Improvise and modernise

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Paul Lewis/ISLAMABAD

Resolving the deadlock with the USA over embargoed F-16 has left Pakistan's air force without new fighters

The news that Washington had agreed to refund Islamabad $464 million for 28 undelivered Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs was greeted with mixed reactions by the Pakistan air force. The settlement brings to a close a decade-long dispute with the USA, but has left Pakistan devoid of new fighters and facing a long-standing antagonist which has lost no time in modernising its forces.

"I'm not totally happy, but it's something out of nothing," reflects Air Chief Marshal Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi, chief of the air staff. "If we had gone for litigation, even though we had a very strong case, it is quite possible it would have taken much longer and we wouldn't have got as much eventually because of legal fees."

With the embargoed fighters now destined for New Zealand, the Pakistan air force must soldier on with the 32 Block 15 F-16A/Bs surviving from an 1983 order. This is a far cry from the force of 110 F-16s it had planned to field by the turn of the century,with an option to acquire another 50.

In the interim, Pakistan's traditional foe, India, has bolstered its inventory of 1,000 fighters with the delivery of 49 Dassault Mirage 2000H/HTs Êand,ÊmoreÊrecently - and of much greater concern to Qureshi - the initial eight of 50 new Sukhoi Su-30MKs. The net result has been a marked erosion in what Pakistan has traditionally regarded as its qualitative edge over the Indian air force's 3:1 advantage in numbers.

India and Pakistan have clashed twice since partition 51 years ago. In both the September 1965 and December 1971 wars, Pakistan is generally regarded to have acquitted itself well, despite a less than favourable outcome on the ground in the latter conflict. The two neighbours continue to spar over the the disputed territory of Kashmir and the 15,750ft-high Siachen Glacier, while last year's tit-for-tat round of nuclear testing has added an altogether new dimension to the continuing regional insecurity.

Qureshi says: "As far as quality is concerned, we've always had the edge and we would have maintained that had the F-16s been fully inducted. General Dynamics [now Lockheed Martin] kept telling us: 'Don't worry, it's just a matter of time before the aircraft are released.' So we lost time. Now it's been almost 10 years that we've not inducted anything and India has got a head start on us."

Pakistan is intent on catching up, but it is clear that its $325 million cash rebate and $120 million-worth of wheat from the USA will not go far by itself. The air force has asked for additional funds from the government, which, in turn, has acknowledged the need to acquire new fighters. But, given the country's high level of foreign debt and limited foreign reserves, the source of the extra money is unclear.

Back burner mirages

The air force would ideally like around 80 new front-line fighters, sufficient to equip four squadrons, and had all but struck a deal with France when the economy took a further turn for the worse. Qureshi confesses: "We were going for the Mirage 2000-5-but that has been put on the back burner. Maybe if we get a bit delayed we'll look at the Rafale or Eurofighter [EF2000], depending on our economic health. It's just a question of allocating a budget. I would like it to have been done yesterday."

The air force acknowledges that, even if all the needed funds were available, 80 new fighters would still fall far short of the numbers needed to replace its fleet of more than 100 Chengdu F-7P/FT-7s, 60 Nanchang A-5C strike aircraft and, in the longer term, its 180 mixed Mirage III/5s. Accordingly, Pakistan is pursuing the parallel development of the Chengdu Super 7/FC-1 lightweight multirole fighter in partnership with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force.

The planned development has been the subject of some delay and the latest revised timetable calls for the first of the single-engined fighters to fly in 2001, with production deliveries to start around 2003. In an effort to expedite the Super 7 programme, Islamabad and Beijing signed a memorandum of understanding on collaboration in late 1997, but a detailed agreement has yet to be inked.

AVM Hamid Khawaja, Pakistan air force Super 7 chief project director suggests: "When two governments have an agreement, that means something and this has accelerated the programme quite a lot. A lot of work has to be done before you can enter into a detailed contract and we're both working at it. I would say we're in the final stages of fixing up a contract for signature."

In addition to reaching an airframe agreement with China, Pakistan also needs to finalise the selection of a Western risk-sharing avionics partner and a weapons package for its own planned Super 7 variant. Jockeying for the yet to be selected multimode pulse-Doppler radar and avionics contracts are Alenia, Marconi and Thomson-CSF (Flight International, 13-19 January, P18).

Pakistan plans to arm the aircraft with precision-guided munitions, Raytheon AIM-9L dogfight missiles and its first beyond visual range (BVR) weapon to counter India's expected acquisition of Vympel AA-12 Adders and, possibly, the Rafael Python 4. Among the active-guided BVR options being examined are the Matra-BAe Mica, Chinese PL10 and the Denel T-Darter, the latter of which Khawaja describes as "very impressive on paper".

Pakistan has been co-operating with South Africa for years, including purchasing frequency-hopping radios to retrofit to its F-7s, A-5s and Mirages and the suspected acquisition of the Multi Purpose Stand-Off Weapon. Qureshi acknowledges that "-we've a very good relationship with South Africa. We've bought some things from them and some things we've developed ourselves which could be an improvement of what we bought from them."

China's record on industrial collaboration with Pakistan has not been entirely problem free, though. The Pakistan air force concedes that negotiations to finalise the Super 7/FC-1 deal are running at least 18 months behind schedule as it struggles to avoid the problems into which the earlier Nanchang/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex K-8 Karakoram trainer programme has flown.

Development of the tandem-seat jet was completed at least three years ago, but it has never been ordered into production . The Chinese air force is reluctant to order the trainer until a substitute powerplant can be integrated to replace the US-supplied AlliedSignal TFE731-2A. This, in turn, has stalled Pakistan's plans to purchase any more K-8s beyond the six pre-production models in service, leaving the Cessna T-37B/Cs basic trainers to soldier on at its Risalpur flight academy for a few more years.

Qureshi suggests: "Our requirement would be for no more than 60-70 of them and to support this number alone would be too expensive. We're hoping that the Chinese would also need a trainer aircraft and, if they decide to induct it, their requirement would be nothing less than 250-300 aircraft and then it would be much more viable."

Stated requirement

Pakistan has stated from the outset a requirement for 150 Super 7s and, in spite of reports to the contrary, claims to have elicited a firm commitment from Beijing that the Chinese will order a similar number. While conceding the present situation with the K-8 is "unfortunate", Qureshi categorically states with regard to the Super 7 that there is a "total commitment from China-if that was not the case, it would be a no-go situation."

With a Super 7 initial operational capability at least five years away, the air force plans an interim purchase of around 50 improvedF-7MGs to complete the replacement of its final two squadrons of AIM-9-armed Nanchang F-6s. The order is subject to the successful completion of low-level flight trials of the MG's uprated Marconi Super Skyranger pulse-Doppler radar, which attempts to redress the F-7M/P's shortcoming as an interceptor (Flight International, 20-26 January, P8).

As a counter proposal on theF-7MG, Alenia is offering a further refinement of its Fiar Grifo 7 radar with a wider ±20¼ azimuth scan capability. It would provide some commonality with the more limited ±10¼ azimuth version of the radar, which is thesubject of a long-running integration effort on Pakistan'sF-7Ps. The air force says that the radar software has now been frozen and, once flight trials are completed, the Grifo 7 is to be fitted to100 F-7Ps, irrespective of its F-7MG radar decision.

A senior official says: "We don't want to digress, we want to finish it. We thought we had a fully developed radar from what they had done in Singapore with the Grifo F [on a Northrop F-5E/F upgrade]. What we thought was that it would be a simple adaptation for the Mirage III and miniaturisation of the same to fit into the F-7. Obviously, it doesn't work that way - it's more like a development programme."

Mirage III flight trials of the larger Grifo M variant have similarly not been without problems in "certain parameters - and errors in certain modes", but should be complete by mid-year says the Pakistan air force. Planning then calls for the radar to be retrofitted to 33 ex-Australian Mirage IIIEA/DA fighters, as a follow on to the earlier Sagem-integrated Project ROSE (Retrofit of Strike Element) avionics upgrade.

"They will serve us very comfortably until 2010 and beyond," says Qureshi. "We've extracted another 15 years out of these old aircraft by not spending too much money. I think we're very satisfied, though, personally, if the money was available, I would always go for new aircraft rather than upgrading."

Pakistan today boasts the world's largest fleet of Mirage III/5 fighters, comprising 13 different single and tandem-seat margues.In addition to 34 Mirage IIIEP/DP/RPs and 32 Mirage 5PA/DPAs acquired directly between 1967 and 1982, the air force managed to refurbish 45 of the 50 Australian fighters bought in 1991. The service is also planning a ROSE upgrade, with an enhanced night-attack capability, for half of the 40 surplus French air force Mirage 5EF/DFs now being delivered.

The air force is working to improve and extend the operational life of its 15-year-old F-16s, but this has been made more difficult by a US embargo on spares sales in response to Pakistan's nuclear tests.

"Embargos are troublesome and they become expensive, but they are never foolproof," argues Qureshi. "I'm quite hopeful that it is a matter of time before the embargo is lifted," he says, but adds: "The world is a big place and there are many people prepared to sell".

Looking forward early into the next century, Pakistan is planning for a front-line strength of around 400 aircraft comprising F-16s, upgraded Mirage III/5s, Super 7s and a yet to be specified new type. "I would like a balanced force of, say, around 80 high-technology fighters, about 150-160 good strike/penetration aircraft and 150 medium-technology air-defence aircraft," says Qureshi.

To support these aircraft, the air force would like to acquire force-multiplier-type capabilities, including aerial refuelling tankers to expand its radius of action, and electronic warfare and airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft.

AEW commands the highest air force priority and Pakistan came close to ordering the Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye in the late 1980s, towards the end of the Afghanistan war. The conflict saw repeated armed cross-border incursions, as well as defections, during which Pakistan claims to have downed nine Afghan and Soviet aircraft, including three Sukhoi Su-22s and two Mikoyan MiG-23s.

Pakistan air force attention has since switched to the Ericsson Erieye electronically scanned radar, but its preference is for a platform larger than either the Embraer EMB-145. "AEW is something that we need more than anyone else," says Qureshi. "Our terrain is such that, to the south, we've the sea, then undulating hills and very high mountains to the north. For ground-based radar it creates problems and we don't have much depth. We need more visibility across the border."