained effective till 1980 and our air force did not receive any American equipment. The PAF made a major diversion in 1966 by buying French Mirage IIIs. It also inducted the F-6 (MiG-19) from China (free of cost) and used Canadian F-86Es, purchased by Iran and gifted to the PAF. When the PAF gained diversification in its combat elements, serious problems arose in budgeting, training and stocks (war reserves), etc. The PAF went to war with India in 1971 under US sanctions. The eastern wing (now Bangladesh) did not have any air force after Dec 5, 1971, as the only runway in Dhaka had been bombed out and made inoperative by the IAF. In less than two weeks, the war ended and the rest is history.

US sanctions made Pakistan adopt the path of self-reliance and seek transfer of technology. The PAC Kamra and Air Weapons Complex are the most prominent among many facilities that the PAF established. PAF engineers and technicians rose to the occasion and provided excellence to the process of indigenization within the resources provided to them. Designing, production and induction of aircraft like the K-8 and JF-17 speak volumes about this. The K-8 replaced the T-33 and FT-5 while the JF-17 is scheduled to replace the A-5, F-7 and the Mirage fleet in times to come.

The biggest challenge faced by the PAF is replacements in the hi-tech category i.e. the F-16. The USA has been its best ally in providing the potency that has been the PAF's real identity for the last 60 years. However, the USA is not a dependable ally as it has slammed sanctions on Pakistan without notice. The reasons are generally unilateral and often ignore Pakistan's ground realities. Pakistan has always taken the risk and opted for American aircraft for many reasons i.e. they are relatively far less expensive than European equivalents and are superior to Russian fighters in lifecycle costs. Besides, American aircraft come with excellent training packages and reliable logistic support. In short, though American military equipment has conditions attached but it is affordable. In dollar value, it is superior to European, Russian and Chinese equipment. This makes US equipment the best choice for PAF commanders to go for.


In the high-tech category, the PAF needs to diversify its sources. Russia offers a good alternate. Our foreign office needs to create favourable conditions so that Pakistan can negotiate a suitable deal. (This would also exert some political pressure over the US to keep its door open). Historically, the Russians are known to be simpler people to deal with and they offer softer loans and barter deals. Many countries in the world are benefitting from this. If this materializes, the PAF would require massive changes and upgradation in its infrastructure and aircraft shelters, fuel tankage and a new logistic system i.e. new operational, engineering and logistics culture.

Meanwhile, the PAF should continue to maintain an aggressive posture against India in its concept of operations, targeting philosophy and well-integrated employment of air power supporting the surface forces. The PAF's potency lies in the superior training of its personnel. India realizes this well enough. The PAF may be a weaker force but it is NOT a weak force. Historically, the PAF has the capability to cause unacceptable damage to any aggressor and this has kept India at bay. The PAF has kept in view the Quaid's mission statement as its hallmark and signature. The confidence that the nation has reposed in the PAF is sacred to all its personnel and the adversaries know it well. The nation has to pay dearly for its air defence and it is an expensive proposition.

PAF: Future Fleet Options

At present the PAF combat fleet comprises F-16, JF-17, Mirage III, Mirage V, F-7 and K-8 types of aircraft. In the current and future geo-political scenario, Pakistan is reassessing its air power. The Pakistan Air Force intends to replace its aging fleet and procure more force multipliers like the Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft and the Multirole Tanker Transport aircraft. It also wants to induct F-16C/D Block52 aircraft but the programme has hit snags. The PAF is also in the process of rapidly inducting the JF-17 Thunder into its fleet. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Air Force is enhancing the skills of its pilots and aircrew by regularly participating in national and multinational exercises.

A decade ago, PAF operated 250-300 combat aircraft including Chinese A-5 for ground support, F-7P/PG for air superiority role, French built Mirages for surface attack/naval support and night strike role and F-16 A/B for multirole operations. The cold war era airframes, A-5, F-7 and Mirage were reaching the end of their service, but they were overhauled at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). The immediate solution at that time was to invest in the JF-17 Thunder project which is believed to be the replacement of A-5, F-7 and Mirage.

JF-17 Thunder is one of the key solutions to PAF's requirements as it provides superb air-to-air combat capability, advanced avionics and electronics and a wide array of air launched cruise missiles plus infra-red search and track systems and more use of composites to reduce radar echo.

Pakistan Air Force has also added the Saab-2000 AEWandC and the IL-78 MRTT aircraft to its fleet. The need for these force multipliers was strongly felt by PAF ever since the Kargil War in 1999. Such aircraft are a necessary requirement in any modern-day air power campaign. Their presence increases the situational awareness of fighter and bomber aircraft and yields better results. The IL-78 MRTT aircraft allows Mirage and JF-17 to carry out deep strike missions inside enemy territory and increase loiter time of these aircraft during Combat Air Patrol (CAP) missions. It also enhances the strategic airlift capability of the PAF. The IL-78 strategic tanker and transport aircraft can be used to carry large amounts of fuel, rations and equipment to remote military bases.

If the eight C and D type US F-16s are denied to the Pakistan Air Force, it will have many other options though some of them could prove to be expensive propositions. Whichever aircraft the PAF chooses to upgrade its fleet and, obviously, these would have to be fifth generation planes to meet its current and future needs, the price tag would be on the higher side and future defence budgets would have to earmark more funds for the Pakistan Air Force than what it gets at present. However, experts believe that acquiring the 8 F-16s at the full price of USD 700 million would still be a better proposition for the PAF than going for other aircraft which would cost a lot more.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jun 30, 2016
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