Pakistan Air Force – A Comprehensive Story

anil chopra. air power asia, Pakistan Air Force

The nearly 700 aircraft, and 70,000 personnel strong Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Pāk Fizāʾiyah, is tasked primarily with the aerial defence of Pakistan with a secondary role of providing air support to the Pakistan Army and Navy. It was establishment as the Royal Pakistan Air Force after India’s partition in 1947, and was alloted 2,332 personnel, and a fleet of 24 Tempest II and 16 Hawker Typhoon fighters, 2 H.P.57 Halifax bombers, eight C-47 Dakotas, twelve Harvard trainers, two Auster,  and ten Tiger Moth biplanes. Many of these were not flyable. RPAF started with 7 airbases. In next three years, 93 Hawker Fury and roughly 40 Bristol Freighter aircraft were inducted. Also the first jet aircraft to be inducted was British Supermarine Attacker. The prefix ‘Royal’ was removed when Pakistan became a republic on 23 March 1956.

Initial Years

            Pakistan had become member of the U.S. led Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954, and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1954. These treaties brought them closer to USA and the economic and military aid flowed. In 1957 the PAF received 100 American-built F-86 Sabres under the U.S. aid program. PAF gradually retired its Hawker Furys and Supermarine Attackers, and replaced them with F-86 jet fighters. In 1957 thirty-six-year-old Air Marshal Asghar Khan became the PAF’s first native commander-in-chief.

1965 Indo-Pakistan War

            There were initial skirmishes between the two sides in April and September 1965. The full-fledged conflict began following Pakistan’s ‘Operation Gibraltar’, which was designed to infiltrate forces into Jammu and Kashmir to precipitate an insurgency against Indian rule. On 5 August 1965 between 26,000 and 33,000 Pakistani soldiers crossed the line of Control dressed as Kashmiri locals. In retaliation Indian forces, crossed the cease fire line on 15 August. The seventeen-day war involved the largest engagement of armored vehicles and the largest tank battle since World War II. There were thousands of casualties on both sides. The ceasefire was declared following diplomatic intervention by the Soviet Union and the United States, and the subsequent issuance of the Tashkent Declaration.

Air War 1965

            The Indian Air Force (IAF) and PAF engaged against each other in combat for the first time since independence. The IAF used large numbers of Hawker Hunters, the Indian-built Folland Gnats, de Havilland Vampires, English Electric Canberra bombers, and a squadron of MiG-21s. The PAF fighters included 102 F-86F Sabres, 12 F-104 Starfighters, and 24 B-57 Canberra bombers. PAF was largely of American origin, whereas the IAF flew an assortment of British and Soviet aircraft. PAF claimed it was out-numbered by around 5:1, yet it was widely believed that the PAF’s American aircraft were superior to those of the IAF.

          On the 06 September, the PAF launched preemptive attacks on Indian airfields at Pathankot, Adampur and Halwara. The attack on Pathankot was great success, as the IAF lost almost ten aircraft on the ground at Pathankot, while the attacks on Adampur and Halwara were failures. The F-86 proved vulnerable to the diminutive Folland Gnat, later nicknamed the “Sabre Slayer“. The famous Keelor brothers shot a Sabre each flying a Gnat. The Gnat reportedly shot down seven PAF Sabres in the 1965 war, while two Gnats were downed by PAF fighters. The PAF’s F-104 was the fastest fighter operating in the subcontinent at that time and was often referred to as “the pride of the PAF”. IAF’s A.B. Devayya, flying a Mystere on 07 September shot down the much superior Starfighter flown by PAF’s Amjad Hussain over Sargodha. According to Air Commodore Sajad “Nosey” Haider – a retired PAF pilot, the F-104 did not deserve this reputation, as it was meant to be “a high level interceptor rather than engage in dogfights with agile fighters at low altitudes”. In combat the Starfighter was not as effective as the IAF’s far more agile aircraft. Yet PAF fought well in countering the much large IAF and supported their ground forces.

IAF Gnats Engage PAF Sabres. Picture Credit: ThePrint         

The two countries have made contradictory claims of combat losses during the war. The PAF claimed it shot down 104 IAF planes and lost 19 of its own, while the IAF claimed it shot down 73 PAF planes and lost 59. Neutral experts said that the two air forces were evenly matched in combat as IAF had to keep significant air assets to guard the eastern sector from a possible Chinese threat. Also IAF was flying many more offensive missions across the border. As retired PAF Chief Noor Khan wrote later that the PAF adopted a defensive strategy because it could not counter the asymmetry with the IAF.

          From some estimates, IAF flew over 4,000 combat sorties, and PAF a little over 2,000.  B.C. Chakravorty writes in ‘History of Indo-Pakistan War – 1965’ that the IAF lost 36 aircraft while still parked on ground because they were not sufficiently dispersed and camouflaged. On the other hand, in aerial dogfights, the IAF lost just 14 aircraft while shooting down 18 Pakistani jet fighters. Pakistan ended the war having depleted 17 percent of its front line strength, while India’s losses amounted to less than 10 percent. Any further extension of conflict would have meant unacceptable losses for PAF. Either side could not achieve significant air superiority. Yet IAF fighter bombers and reconnaissance Canberras could continue to fly day light missions over Pakistan. One Pakistani fighter pilot, MM Alam claimed to have shot down five jet fighters in less than a minute. His claims were questioned both by IAF, and independent analysts. Even some PAF pilots questioned the claims. It is generally accepted that he was peddling lies. PAF Air Commodore S. Sajad Haider has demolished Alam’s claims in his exhaustive book ‘Flight of the Falcon: Demolishing Myths of the 1965 War’. Referring to Alam as a “very unprofessional” pilot.

          According to the library of Congress Country studies, study conducted by the Federal Research Division of the United States, the war was militarily inconclusive; each side held prisoners and some territory belonging to the other. Losses were relatively heavy on the Pakistani side. Pakistan Army had been able to withstand Indian pressure, but a continuation of the fighting would only have led to further losses and ultimate defeat for Pakistan. India accepted cease-fire only after it had occupied 1850  square km Pak territory, Pakistan had gained 540 square km Indian territory. Most Pakistanis, schooled in the belief of their own martial prowess, refused to accept the possibility of their country’s military defeat and were, instead, quick to blame their failure to attain their military aims on what they considered to be the ineptitude of Ayub Khan and his government.

PAF’s Post War Acquisitions – And China connection

          After the 1965 war the U.S. placed an arms embargo on Pakistan and the PAF was badly affected. Its entire fleet was of U.S. origin and spare parts could not be sourced. The PAF approached China for new combat aircraft. China agreed to supply an initial 72 Shenyang F-6 (Chinese-built version of the Soviet MiG-19) fighters and it they began inducting end 1965. More came later. PAF also acquired a squadron of Harbin B-5 bombers (license built IL-28) but were not happy because of a poor bomb aiming device. In 1968 PAF started converting to the French Dassault Mirage III EP, and it now became the main offensive platform. Even still, PAF felt that the Mirages were not equipped with modern munitions such as anti-runway bombs for attacking airbases, cluster bombs for attacking armoured formations or anti-ship weapons because such weapons could not be sourced from the U.S. or Europe.

1971 Indo-Pak War

          By late 1971, the intensification of the independence movement in erstwhile East Pakistan lead to the Bangladesh liberation war between India and Pakistan. On 22 November 1971, 10 days before the start of a full-scale war, four PAF F-86 Sabre jets attacked Indian and Mukti Bahini positions at Garibpur, near the international border. Two of the four PAF Sabres were shot down and third severely damaged by the IAF’s Folland Gnats that intercepted and engaged the strike. It is known as the Battle of Boyra. One of the  pilots who was shot and ejected, and became a Prisoner of War was Flight Lieutenant  Pravaiz Mehdi Qureshi, who later rose to become the PAF air chief.

            On 3 December, India formally declared war against Pakistan following massive preemptive strikes by the PAF against IAF airfields at Srinagar, Ambala, Sirsa, Halwara and Jodhpur. However, the IAF did not suffer significantly because the leadership had anticipated such a strike and precautions were taken. The IAF responded with a major air offensive and here after the PAF mostly flew defensive sorties. In East Pakistan IAF had disseminated the PAF and had no air opposition, and freely provided close air support to the advancing Indian Army. The Tangail Airdrop was a successful battalion-size airborne forces’s paratroop operation mounted on 11 December 1971 by IAF with the 2nd Battalion (Special Operations) (2 PARA). The operation involved An-12, C-119 Packets, Caribous and Dakotas. IAF helicopters were also used for leap-frog Indian Army formations across the rivers.  On the morning of 14 December, MiG 21s of IAF’s 28 Squadron attacked the Governors House in Dhaka, where a high level meeting was taking place. The Governor was so shocked after the incident that he resigned on the spot, thus hastening the Pakistan surrender.

          IAF also supported Indian Navy both in Bay of Bengal and off the coast of Karachi. On the Western front, the IAF destroyed nearly 24 tanks in that famous tank battle of Longewala. The IAF undertook strategic bombing of targets in West Pakistan including raids on oil installations in Karachi, the Mangla Dam, the radar at Badin, and the Sui gas plant in Sindh. On 12 December 1971, a MiG 21 FL, piloted by Flt. Lt. BB Soni, based at Jamnagar, shot an F-104A piloted by PAF’s Wg. Cdr. Mervyn Middlecoat.   By the time Pakistani forces surrendered, the IAF destroyed 94 PAF aircraft. The IAF was able to conduct a wide range of missions – troop support; air combat; deep penetration strikes; para-dropping behind enemy lines; decoy missions; bombing; and reconnaissance. In contrast, the PAF, which was solely focused on air defence, was totally ineffective within the first week of the war. The PAF aircraft that had survived took refuge at Iranian air bases or in concrete bunkers, refusing to offer a fight. Hostilities officially ended on 17 December, after the fall of Dacca on 15 December. The war represented a major defeat for Pakistan and loss of the territory that is now Bangladesh. India claimed large gains of territory in West Pakistan, although pre-war boundaries were once again recognised after the war. The IAF had flown over 16,000 sorties on both East and West fronts; including sorties by transport aircraft and helicopters. The PAF flew about 30 sorties in the East and 2,840 in the West. More than 80 percent of the IAF’s sorties were close-support and interdiction, and according to neutral assessments about 45 IAF aircraft were lost while, Pakistan lost 75 aircraft.

PAF Inducts the F-16

         After the 1971 debacle, PAF began a phase of consolidation. In 1979, the PAF told the then President cum Army Chief General Zia ul Haq that Pakistan had reliable information of Indian plans to attack and destroy the Pakistani nuclear research facilities at Kahuta. He further said that with existing air assets PAF would not be able to intercept such a strike, as Kahuta was too close to the Indian border. Also PAF had no aircraft to reach Indian nuclear installations such as at Trombay. Meanwhile the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the war with Mujahadeen rebel forces, soon spilled over into the neighbouring Pakistan as Afghan refugees crossed over. Many rebels used Pakistan soil to launch attacks. USA began a steady flow of arms to these rebels staging through Pakistan. Soviet and Afghan aircraft tried to interdict, and often crossed into Pakistan.

PAF F-16 Picture Credit: Nationa Interest

    Americans had initially offered the Northrop F-5E and G, but PAF wanted a better aircraft. The Lockheed F-16 was chosen after United States eventually agreed to supply. 28 F-16A and 12 F-16B were initially cleared in December 1981. Two F-16A and four F-16B were delivered to Pakistan in 1983 and positioned at PAF airbase at Sargodha. The 34 remaining  were delivered between 1983 and 1987. Six F-16A and four F-16B Block 15 were ordered as attrition replacements in December 1988. Another 60 F-16A/B were ordered in September 1989, but were later embargoed. PAF claimed at least 8 intruders from Afghanistan by F-16s. Most of these kills were reportedly by firing the AIM-9 Sidewinder. One F-16 was lost in a large force engagement on 29 April 1987. Meanwhile Chinese Chengdu F-7P (an export version of license-built MiG-21) was inducted as a replacement for F-6 in 1988. The F-16 serves as the primary air superiority fighter of the PAF in addition to ground attack role. The PAF currently around 75 F-16 in active service, comprising 44 F-16AM/BM Block 20 MLU, 13 F-16A/B ADF, and 18 F-16C/D Block 52+ variants.

PAF Chengdu F-7PG Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pressler Amendment – Sanctions Hit PAF

          The Pressler Amendment passed by the US Congress, in 1985, prevented the sale of material to Pakistan unless it could be verified that the goods would not be used to build or deliver nuclear weapons. Subsequently, the US also placed a broader embargo on Pakistan on 6 October 1990, due to the country’s continued nuclear weapons program. As a result, nearly 28 F-16s of those contracted, and which had been built by the end of 1994 were embargoed and put into storage in the United States. Desperate for a new high-tech combat aircraft, between late 1990 and 1993 the PAF evaluated the European Panavia Tornado MRCA (multi-role combat aircraft) and rejected it. The Mirage-2000E, and an offer from Poland for the supply of MiG-29 and Su-27 were also considered but nothing materialised. In August 1994 the PAF was offered the Saab JAS-39 Gripen by Sweden, but again the sale did not occur because 20% of the Gripen’s components were from the U.S. and Pakistan was still under U.S. sanctions. In mid-1994 it was reported that the Russian manufacturers Sukhoi and Mikoyan were offering the Su-27 and MiG-29.

Mirage III and V

          During 1967, Pakistan opted to purchase an initial batch of 18 Mirage IIIEPs, 3 Mirage IIIDPs and 3 Mirage IIIRPs from France. Over the course of time, the PAF inducted large numbers of new and second hand Mirages IIIs and Mirage V variants. The Mirage III remained a formidable platform for the PAF. In 1971 war, the Mirage III was used to conduct ground attacks against Indian military targets. 4 Mirage IIIs were lost by the PAF. In 1991, when French production of the Mirage III and most spare parts ceased, Pakistan acquired 50 Australian-built Mirages, which had been retired by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1988. Additional five incomplete aircraft were bought from the RAAF for cannibalized spares. 33 RAAF aircraft were upgraded under the PAF project ‘ROSE’ (Retrofit of Strike Element), with new head-up display (HUD), HOTAS controls, multi-function displays (MFD), SAGEM IN/GPS nav/attack system, radar warning receiver (RWR), an ECM suite, including decoy chaffs and IR flares. In 1999, multi-mode FIAR Grifo M radar was installed in the PAF Mirages. Ten Lebanese Air Force aircraft were purchased in 2000, and in 2003, 13 Mirage IIIEEs were obtained from the Spanish Air Force for spares. From 2011, the PAF Mirage fleet was modified to carry Hatf-VIII cruise missiles and an aerial refueling probe. Subsequently, these aircraft have been modified for newer weapons including the Chinese PL-12 air-to-air missile (50 km +). In 1982, the PAF acquired an additional squadron of the Mirage-5 from France for use to impart maritime training to Pakistan Navy pilots at PAF Academy and Combat Commander’s School (CCS). The Mirage 5 has been transferred to the Pakistan Navy and has been transformed into combat naval squadron as of 2005.

The Kargil Conflict

          The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) did not see active combat during the low-intensity Kargil conflict in 1999, but remained on high air defence alert and F-16s and F-7MPs flew combat air patrols (CAP) on their side of the border. PAF Air Chief Pravaiz Mehdi Qureshi had been downed in combat in that famous battle of Boyra in 1971and had been given due respect by Indian Armed Forces and he never forgot that. Also PAF had been kept out of the planning loop be General Musharraf while planning the Kargil misadventure and PAF hierarchy was very peeved about it.

PAF’s Counter-Insurgency Operations (COIN)

          The Pak Army was facing stiff resistance from Taliban during its offensive in 2009 in the  north-west Pakistan. Many Pakistanis fled the area and over 2 million had to be accommodated in refugee camps. Pak Army’s attack helicopters were not adequate to support the infantry. The PAF was pushed in. It had little training in such ops and a new “counter-terrorist doctrine” had to be evolved. The PAF’s Saffron Bandit 2009/2010 exercise was meant to train for COIN operations. The C-130s were modified for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The PAF had to use Google earth for reconnaissance imagery, till better imagery came from the USA.  Infra-red sensors were provided by the U.S. for use on F-16s to gather better imagery of the Swat valley. Laser-guided bombs were extensively used. Ground spotters were used by the PAF, to identify high-value targets. PAF attacked militant infrastructure with 500 lb and 2000 lb bombs.

          Nearly 70 civilian, including women and children, were killed during PAF air strikes on 10 April 2010 in the Khyber tribal region, when they targeted a compound. Media was not allowed in. Pakistan’s Army Chief Kayani had to make a public apology. In May 2011, PAF made repeat attacks on Afghan mortar and machine gun positions that were putting pressure on Pak Army.

2001-02 Standoff (Op Parakram)

            After the attack on Indian Parliament by Pakistan backed gunmen on 13 December 2001, the military standoff between India and Pakistan resulted in the massing of troops on both sides of the border. The military mobilisation was largest after 1971 war. India had initially planned a limited offensive against the terrorists’ training camps in PoK. It would start with air strike by IAF’s Mirage-2000 to attack terror staging camps. Special forces of the Indian Army would then launch a limited ground offensive to further neutralize the terrorist camps and occupy the dominant positions on the LoC. The troop build-up signaled “India’s seriousness”. In late December, both countries moved ballistic missiles  closer to the border, and there was increased mortar and artillery firing across LoC. By January 2002, India had mobilized around 500,000 troops and three armored divisions on Pakistan’s border. Pakistan responded similarly, deploying around 300,000 troops. Meanwhile diplomatic pressure on Pak President Musharraf forced him to make reconciliatory speeches. He condemned the attack on Parliament as a terrorist attack and compared it with the 9/11 attacks in USA. As demanded by India, he also announced plans for the regulation of Madrasas and banning the known terrorist groups that were operating out of Pakistan. Meanwhile, anticipating Indian attack,  Pakistan removed most of terrorist training camps from PoK. This meant significant results for Indian forces without crossing the border.

          The May 2002 Kaluchak suicidal terrorist attack on Indian Army camp, that killed 34 and injured fifty again revived the chance of a full blown war. Another offensive across LoC was planned now in May-June 2002, this time using a Indian Army’s Strike Corps in Shakargarh bulge to engage Pakistan’s Army Reserve North (ARN). Meanwhile there was very heavy fire exchange across LoC. On 5 June it was announced that  that India would not use nuclear weapons first. On 29 July 2002 for the first time after the end of Kargil war India used air power to attack positions held by the Pakistani forces at Loonda Post on the Indian side of the LoC in the Machil sector. Eight IAF Mirage 2000 aircraft dropped 1000 pounds precision-guided bombs and destroy four bunkers that were occupied by Pakistan. 155-millimetre Bofors howitzers were also  used. As per reports, at least 28 Pakistani soldiers were killed in the fighting. The air assault was conducted in daylight to demonstrate India’s willingness to escalate the conflict in response to provocations. On 2 August, IAF’s Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft used laser guided bombs against the Pakistani bunkers located in Kel, destroying the bunkers with an unknown number of casualties. In next few months, both governments began easing the situation, and by October 2002, India had begun to demobilize their troops. Pakistan did the same, and in November 2003 a cease-fire between the two nations was signed. PAF was not used. The mobilisation remained limited to signalling and did not achieve any substantial results.

PAF High Alert After Mumbai Attacks

          After the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and threats made by India, PAF was put on high alert. They prepared for possible counterattack in case of an IAF air strike. On the morning of December 14, when IAF did make a decoy strike, PAF aircraft were scrambled. PAF was ordered to carry on the defensive combat patrols till things cooled off. Meanwhile IAF Air Chief Fali Major had suggested to Indian Government for a cross border strike by IAF against Pakistan terror camps.

War on Terror Modernisation Support

          Pakistan tried to convince the West about their genuineness of support in “War on Terror”. The US, Germany and France, lifted their defence related sanctions, and clearing hardware sale. PAF Immediately began evaluating potential military hardware such as new fighter aircraft, radars and land based air-defence systems. However the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 forced the Pakistani military to stall its modernisation programs, to divert resources for the rescue efforts. Finally in April 2006 PAF’s proposals to procure new aircraft and systems were cleared. PAF modernisation was part of the AFFDP 2019 (Armed Forces Development Program 2019) to be completed by 2019. In July 2008 USA cleared shift nearly $230 million out of counter-terrorism programs to upgrading Pakistan’s aging F-16s. USA also cleared sale of electronic warfare equipment worth $75 million for PAF’s existing F-16s. PAF had sought AN/ALQ-211(V)9 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite pods, and related equipment. The existing F-16 fleet was made compatible with new F-16 Block 50/52 fighters purchased in parallel by Islamabad.

          After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. and Pakistan began discussing the release of the embargoed F-16s and a purchase of new aircraft. 14 F-16A/B Block 15 OCU fighters were delivered by 2008 PAF under renewed post-9/11 ties. To upgrade the F-16A/B fleet, 32 Falcon STAR kits were purchased for the original aircraft and 35 Mid-Life Update (MLU) kits were ordered. Four F-16A/B were upgraded in the U.S. Rest were upgraded starting October 2010 by Turkish Aerospace Industries. Upgrade of 12 original F-16C and 6 F-16D Block 52+ (Advanced Block 52) aircraft, powered by F 100-PW-229 engines then started and first batch of two F-16D and one F-16C, reached Pakistan in June 2010. These improved PAF’s precision night strike capability. The 34 upgraded Dassault Mirage V fighters were earlier taking that role. PAF also reportedly got the South African R-Darter BVR missiles. PAF sought more Laser bombs from the French. In December 2009 PAF received its first Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C from Sweden and Il-78MP flight refueling aircraft (FRA) from Ukraine.

Restrictions on PAF F-16

            As far as the F-16 C/D Block 52 fighter received by Pakistan during the Global War on Terror are concerned, these were paid for with American money and the sale conditions were extensively debated in the US Congress. It is believed that certain restrictions were imposed on their use, including not permitting modifying them for the delivery of nuclear weapons. US sources have said that the American sale conditions specify that the use of the F-16s must be limited to self-defence. However, such terms, unless explicitly and clearly defined, are vague and open to interpretation.

PAF Command Structure and Airbases

          PAF has three operational commands, Northern at Peshawar, Central at Lahore, and Southern at Karachi. They have two functional commands, The Air Force Strategic Command at Islamabad, and Air Defence Command at  Rawalpindi. The PAF has 21 airbases, comprising 13 flying bases and 8 non-flying bases.

PAF Aircraft

          PAF fighter aircraft include around 135 Chinese Chengdu J-7 (F-7PG) attack/interceptor, 92 French Dassault Mirage V variants for attack/fighter role,  87 Mirage III variants, nearly 120 Sino-Pak JF-17 Thunder,  and 76 American Lockheed F-16 variants. There are four each of Saab 2000 and Shaanxi Y-8 (ZDK-03) AEW&C aircraft. There are two Dassault Falcon 20 EW/ radar jamming aircraft. PAF has 4 Russian/Ukrainian Ilyushin IL-78 FRA.  The transport/communication aircraft are six Saab 2000, three Chinese Harbin Y-12, three CAS CN-235, and 16 Lockheed C-130 Hercules. PAF has an assortment of  about 35 utility and attack helicopters.  The trainer aircraft are Super Mushak basic stage, Cessna T-37 and Chinese K-8 jet trainers, Chengdu J-7 (FT-7) and Shenyang J-6 are used for fighter conversion.  Aerospatiale Alouette  III are used for helicopter training. PAF has 12 indigenous Burraq UCAVs, four Chinese CH-4 UCAVs. They also have SATUMA Jasoos II reconnaissance UAVs , 5 GIDS Shahpur surveillance UAVs, and 25 SELEX Galileo Falco surveillance UAVs.

PAF Chinese ZDK-03 AWACS. Picture Credit: Deagel.com

JF-17 Thunder

         Developed with Chinese assistance and co-produced by PAC Kamra, the JF-17 is meant to initially replace the A-5, and F-7, and later the Mirage fleet. 112 JF-17 are currently in active service comprising 50 Block I and 62 Block II variants. The Block III upgrade is complete and first two aircraft have come from China. 50 Block III variants, incorporating advanced avionics systems, including a new AESA radar, are expected to be produced. In addition the PAF is also expected to order 26 of the two seat JF-17B variant. PAF exercises direct control over all aircraft design, development and production, which is credit worthy.

UAVs

          In September 2015, Pakistan became the ninth nation to develop and use an armed unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) named Burraq. Pakistan had earlier acquired the Falco drones from Selex Galileo of Italy in 2008. Since then Pakistan have been developing Falco in PAC Kamra in collaboration with the Italian firm. The Burraq is based on the same Falco technology. Burraq is armed with an air-to-surface missile named ‘Barq’.

Air Defence Structure and Weapons

          In May 2006 the PAF inaugurated a refurbished Sector Operations Centre (SOC) at Sargodha which had a Pakistani-developed air defence automation system for command and control. The Lockheed TPS-77, phased array radar 375-450 km) was introduced into service in April 2008. The PAF air defence systems include the 10 batteries of MBDA Spada 2000 low to medium altitude air defence system consisting of a radar with 60 km range and four 6-cell missile launchers with a range of over 20 km. Pakistan has been showing interest in the upgraded variant of the  Chinese HQ-9 long range air defence system.

PAF Air Exercises

          PAF began participating in Anatolian Eagle international exercises in Turkey from 2004. PAF fielded F-16s. Participants other than hosts included Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the United States. In 2005 the PAF launched the month long High Mark 2005 exercise, which also involved the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Navy. The entire PAF assets and airbases were activated in this three stage exercise. PAF flew 8200 sorties. The PAF’s F-16s flew both offensive and defensive air superiority missions. Anatolian Eagle 2006 exercise, also had Israeli air force participation. Operation Indus Viper 2008, was a joint exercise between the PAF and Turkish air force at Sargoda. F-16s of both countries participated. The Saffron Bandit exercise is used for anti-terrorist operations training.

          The PAF also sent six F-7PG fighters, to the UAE to take part in the Air Tactics Leadership Course (ATLC), where they were exposed to Mirage-2000-9 and F-16E/F Block 60. Also participating were Jordanian F-16s, six Rafale of the French Air Force, six Eurofighter Typhoon of the Royal Air Force and six F-16CJ Block 52 fighters of the USAF.

          The PAF conducts Exercise High Mark since 2005, covering all operating and forward airbases. It includes FRA and AEW&C operations and live firing including stand-off bombs. In July 2010 the PAF sent six F-16B fighters to Nellis Air Force Base in the U.S. to participate in the international Red Flag exercise.

          In January 2011 a PAF contingent of F-16A/B and Dassault Mirage fighters took part in the Al-Saqoor II exercise in Saudi Arabia. PAF has been doing regular Shaheen series of exercises with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) since 2011. Shaheen VIII was held in 2019. Chinese warplanes including J-10, J-11, J-16, Su-30 fighter jets, JH-7 fighter bombers and KJ-500 early warning aircraft participated in the exercises. This helped interoperability and also gave exposure to the SU-30 capabilities.

2011 Abbottabad Operation

          On that fateful morning PAF radars reportedly saw the movement of some half-a-dozen planes near the Jalalabad border at 11 pm before the US helicopters entered Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden. These were identified as five F-18 fighters and an AWACS. These planes flew near the Pakistani border, but did not cross into the airspace of Pakistan. PAF jets were reportedly scrambled. However, the fact that so many non-stealth aircraft had entered Pakistani airspace, stayed for three hours to carry out a major operation, and that PAF jets only arrived at the location 24 minutes after the American helicopters had left made a senior PAF official term it “one of the most embarrassing” incidents in Pakistan’s history.

Balakot Strike and PAF Riposte February 2019

          IAF Mirage 2000s launched a very early morning (0325 ToT) strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist training camp at Jaba Top near Balakot (60 km deep), in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, and claimed to have hit 5 targets with stand-off precision glide bombs Spice 2000. PAF aircraft despite being on high alert scrambled only after the Indian aircraft had returned back. On February 27, 2019, the PAF launched a 24 aircraft riposte. IAF had two Su-30 MKI, and two Mirage 2000 on CAP, and four MiG 21 Bison were scrambled. The PAF fighters released H 4 and REK stand-off bombs, on Indian Army ground formations near the Line of Control (LoC). None hit the target. PAF aircraft were prevented from crossing the border. PAF F-16s fired nearly five AIM-20 C5 AMRAAM missiles on IAF aircraft. None hit. As one IAF MiG 21Bison flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman chased and shot down a PAF F-16, he was hit by a PAF missile or ground fire.  He ejected and was taken as a prisoner and later returned to India. Pakistan then launched an Information warfare offensive on Social media to divert attention and claim success.

Future Acquisitions

          Mass production of PAC JF-17 Thunder A Block-3, claimed to be a 4.5 generation Aircraft is about to start. All previous variants will be upgraded gradually. Plan is that every 3–5 years newer blocks of the aircraft will be produced by the plug and play approach. Pakistan have been in talks with China to acquire 40 to 60, Shenyang J-31 5th Generation Stealth fighters. Turkish TAI TF-X, is another 5th generation fighter option for Pakistan. PAF is also supporting the indigenous 5th generation fighter under Project Azm announced in July 2017. Pakistan is also working on ZF-1 Viper stealth drone. Pakistan will produce 58 Chinese WingLoong-2 MALE-UCAV in joint collaboration with China. The PAF has shown interest in purchasing the Chinese Hongdu L-15 advanced jet trainer to train pilots for high-tech fighters. PAF has shown interest in Russian Su-35.

Conclusion

          PAF is a professional force. It is battle hardened. The basic structure and assets are tailored towards air defence, as they cannot match with the much larger IAF. For long years it has maintained force multipliers like Radio jamming, Radio encryption etc. Their emphasis in recent years has been long range BVR missiles to keep IAF away. Their Sector Air Defence Centers are well networking and operational. It is very well exposed to air exercises, with Western, Chinese PLAAF and the Middle Eastern air forces. Unfortunately in Pakistan, the Army dominates to the extent that in most cases, including Kargil, they do not keep the other services in the loop on operational plans, thus reducing exploitation potential. Unfortunately they keep using information warfare and influence operations to create heroes, as they did in 1965 war and more recently after the Operation ‘Swift Retort’. IAF cannot take PAF casually and has to continue to maintain both qualitative and quantitative edge. It has also to prepare for a two-front war scenario.  

JF-17 Picture Credit: National Interest

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

26 thoughts on “Pakistan Air Force – A Comprehensive Story

  1. I’m a big fan of you sir. I had come across you during Gujarat Rastrakata Shvir. This year. It’s my pleasure and honour to meet you. I read the entire article and it’s very much useful for the next generation. To understand the real life time wars and to know about the Upgradation of enemy as well. This article made my day.

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    1. PAF is spoilt for choice as best and brightest opt for this profession..IAF has poor training and low quality manpower and below average stock available..

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  2. Sir, if India were to select the F-21/F-16 Block 70 in the latest round of the MMRCA due to lack of money [single engine fighter jets are less expensive compared to twin engine fighter jets] or as part of PM Modi’s plan to grow close to the US and President Trump, will the IAF F-21/F-16 Block 70 have an advantage over the PAF F-16s?

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  3. 1959 Indian aerial intrusion
    On 10 April 1959, on the occasion of the Eid ul-Fitr festival holiday in Pakistan, an Indian Air Force (IAF) English Electric Canberra B(I)58 of No. 106 Squadron entered Pakistani airspace on a photo reconnaissance mission. Two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-86F Sabres (Flt. Lt. M. N. Butt (leader) and Flt. Lt. M. Yunis) of No. 15 Squadron on Air Defence Alert (ADA) were scrambled from Sargodha Air Base to intercept the IAF aircraft. Butt attempted to bring down the Canberra by firing his Sabre’s machine guns, but the Canberra was flying at an altitude of more than 50,000 feet – beyond the operational ceiling of the F-86F. When Yunis took over from his leader, the Canberra suddenly lost height while executing a turn over Rawalpindi. Yunis fired a burst that struck the Canberra at an altitude of 47,500 feet and brought it down over Rawat, marking the first direct aerial victory of the PAF. Both crew members of the IAF Canberra ejected and were captured by Pakistani authorities. They were subsequently released after remaining in detention for some time.[12]

    Indo-Pakistani War of 1965
    Main article: Indo-Pakistani War of 1965
    The PAF fleet at the time consisted of 12 F-104 Starfighters, some 120 F-86 Sabres and around 20 B-57 Canberra bombers.[13] The PAF claims to have had complete air superiority over the battle area from the second day of operations.[14] However, IAF Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh claimed that, despite having been qualitatively inferior to the PAF, the IAF allegedly achieved total air superiority in three days.[15]

    Many publications have credited the PAF’s successes in combat with the IAF to its U.S.-quality equipment, claiming it to be superior to the aircraft operated by the IAF and giving the PAF a “qualitative advantage”. This statement has been refuted by some officials in Pakistan, as per them, the IAF’s MiG-21, Hawker Hunter and Folland Gnat aircraft had better performance than the PAF’s F-86 fighters, without accounting for the obvious quantitative advantage that the IAF possessed.[16] According to retired PAF Air Commodore Sajad Haider, the F-86 Sabre was inferior in terms of both power and speed to the IAF’s Hawker Hunter.[16][17][18][19]

    Sajad Haider, who flew with No. 19 squadron also stated that the F-104 Starfighter did not deserve its reputation as “the pride of the PAF” because it “was unsuited to the tactical environment of the region. It was a high-level interceptor designed to neutralize Soviet strategic bombers in altitudes above 40,000 feet.” Nevertheless, the IAF is believed to have feared facing the Starfighter in combat[17] despite its lack of effectiveness in comparison to the IAF’s fleet of Folland Gnats.[20] According to Indian sources, the F-86F performed reasonably well against the IAF’s Hunters but not as well against the Gnat, which was nicknamed the Sabre Slayer by the IAF.[21][22]

    Per India, most of the aircraft losses of the IAF were allegedly on the ground while the PAF suffered most of their losses in aerial combat.[23] Even though the IAF ran a larger offensive air campaign by devoting 40% of its air effort to offensive air support alone, the majority of its losses allegedly came from aircraft destroyed on the ground through PAF airstrikes, according to Indian officials.[23] The Indians claimed that the PAF had achieved far more in terms of enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground but the IAF had achieved much more in aerial combat, a claim that has widely been accepted by most international sources as “a stretch”.[23]

    The two countries have made contradictory claims of combat losses during the war and few neutral sources have verified the claims of either country, as is the case with most India-Pakistan conflicts. The PAF claims that it shot down 104 IAF aircraft and lost 19 of its own, while the IAF claimed it shot down 73 PAF aircraft while losing 60 of its own.[24] According to most independent and neutral sources, the PAF lost some 20 aircraft while the IAF lost somewhere between 60 and 75.[25][26] Despite the intense fighting throughout the course of the war, the conflict was effectively a stalemate and inconclusive in its result.[27]

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