Military & Aerospace

Pakistan Air Force Today: Implications for India
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Issue Vol. 30.4 Oct-Dec 2015 | Date : 19 Apr , 2016

The IAF has lost the qualitative edge vis-a-vis the PAF and the PLAAF, and may descend into numerical parity with the PAF for the first time in the near future because of our failure to induct new systems in time and in sufficient quantities. The IAF’s draw down will become critical by 2020 with all MiG 21s, MiG 27s and portions of the Jaguar fleet being phased out. No replacements in sufficient quantities are available as of now. While the Tejas Mk 1 LCA has technologies superior to the JF 17, the fact is that the latter has been in full operational service for some years, whereas the Tejas Mk 1 has not even been deployed and will be obsolescent soon. The Tejas Mk 2 variant is still on paper. One cannot fight a war using an aircraft which has some aspects of advanced technology incorporated but which is not combat-ready and available in very limited numbers. This mess is of our own making. Let alone a limited conflict on two fronts, we will soon lack the capabilities for a single front conflict if the situation is allowed to deteriorate further. Not just our combat fleet, but our helicopter, medium and light transport, intermediate and advanced trainer fleets, SAMs and a whole lot of other systems are obsolete and also not available in required numbers.

The disenchantment of the USA with Pakistan that began in the 1970s came to an end with the policy to counter the Soviet Union in Afghanistan…

At its birth in 1947, the Royal Pakistan Air Force (RPAF) inherited just a few Tempest fighters and Dakota transport aircraft along with some Harvard and Tiger Moth trainers. The Pakistan military in general and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in particular languished till May 1954 when Pakistan signed its first defence agreement with the USA. And then, in September 1954, Pakistan became a member of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) which was formed to contain Soviet influence in the region. Pakistan continued to be a member of SEATO till the end of 1971 and was also a member of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) or the Baghdad Pact from its formation in 1955 till its dissolution in 1979.

Membership of the SEATO and CENTO provided the bonanza that the Pakistan military had fantasized about. The PAF rapidly expanded with the induction of F-86 and F-104 fighters, a radar-based Air Defence (AD) system, air-to-air missiles, B 57 bombers, C 130 transport aircraft and T 33 jet trainers. Within about seven years from 1955, the PAF grew from a collection of obsolete weaponry to a modern Air Force equipped with weapons almost equal to those of smaller Western air forces. Given the dominance of the Pakistan Army in the affairs of state from the early 1950s to date, the PAF as well as the Pakistan Navy (PN) has always played and continue to play a subservient role to the Army in both military and political fields. Military domination has been the bane of Pakistan but it has helped in rapid modernisation of the armed forces.

The main benefit that accrued to Pakistan from its SEATO membership was access to Western systems and training programmes as also participation in exercises with US, British and other NATO forces. PAF pilots were attached to the USAF and RAF flying squadrons for relatively long tenures. PAF squadrons participated in multinational exercises and two generations of personnel were trained abroad at no cost. The resultant exposure was invaluable. In contrast, the Indian military had limited exposure to outside forces and concepts and even this was confined to a few courses attended by individual officers. The Indian armed forces and the Indian Air Force (IAF) in particular, never got the chance to participate in multinational exercises till around 2004-2005 except for a brief exposure in 1963 during the Shiksha Air Defence Exercise.

The PAF has around 450 combat aircraft of four types, distributed in around 20 Squadrons… …

The PAF went into the 1965 War with India with a balanced inventory of F-86 and F-104 fighters, B-57 bombers and C-130 transport aircraft. Replacements were available with friendly Arab states such as Jordan and countries to the West of Pakistan could provide sanctuary from IAF attacks if required. However, hopes of intervention from Western members of SEATO did not materialise.

The period between 1965 and 1971 saw the start of military ties with China and induction of equipment such as the F-6, the Chinese variant of the MiG-19 as also the French Mirage. The misadventure in East Pakistan was followed by its exit from SEATO. For the PAF and the rest of the military, the formation of Bangladesh reduced their area of responsibility. 1971 proved that the Eastern wing of Pakistan was militarily indefensible with the military resources situated in the Western wing.

The disenchantment of the USA with Pakistan that began in the 1970s came to an end with the policy to counter the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Induction of F-16 and additional Mirage fighters, upgrade of the AD network, acquisition of more helicopters and entry of Chinese A-5 fighters in 1983 and F-7 in 1988, were all supposedly to counter the Soviet threat but in reality, were India-specific. These inductions came at a time when the F-86, F-104 and B-57s were being phased out. However, sanctions to limit nuclear proliferation under the Pressler Amendment saw F-16 deliveries among other military aid items put on hold in the late 1980s. From 2007 onwards, the Chinese JF-17 inductions began. American efforts to get Pakistan onboard on their “war on terror” after 9/11 saw sanctions on supply of some systems being waived and F-16 deliveries and upgrades resumed. Induction of force multipliers such as Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA) and Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) also began.

The PAF has, therefore, built up a substantial inventory of air-to-surface PGMs…

Present Capabilities

The organisational structure of the PAF with operational Commands on geographical lines is as under:

  • Northern Air Command (NAC), Peshawar
  • Central Air Command (CAC), Lahore
  • Southern Air Command (SAC), Karachi
  • Air Defence Command (ADC), Rawalpindi
  • Air Force Strategic Command (AFSC), Islamabad: This Command is responsible for the Air Force elements of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The PAF has around 450 combat aircraft of four types, distributed in around 20 Squadrons. The types of aircraft will reduce to three with the phasing out of the older fighters. There are 11 operational flying bases and eight other bases. There are approximately 30 airfields from which combat aircraft could operate including forward and satellite operating bases. Because of lack of geographical depth, all PAF bases are within easy reach of IAF strike aircraft and so dispersal of their aircraft becomes vital.

Combat Aircraft

Relaxation of sanctions enabled the modernisation and augmentation of the F-16 fleet. F-16 A/B aircraft were upgraded to the F-16 AM/BM Block 15 MLU standard, mostly by Turkish Aerospace Industries, between 2010 and 2014. F-16C/D Block 50/52 aircraft were acquired between 2010 and 2012. These upgrades plus acquisition of new air-to-air missiles gave a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and night attack capability to the force. Mirage avionics, Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and ECM systems were upgraded under the Retrofit of Strike Element (ROSE) programme in-house. The aim was to maintain the viability of the Mirage III and V platforms till their retirement and replacement by the JF-17s, a process which has already begun. About 50+ JF-17s have been inducted. Older Chinese F-7P fighters are still in service and are also supposed to be replaced by JF-17s. Pakistan is offering the JF-17 aircraft for export. The Chinese J-10B, which has had a troubled development history, could also be inducted into the PAF. Chinese stealth fighters like the J-20 and the J-31, once in production, could be sold to Pakistan. A table listing the known fighter types in the force is shown below.

Special Mission Aircraft

Low level threats over the battlefield are countered by short range man-portable SAMs and radar-guided Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA)…

Four IL-78 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft entered service between 2009 and 2011. Four AEW&C Erieye systems from Saab of Sweden mounted on Saab 2000 turboprop aircraft and using Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar technology were acquired and integrated with the Command and Control Ground Environment system of the PAF between 2009 and 2011. One was destroyed on the ground in a militant attack on the Kamra base in 2012. Three Dassault Falcon 20 jets in the Electronic Support Measures (ECM/ESM) role are also held in the inventory. Four Chinese Shaanxi ZDK 03 (AEW&C) aircraft based on the Y-8F 600, which is a Chinese derivative of the Russian AN 12 with AESA radars, began entering service in 2011.


The Pakistan Army has a few Eurocopter Fennec and IAR 330 light attack helicopters. The bulk of the attack helicopter fleet consists of Bell AH 1/FS Cobra and 1Z Viper helicopters with the more capable Chinese Z-10 entering service now. Shortage of attack helicopters has forced the military to use fast jets such as the F-16 with Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) for counter insurgency operations. The PAF’s helicopter lift capability is somewhat limited with 40+ Mi-17s and Alouette IIIs. (Only types with significant numbers have been considered).

To increase effectiveness and limit collateral damage during counter insurgency operations, the PAF and Pakistan Army Aviation have increasingly used PGMs. The PAF has, therefore, built up a substantial inventory of air-to-surface PGMs and developed expertise in their use and along with the Army in the use of attack helicopters and fixed-wing fighters in low air threat scenarios in the mountains.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Gp Capt B Menon

Gp Capt B Menon, former fighter pilot, IAF

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14 thoughts on “Pakistan Air Force Today: Implications for India

  1. Your own Indian has exposed your incompetency and failure, but still some shameless Indian nationalists bring here future prophecies ‘India will become this and India will become that…’ – Shameful!

  2. You are acting as a spokesman of the PAF.

    PAF advantage has not arrived yet. With all F-16 fighters they have, are of older and of lower performance fighters, except a few which will join in next two years. Again, That old technology plane JF17 are no match to even the most badly reported fighter in media, LCA.

    Group Captain sir, you have too much belief in propaganda put out by PAF.

    No again, there has not been significant gain by PLAAF in quality. There planes are built by themselves on copied and stolen technology, which will never be able to match the original. That is the reason that they are reluctant to put them out for the rest of the world to see. The Su-27 fighter, the best operational fighter They have is far inferior to Su-30mk1, India has. Moreover Indian fighters are world beater in excercises all over excercises in last ten years. Do I need to remind you that operational capability of Su-27 is compromised when they take off from Tibetean Pleatau.

    Think carefully before you write, you and many like you are lowering the morale of the services with factitious information of the invincibility of PLAAF or even IAF.

    Think five years ahead, now tell me where IAF stands with Rafale, F-16/F18 join the IAF. That with the addition in dozens of LCA, all model will become Pakistani F-16 killer just as Gnat in 1965/71 became the Sabre killer.


  3. Amol Hari Joshi..
    You did not answer my questions and try to change the subject. You are no way better than Defense officers. You do not know how to calculate the requirement. war planes . You are comparing Tejas and MMRCA. Here comparison is MMRCA and missile.. Requirement of fighter plane is based on the destructive power of the weapons used.. After the 1971 war , PAF reported that IAF gained air superiority because the bombs used to destroy the run ways were not effective as expected. IAF was able to repair the run ways within short time and use the planes against PAF. Pakistan knows the importance of weapons better than the Indian defense officers.

    • @Govindan –

      1. I didn’t compare Tejas & Rafale – you did. Check your earlier response.
      2. Your queries can best be answered by ‘proper’ sources and/ or google. I merely cited my views.
      3. In any case, your initial set of questions has been aptly answered by me to the best of my knowledge. If you couldn’t understand or interpret, I can’t help further.
      4. Wrt Pak wars – check neutral data online and you shall see that number-wise IAF lost several more aircraft. It was only the numerical superiority of IAF that sustained the wars. Keeping faith in what Pak dishes out … well, no comments.
      5. How indeed does one calculate requirement number of war planes ? Begin with a big budget for acquisition… I would say. Best leave that to the experts. In fact I dare say, they better start factoring in redundancy & COB (mgmt principles).
      6. Are you really so naive as to compare Plane v/s Missile ? In any case I listed a few for you – do reread my earlier reply. Add to that “Reuse” and “Control over destructive operations”. Nothing gets simpler than that.
      7. India no longer faces a “two-front” assault as worst case scenario. She is threatened all way North, all way West and all way East and as of now unable to defend any quarter, wet or dry, might I add. The intrusions in Arunachal and Ladhakh, the attacks on airbases and “accidental” cases of denial of usage of submarines are all case in point. The people who put India in this quagmire must be suitably dealt with and at the same time defensive and offensive reach of our Nation enhanced and expanded.
      8. I feel honoured getting compared with any military officer. But I must confess that I am neither as much selflessly brave as most of them nor callous and brown-nosed as the minuscule minority of them. So thank you, Sir, for that.

      IMHO an informative discussion over something as important as National security issues, should not be turned into a trivial ego massage. Having said thus – this is last from me on the topic above

  4. Quite informative – thanks.

    Wars are fought tactically on multiple fronts, including attrition. It is beyond obvious that a war has/ had been waged and deliberately so to reduce India’s air superiority over Communist China and Terrorist Pakistan. Who are responsible for this shameful state of affairs ? Why aren’t they being denounced publicly and executed under charges of treason ? Why is the Cold Start doctrine in cold storage ? Why has the current RM not started revision of Nuclear Doctrine ? Unless there is some coherence between words, intentions and deeds of these two doctrines then there is no chance for a comprehensive National Security doctrine. Does India have one ? Our PM often mentions how the UN still has not identified what exactly constitutes “terrorism” – quite true dear 56″ chested PM – but has India ? Does India even know what “War” is ? IMHO India doesn’t – neither the PM nor the weight-pushed-behind-Tejas RM. Unless by some spectacular definition (now it’s Webster dictionary unlike earlier Oxford or whatever Russian is called) attacks by alien nation on Indian military personnel and fixed assets do not constitute as War. Conquest of India’s integral territory and subjugation of original Indian inhabitants (read *Citizens*) therein do not get defined as War or War Crimes. The great diplomatic success today is talked in terms of diplomatic isolation of Pakistan. Really ? In US, some Tom talks about how F-16s sale to Pakistan is no good for fight against terrorism to which some Dick responds on how India is a natural ally to which some Harry, err sorry, HOSSEIN nods politely but just as slyly rushes with the sale of F-16s in addition to millions of dollars of aid along with several hundreds of flight missiles as if they were some in-flight entertainment.

    To regain India’s all-out superiority we must not only gain effective assets but also take out & reduce enemies’ assets. Bleed them through resources they paid for & not what they got/ get free.

  5. The attitude of the IAF officers is like what is written in a Malayalam proverb “Muttethe Mullakku Manamilla !”
    • Literal: The jasmine shrub in your front yard has no fragrance.
    • Translation: We seldom recognise the value of people near to you**
    Sri Lanka and Egypt have shown Interest in Tejas fighter plane.
    The decision to send Tejas abroad was of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has put his weight behind the aircraft.
    LCA Tejas performed 8-G (gravity) pull, vertical loop, slow fly-past and barrel roll at the air show, which the Indian officials described as “historic”.
    Interestingly, soon after the announcement of Tejas’ participation in Bahrain, Pakistan had withdrawn its JF-17 aircraft from the show despite having paid the initial installment which ran into a few millions US dollars.
    Tejas is perhaps the world’s smallest lightweight, multi-role single engine tactical fighter aircraft.

  6. A nice recap. Thanks.

    My take? The 36 Rafales MAY enter service in 2019. By 2020, India might have found a way to employ a lot of Rentiers from The Reservation-Extortion Raj of the Indian Republic, with suitable caste and tribe birth certificates or illegal but politically correct nepotism. They will probably make obsolete F-16s and F-18s at 35% higher cost than otherwise through the “Make in India” route. But, not to worry.. India will still have a State of Social Engineering Air Foce by 2020. Well before 2020, all Dalit and all Moslem contingents of the Indian Air Force will march up and down Raisina Hill to frighten away a US and China backed Pakistan to which India will sell the F-16s and F-18s it makes at a 50% discount as Air India’s brand new Boeings were sold to Ethihad. This will establish India’s “Peaceful”, “Democratic” and “Secular” birth certificate, the grotesque Constitution, in International fora. This will enable Adrash Apartment owners to circumvent Preet Bharara and mount yet another conclusive defensive to obtain a permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Jabberlal, Nehru probably declined such a membership in 1957, knowing full well that the India that would emerge from the policies and Constitution he had co-created with Ambedkar and others, would render India fully unworthy of respectable Nation Hood.

    • India is not going to accept the proposal of USA for the manufacture of F-16s and F-18s. Even I have doubt whether the Govt will be able to purchase Rafale planes. Can the MoD will be able to convince the finance department the cost difference between Tejas and Rafale at this stage. Tejas cost is Rs.300 crore. Rafale cost is more than Rs.1500 crore. Rafael maintenance cost is also high. Now Sri Lanka and Egypit have shown interest in Tejas. None of the fighter planes or helicopters will be able to escape from the multiple missile attacks. Missiles and rocket are much cheaper. The cost of PSLV is Rs. 100 crore. Missiles can be stored very easily .and no maintenance cost like bullets. It can be launched from any place. After all Fighter planes, helicopters, Air craft carriers , Warships , Frigates and submarine are weapon carrying vehicles. We are a super power in missile technology. After the commissioning of Indian GPS there is no necessity to use planes for the Aerial reconnaissance of the ​enemy ​position.

        • Amol Hari Joshi,
          Do you know how many fifhter planes India has got. now? Why do we require so many fighter planes? The fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, Air craft carriers,warships, frigates and submarines are all weapon carrying vehicles. IF missiles can achieve both the functions, why do we need all these vehicles?

          • Mobility. Randomize location of delivery systems. Penetration of enemy territory. Ground support. Rescue. Tougher to track and crack through ground or space stations. These are the things missiles can not do. Armed aerial vehicles are indispensable especially when India adopts a defensive posture. Why was AGNI not used during the “Kargil War” ? Can TWO Tejas I planes scheduled to go up to TWENTY suffice ? Can a Tejas I or II really compare against MMRCA ? May be against JF-17 but against deep penetration multi-role aircrafts ? We might as well compare Maruti Swift with Mercedes as both are sedans. In any war, numerical superiority is as much important. So why indeed do we need all the delivery systems ? Why do we need so many different missiles ? If we have a missile with range of 8000km why spend money on one with 800 km ? Both of them are nuclear capable and we won’t ever bother to use either. The only “action” they will be put to is the R-Day parade. IMHO India should now simultaneously explore options to turn the older (& larger) aircraft like MiG-21 or Jaguars or Gnats into UAV, modified and made capable of delivering payloads they weren’t capable of earlier. It will increase lethal nature of IAF without compromising on trained human loss. It will not only project India’s dominance over IOR but also over straits of Hormuz and Malacca. A larger UAV with 2-4 large and 6-8 smaller missiles under its wings with appropriate nose-cone can itself achieve the ultimate objective of crashing into slow moving targets like oil tankers if need be after those missiles have been deployed, But all this is theory and if-but scenarios. As long as our political leaders keep explaining to us “different perception” of invading and hegemonic neighbours, world will never bother to know or understand our perception or even our plight. We might as well shore up on resources just to survive.

      • Mr Govindan you keep harping about missiles – Missiles are meant to destroy fixed targets, they are part of an interdiction plan. Aircraft are flexible assets. Aircraft are reusable. Missiles are fire and forget assets. Do you know how many sorties are carried out by aircraft in wars? DO you know that a missile can cause no damage to an enemy convoy or even a well dispersed gun position. You are always trying to fire missiles here – its not deepawali. Each weapon system has its own use and a mix of weapon systems is required. Please expand your knowledge on facets of warfare and how war is conducted.

        • Col. JP Singh,This shows your lack of knowledge about missiles. Please try to change the mind set. You people still think about World War II. My argument is that the requirement of fighter planes will come down if the destructive power of the weapon is more. It is a pity that you do not understand the simple logic. Missiles are also used to destroy fighter planes. and enemy missiles. What about Barak 8 missile. ( Surface to air missile). What about Brimstone missile ( Air to Surface missile . )Brimstone is an air-launched ground attack missile developed by MBDA for Britain’s Royal Air Force. It was originally intended for “fire-and-forget” use against mass formations of enemy armour, using a millimetric wave (mmW) active radar homing seeker to ensure accuracy even against moving targets.. Barak 8 missiles can attack multiple moving target.. So the last sentence of your reply is applicable to you and not to me. You have proved my opinion about defense officers. They are good fighters but not having required war strategy. But I never thought their knowledge is so poor.

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