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Pakistan Air Force: Options And Challenges – OpEd

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In today’s world, air supremacy plays a vital role in achieving Military Objectives. The Pakistan Military has always been mindful of its meager resources and preferred quality over quantity.

The Pakistan Air Force is considered one of the best in the world due to its qualitative selection and professional excellence. The maintenance of this equilibrium depends on the continuous upgrading of its fleet.

The Pakistan Air Force currently operates a fighter force comprising F-16s, Dassault Mirage IIIs and 5s, Chengdu F-7s, and JF-17s. F-16s, with their tactical nuclear delivery capabilities, play a particularly important role for Pakistan in bolstering its conventional abilities against India. The Indian lobby is trying to isolate Pakistan within Washington’s power corridors, which may jeopardize the sale of more F16 to Pakistan. If so, Pakistan should seek to purchase Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets that are far more advanced than the F-16s. The Russian-made jets could be a great asset for Pakistan Air Force.

The general comparison between the Russia’s Su-35 Fighter and America’s F-16 Fighting Falcon shows that with properly trained pilots and support from ground controllers or AWACs, the Su-35 is an extremely formidable threat to Western Aircraft.

Over the years, the F-16 has evolved from a lightweight visual range dogfighter into a potent multi-role warplane that flies a gamut of missions ranging from the suppression of enemy air defences to air superiority. Though it has been operational since 1980, the “Falcon” continues to evolve and will remain in service with the US Air Force and other militaries for decades to come.

But while the F-16 remains a potent fighter, potential adversaries have caught up—the latest Russian aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-35 can match or exceed the Falcon in many respects. The F-16 doesn’t have the latest upgraded massive active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar nor can the F-16 usually lob the AIM-120 missile from high speeds and altitudes.

The US Air Force F-16s are not currently fitted with an AESA and are at a severe disadvantage versus the Su-35 or other advanced Flanker derivatives. With an AESA, the F-16 could probably hold its own against the Su-35 at longer ranges—but it would still be a challenge. At shorter ranges, it comes down to pilot skill and the performance of each jet’s high off-boresight missiles. The advent of missiles like the R-73 and AIM-9Xhave turned visual range fights into mutually assured destruction scenarios.

While the Su-35’s thrust vectoring gives it an edge at very low speeds, it’s not an insurmountable problem for an expert F-16 pilot—who knows how to exploit his or her aircraft to the fullest—to overcome. The bottom line is that the Su-35 is an extremely capable aircraft. With regard to the F-16s or Su-35s, the matter of Pakistan of adding additional fighters to its current fleet might come down to mundane matters of what is financially feasible.

Currently, the Indian Air force (IAF) is far larger with about 740 combat aircraft versus the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) approximate 400 aircraft, but everything is not as it seems.

What at first glance seems overwhelming odds against the PAF on closer examination does not seem as overwhelming. For instance, the IAF has far lower serviceability of its aircraft. Their pilot training as evidenced by Red Flag exercises with the US is also not yet up to par with the PAF and their maintenance crews are not as diligent. Their present Russian/Soviet technology is generally less reliable and less effective and a large part of their fleet of MiG-21s and MiG-27s are outdated.

PAF aircraft are either of Western stock or Chinese and are far more maintenance friendly. Pakistan has also been upgrading their aircraft massively and have incorporated a complex combination of technology from across the globe – from China to Brazil, from South Africa to the US. PAF pilot training is on par with the best in the world and its maintenance crews are trained on the level of Western maintenance crews.

The large number of IAF crashes because of low level of maintenance crew is indicative of this acute problem with one of the highest crash rates among Air Forces of the world. What compounds this problem is the age of large sections of the Indian fleet, which has large numbers of MiG-21s and MiG-27s that are, besides the Bisons, highly outdated and are sometimes referred to as “Flying Coffins” by their pilots.

Pakistan, on the other hand has a better pilot-to-aircaft ratio than the IAF — meaning it could sustain a greater sortie rate over a protracted conflict. PAF aircraft are also “pimped” in that they have been extensively modified. Thus, while on paper PAF is flying ancient Mirages that were bought second-hand from the Australians, when one actually examines any such model, one is surprised at how extensively they have been rebuilt – almost from scratch and the hardware is extremely lethal.

Other than the secretive BVR AAMs, the PAF has extensively incorporated the strike element into its Mirages, at a level only matched by the IAF’s Mirage-2000s and Su-30 FLANKERs, and even then some of the equipment has no IAF equivalent.

Pakistan should continue its policy of quality over quantity as it is the only way to keep an equilibrium in its hostile environment and to secure the nation’s existence. Additionally, Pakistan should keep all options open as sovereignty and independence comes first, rather than becoming affiliated to a particular group or alliance.

*Saima Ali works for Strategic Vision Institute and can be reached at [email protected]


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10 thoughts on “Pakistan Air Force: Options And Challenges – OpEd

  • July 30, 2016 at 7:26 pm
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    PAF will get only what it can get as gifts or hand-me-downs from fellow Islamic countries. Typical Pakistani garbage article which presents Su-35 as superior to western aircraft because Pakistani pilots may get them (unlikely) but Russian aircraft as inferior when Indians fly them. The general state of PAF can be gauged by the fact that the IAF broke their country in half.

    Reply
    • August 5, 2016 at 9:35 am
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      “IAF broke their country in half”

      Was that really happened can you provide some authentic reference? Where IAF stands in terms of quality and pilot skills and maintenance records crash rates due to faults any reference. During Kargil war PAF lack BVR tech IAF was superior in nos and BVRAAM so is today and PAF is now well equipped as well but IAF score any kills against PAF in Kargil appreciate logical answer with reference if any

      And no doubt Russian and American jets arw equally lethal and potent threat one way or other

      Reply
      • March 6, 2017 at 6:49 pm
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        There was no involvement of PAF in Kargil War. Those who talk of authentic reference, should first check the facts.

        Reply
  • July 31, 2016 at 8:37 pm
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    It now seems that Pak is looking for SU-35. Will Russia sell SU-35 to Pak? Please remember, Russia needs money to stay FGFA/PAK-FA work afloat. It s only India who will provide that sort of money to Russia. Now what do you think, will Russia sell SU-35 to PAK in such a situation?

    Writer seems to be extremely confused. Does the writer know how many ‘zeros’ are there in the cost of a single SU-35?

    Reply
  • August 1, 2016 at 6:11 am
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    Actually the pakistan Air force has done exceedingly well with the meagre resources at its disposal. Using a force multiplier concept to boost its capability to punch above its weight. It’s JF 17 program is nothing to laugh at either and has been appreciated by international experts and think tanks for what it is: a highly competent light fighter for the price. The heavy fighter debate will continue a while and it remains to be seen which platform the PAF finally settles for.

    Reply
  • August 1, 2016 at 1:35 pm
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    It is not possible to buy Russian weapon system at their demanded price. It is in the best interest of PAF to have collaboration with China and get latest weapon systems from them with joint ventures.

    Reply
  • August 2, 2016 at 10:54 pm
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    AESA is not a must have. Air operations nowadays are conducted under positive AEW coverage. This means that larger aircraft with much more powerful radars (far more capable than what can be put in the nose cone of a combat aircraft like the Su-30/F class fighter) can provide very long range detection and targeting capability. So the evolution with the PAF in terms of quality is the addition of the force multipliers which allow PAF to utilize its new and older assets far more efficiently than at any other time in the history of both the PAF and IAF.

    IAF may have numerical superiority but the moment the IAF aircraft take off from air bases close to Pakistan border or 400 miles deep inside of India, they would be detected (the same applies to PAF aircraft taking off but the key is that PAF’s primary purpose is denial of air superiority to the IAF and this allows the PAF to focus more on sitting back and letting the IAF try to challenge it). PAF will obviously have other counter air operations in case of hostilities but the primary mission is the former. This allows PAF to be able to deploy its assets such as the F-16s, JF-17s with BVR missiles very effectively and also conduct counter air operations against the Indian side by leveraging dedicated strike aircraft such as the Rose II/III Mirages under the cover of a strike package with long distance punch through embedded F-16s and JF-17s.

    The focus needs to remain on gradually phasing out all old platforms with the JF-17, constantly upgrading pilot training and tactics and upgrading the Thunder blocks and working closely with friendly countries such as China and Turkey to define the 5th generation capability for the PAF.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2016 at 5:24 pm
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    Pakistan always keeps their hands open for millitary warfare. Either of buying them ,they have always wondered to get these as gifts from China or fellow islamic countries and in that condition ,do you think that pakistan can even think of buying Su-35? Indian airforce is far better than pakistan airforce and if you think pakistan airforce is better, then why were’t they able to do airstrikes on indian army positions during kargil war as indian airforce did and there f-16 that they got from america(after begging) were shot down by mirages 2000. Pakistan can take blank cheques from America or China but they are not capable of buying modern warfares.

    Reply
    • March 6, 2017 at 6:56 pm
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      @INDIAN Your poor and silly response shows how ignorant you are about these things. Don’t come to every website just because you happen to be RSS Hindu nationalist.

      Reply
  • November 14, 2016 at 12:33 am
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    Surely Pakistan pilots are matachable with IAF pilots in tactics, bravery and direction. Their skills are not inferior and may be competitive

    Reply

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