By Shahzad Masood Roomi

PAF has announced an ambitious plan to replace 190 of its fighter planes by 2020. This has been confirmed for the first time by senior officials to daily Dawn. In that respect PAF is looking to secure 10 more advanced F-16s C/D Block 52 from the US after concluding the ongoing deal of 8 aircraft. Keeping in mind the resistance current deal faced, it is obvious that Pakistani government will have to do some aggressive and effective diplomacy in Washington. Officials have hinted that PAF is looking to maintain a fighter fleet of 350-400 modern multi-role jets.

UK based Jane’s Defence Weekly reported earlier this week that Pakistan would seek to purchase these 10 aircraft if the current deal for eight jets is successfully concluded. US senate has already rejected a motion to block the deal but the US lawmakers who are opposing the deal are still determined to block the deal citing issues like punishment of Dr. Shakeel Afridi and Pakistan’s ineffectiveness against transnational terrorism instigating from its soil.

On Saturday, the 30-day mandatory period, that allows Congress to block an arms sale to a foreign country, also passed. Although some technical details are still being worked out, the deal for these eight aircraft is almost final.

Sighting the resistance by some US lawmakers during the current deal, PAF officials have hinted that F-16s are not the only option for replacements but they are also looking at French and Russian options. “That’s why we are looking at other options too, such as buying them from Russia or France.” The official noted that while French planes were “very expensive, the Russians are not and they are equally good”.

Last year, it was reported that PAF was offered from Russia to buy state of the art SU-35 heavy multi-role fighters. This comment by PAF official cements the impression that PAF might be in talks with Russia to make a deal of Su-35s quietly.

Apart from being old, PAF fighter fleet has another challenge which stems from its eastern border where India is modernizing its air force at rapid pace and has plans to induct 5th generation fighters by 2020. It is obvious that PAF will not go for 1:1 comparison with IAF but in order to maintain an effective deterrence, PAF will be forced to look at state of the art quality fighters like F-16 C/D Block 52s or Su-35 in large numbers. PAF will never be able to afford French fighters like Rafale in large numbers due to their price.

This leaves PAF with China as only viable option with Russia being the second most trusted potential supplier. Right now, PAF is looking for precision strike capability to boost its counter-insurgency ops in difficult to traverse remote FATA regions which terrorists have been using as bastions since many years. This capability is also critical to ensure minimizing the collateral damage.

Pakistan and China has developed JF-17 Thunder lightweight multi-role fighter jet to replace the aging F-7 and Mirage squadron but keeping in mind the sheer number of aircraft that need replacement, Thunder alone will never be able to replace them all.  PAF is working on the 3rd block of Thunder which will have AESA radar, In-Flight Refueling prob, enhanced EW suite and newer weapons and these added capabilities are bound to increase the cost of the per unit price of JF-17s. With this backdrop, it is obvious that PAF will be looking for other options.

It is also plausible that PAF in near future will try to purchase older F-16s which European countries are about to retire just like PAF got 13 F-16s from Jordan in 2013. PAF has maintained its large Mirage fleet over the years following the same strategy. So, replacing old mirages with old F-16s is very much possible. But considering US political clout on European countries it is also equally possible that PAF might not opt for this strategy to the extent it used it for acquiring older Mirage III/V during the 1990’s.

A more realistic option for PAF is to concentrate on the production of Thunders. To expedite the production to fill the replacement needs, PAF can ask CAC to share the load of production. Even 50 odd Thunders completely assembled in China can make PAF’s replacement task much easier. Biggest advantage of JF-17 is that it is absolutely sanction free aircraft. And this is the strategy PAF must be looking at with securing purchase of small number of high-tech fighters from the US and Russia (say 18 F-16 C/D Block 52 + 24 Su-35s with an option of 24 more later on). This will also give PAF a good Hi-Low mix of its multi-role fighter fleet without straining its financials too much.

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