Sino-Pak Collaboration – Military Aviation
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Issue Vol. 31.3 Jul-Sep 2016 | Date : 08 Nov , 2016

Sino-Pakistan ties create the threat of a potential two-front war. India thus needs to relook at its force structure. The PLAAF is the world’s second largest Air Force, with 2,500-plus aircraft. The PLAAF has been under aggressive modernisation. Combined with 450 aircraft of the PLA Navy, and the soon-to-be inducted state-of-the art aircraft carriers, makes it a great air power for the IAF to contend with. The IAF is down to 34 squadrons and reportedly at the bottom of the numbers curve.

China considers its close relations with Pakistan as a countermeasure against the rapidly developing close relations between the US and India…

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very high profile fourth visit to USA in June 2016 brought the two largest democracies closer than ever before. Convergence of global strategic interests and US support to India for membership of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has been the lynchpin of the evolving relationship. End of the Cold War, by the early 1990s and the rise of China realigned the power centres. The international desire for dominance has now shifted to competing interests between the US and China. The Asia-Pacific region became the centre of global attention. Japan, Australia and India among many others are considered possible US allies to contain/compete with a rising China.

For a few decades, China had been working towards dominating Asia. It considered India a regional competitor and therefore, tried to befriend India’s neighbours to encircle it and keep it ‘Head-Down’. One key element in the Dragon’s game-plan, often termed as the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, was Pakistan. China used Pakistan’s strategic insecurities to offer military and economic support. Hidden behind this was China’s own desire to find shorter logistic routes to the oil-rich Middle East and the still waiting-to-be-exploited markets of Africa. China’s strategy has been unequivocal. In return for economic support, military hardware and know-how, Pakistan ceded to China, 5,180 sq. km. of territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in the Karakoram.

Having built roads in the region to connect Tibet and Xinjiang province, the next logical step for China was to link the important towns of the region to the Arabian Sea to facilitate trade and also help develop China’s hinterland. China financed and built the Gwadar port at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman and the southern tip of Baluchistan. More recently, it signed an MOU to finance and build the $46-billion Road-Rail Economic Corridor connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar. The deal included stationing of Chinese security personnel at important nodal points of the corridor. The support which China and Pakistan give each other is considered significant in global diplomacy, and has been compared to the Israel-United States relations. China refers to Pakistan as “a good friend and partner”.

The IAF immediately requires advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons…

Pakistan-China Political and Economic Ties

Post the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, Pakistan found in China “the enemy’s enemy as a friend”. After ceding the trans-Karakoram tracts to China in 1963, Pakistan began supporting China on Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and also on human rights issues. Pakistan also helped China establish formal ties with the West and helped arrange President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Pakistan has also served as a conduit for China’s influence in the Islamic world. China considers its close relations with Pakistan as a countermeasure against the rapidly developing close relations between the US and India. China has also consistently supported Pakistan on regional issues and in building a reasonable defence production capability.

China also supplied equipment to support Pakistan’s nuclear programme. China and Pakistan reached a comprehensive nuclear co-operation agreement in 1986. This anti-India alliance has benefitted both nations on the diplomatic, economic and military fronts. Pakistan has signed a 40-year lease with China allotting over 923 hectares of land for Beijing to develop a massive Special Economic Zone near the deep sea port of Gwadar. Goods from China would transit 2,000 kilometres South to the sea allowing China easier access to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

The multi-modal, multi-dimensional corridor will comprise three parallel highways, railway links, oil and gas pipelines, and an optical fibre link spanning the entire country before reaching the South-western tip of Pakistan. 29 industrial parks, 21 Special Economic Zones and power projects to produce 21,690 MW power are envisaged. China hopes that the development of landlocked Xinjiang will contain the unrest. For Pakistan, China is a low-cost-high-value deterrent against India. Despite the huge military and financial aid from the US, President Musharraf once called China its “time-tested, all-weather friend”. China is today a major arms exporter and has long helped Pakistan build up its military-industrial complex.

J-20 Mighty Dragon

Military and Defence Production links

For the initial decades after the country was born, Pakistan’s military depended almost entirely on US armaments and aid, which increased considerably during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. However, the Pressler Amendment in 1990 resulted in suspension of all US military assistance amidst concerns that Pakistan was attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Many Pakistanis saw this as a betrayal. Consequently, since 1990, Pakistan tilted towards China for military and economic cooperation. Pakistan has found China to be a more reliable ally over the long term. China has helped Pakistan set up munitions factories and upgrading the existing ordnance factory at Wah near Rawalpindi. China allowed licensed production of the MBT-2000 (Al-Khalid) Tank which was essentially a Chinese variant of Russian T-90. The armies of the two nations conduct joint exercises regularly.

Shenyang J-31

The Pakistan army has Chinese-designed short and medium-range ballistic missiles, including the Shaheen series with range up to 2,500 km. China has also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi and will also construct four submarines for the Pakistan Navy. All these projects involve Transfer of Technology. In 2008, a Chinese F-22P frigate joined the Pakistan Navy. In spite of serious global concerns, state-controlled Chinese military-related technology, infrastructure and equipment continue to be the major portion of $9 billion trade between the two countries.

Sino-Pakistan ties create the threat of a potential two-front war…

On April 19, 2015, China cleared the sale of eight conventional submarines to Pakistan worth $5 billion, in the biggest ever arms sale by China in its history. China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear technology and assistance, including perhaps the blueprint for Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Chinese security agencies were reportedly in the know of transfer of nuclear technology by Pakistan to Iran, North Korea and Libya. After India secured a nuclear deal with the US, China agreed to set up two nuclear power stations in Pakistan.

Chinese Military Aviation Industry

China has state-of-the-art aircraft programmes including two stealth fighters (J-20 and J-31), large military transport aircraft Y-20, and AWACS KJ-2000. H-8 is a secret Chinese Strategic Bomber started flight trials in 2007. The J-11 is a Chinese version of Sukhoi Su-27 SK air-superiority fighter. The J-11B is an upgraded airframe with Chinese radar, avionics and weapons. The J-15 is a carrier version of the Su-33. The J-16 was the Chinese version of the Su-30MKK sold to them by Russia earlier. The J-20 first flew in January 2011. The J-31 features a radome, speculated to house AESA radar. The Chinese are touting it to be an equivalent of the Lockheed Martin F-35 and are offering to those who cannot get/afford the expensive fifth generation fighter from the US. China’s indigenous Y-20 transport aircraft can carry a 66-tonne payload. China also has two attack helicopter programmes in Z-10 and a smaller Z-19. China has an aggressive UAV production programme with over 1,500 of 40 different types including those of Global Hawk class.

China’s Military Aviation Production Support

Starting 1965, China began supplying 253 F-6 aircraft, an Air Defence version of the Russian MiG-19 to Pakistan. One squadron of Harbin H-5, a Chinese version of Russian Ilyushin IL-28 was formed in the early 1970s. China helped establish ‘Heavy Industries’ at Taxila in 1971 for equipment rebuilding and in 1973, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra North of Islamabad. 1983 onwards, PAF received 55 A-5Cs ground attack variant of the MiG-19 and 186 F-7 aircraft, Chinese equivalent of the MiG-21. In 2007, as a part of a joint-project, China rolled-out a ‘designed for Pakistan’ Fighter JF-17 ‘Thunder’.


Currently, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has 150 of these and the strength is likely to increase to 300 by 2020. This programme is also a signal to the US that Pakistan has others to bank on to explore its security needs. Orders have been placed for at least 36 Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ fighters. These are likely to enter service by 2016.

This tailless delta wing with canards is being compared by the Chinese with JAS-39 and Dassault Rafale and touted as superior to the Lockheed Martin F-16C. The J-10B will one day have the AESA radar and be equipped with the improved Chinese WS-10A engine. A host of Chinese missiles and PGMs are part of the package.

Six ZDK-03 Chinese AWACS based on the Shaanxi Y-8F-600 cargo aircraft have been inducted. The fleet of Chinese Shenyang FT-5 and American T-37 trainers are being replaced by Chinese designed K-8 Karakorum intermediate jet trainers. 60 are currently in service and more are on order.

The PAF has also received four CH-4 recce-cum-strike drones which can carry up to four PGMs and reportedly have endurance of 30 hours. Chinese SD-10 air-to-air missiles will arm the fleet of 300 JF-17 aircraft. Despite Chinese pledge to the contrary, it has continued to provide Pakistan with specialty steels, guidance systems and technical expertise in the latter’s effort to develop long-range ballistic missiles. The M-11 is copy of DF-11 and the Hatf, Shaheen and Anza series of missiles have been built with Chinese assistance.

JF-17 – The Success Story

The JF-17 Thunder is a third-generation fighter aircraft jointly developed by Pakistan and China. It can be considered a showcase of Sino-Pak defence cooperation. The JF-17 outwardly appears to be a combination of the Chinese fighter F-7P and the American F-16 both of which were used as a platform to evolve the JF-17. The costs were kept low by borrowing technologies developed for Chinese J-10 fighter. This fly-by-wire 1.6 Mach fighter is powered by Russian RD-93 turbofan engine. Russia has cleared up to 400 engines to be supplied to Pakistan. The aircraft has a wide angle Head-Up Display, aerial refuelling, a datalink, a Thales RC-400 multi-mode radar, MICA Air-to-Air missiles, a host of air-to-ground weapons and an electronic warfare suite. The aircraft can carry external load of 3,100 kg.

There is a need for the IAF to build up force levels quickly lest it gets left too far behind…

China and Pakistan are aggressively trying to find possible export customers. Targeted countries are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. The reasonable price makes it attractive. Comparisons are being drawn between the JF-17 and India’s Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ LCA Mk I. Both aircraft use a foreign engine and airborne radar. The Tejas uses many new technologies including large amounts of composite materials, advanced avionics and a unique aerodynamic configuration, and has a good potential to be expanded into variants. A ship-based version of the aircraft has already been released. The JF-17 is the aircraft of today and the Tejas, the aircraft of tomorrow. At a unit cost of around $15 – $20 million, the JF-17 seems a little cheaper than the LCA’s reported cost of $25 million apiece.

Sino-Pak Air Exercises

The PAF and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) began Shaheen series of Exercises in 2011 to improve inter-operability to enhance response to ‘mutual threat’. The missions have included air combat, surface attack, air-refuelling and logistic support missions. Shaheen-I was held in Pakistan. Shaheen-II was held in September 2013 in Hotan in Western China. PAF had then sent Mirage III EA and F-7G aircraft. PLAAF fielded J-10 multi-role fighters and J-7C aircraft on the airframe of which the JF-17 was based. The more manoeuverable J-10s acted as the aggressors. The three-week long Shaheen-III exercise held in May 2014 was at PAF Rafiqi airbase in Western Punjab. This exercise was important to the PAF as it gave them exposure to fly against Chinese Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30MKK aircraft which are similar to Indian Air Force (IAF) frontline SU-30 MKI aircraft.

Over the last few decades, China has systematically been working to encircle/ contain India…

Aerospace Implications for India

Sino-Pakistan ties create the threat of a potential two-front war. India thus needs to re-examine its force structure. The PLAAF is the world’s second largest Air Force, with 2,500-plus aircraft and has been under aggressive modernisation. Combined with 450 aircraft of the PLA Navy, and the soon-to-be inducted state-of-the art aircraft carriers, makes it a great air power for the IAF to contend with. The IAF is down to 34 squadrons and is reportedly at the bottom of the numbers curve.

The PAF has plans to increase from 22 towards its target of 28 squadrons. The current IAF: PAF ratio of 1.5:1 is a far cry from the once 3:1 dominance. The IAF immediately requires advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. The IAF has also been trying to convince the Indian government that there was a need to eventually increase the combat squadrons from currently targeted 42, to around 50 squadrons. To achieve this, the defence budget must be increased to at least three per cent of GDP from the current 1.67 per cent. Also, we need to hasten procurement processes. The Defence R&D and Indian aircraft industry too would have to get their act right if ‘Make in India’ has to succeed. There is a need for the IAF to build up force levels quickly lest it gets left too far behind.

Chinese and Russian Interest in Pakistan

Over the last few decades, China has systematically been working to encircle/contain India. It is also to increase its sphere of influence in Indian Ocean Region, and in turn, prevent United States (along with friends) to encircle China. Pakistan is critical link in this plan. China has been overtly/covertly helped it build aircraft industry, missile technology and nuclear power among others. The China-built and operated strategic Gwadar port in an otherwise turbulent Baluchistan will become significant when the US pulls out of Afghanistan. The aggressive expansion of the PLA Navy is part of this grand strategy.

The close nexus between India’s two estranged nuclear neighbours will engage the Indian strategic establishment in times to come…

“China and Pakistan should deepen and broaden military cooperation in such fields as joint exercise and training, so as to enrich the strategic cooperation between the two countries”, said Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Pakistan in April 2015. Hailing the important role the Pakistani military has played in the development of China-Pakistan relations, Xi said that the understanding and support of the Pakistani military is necessary for the two countries to forge a community of shared destiny. Pakistani military leaders affirmed their support for consolidation of the friendly cooperation between China and Pakistan, and staunchly backed China’s efforts to counter terrorism. Earlier, Pakistan had escorted the Chinese President Xi’s plane with eight fighter escorts as mark of the military’s respect and gratitude. Pakistan believes that America’s influence and support in the region should be counterbalanced by China.

With India closing towards USA, Russia and Pakistan signed their very first military cooperation agreement in 2014 and laid out future avenues of cooperation, ending years of reality wherein Islamabad remained closer to the US and Moscow to India. Joint naval exercises, military officers exchange, arms sales, counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism cooperation are envisaged between Russia and Pakistan. The sale of 20 Mi-35 transport helicopters to Pakistan and Pakistani interest in the Su-35s are being discussed. Russia wants to be active in the region when the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. Yet Russia’s interest in India dominates as in 2015, India purchased $3.8 billion worth of Russian arms – still far ahead of the $981 million worth it purchased from the US. Russia’s direct exports to Pakistan were mere $22 million. Russia plans to court both the countries.

Implications and Options for India

Baluch nationalists have been protesting that the Pakistan government is conspiring to plunder the province’s natural resources. Wealthy and connected Pakistanis are being accused of a major land grab exercise all along the so-called economic corridor. India with its zero-sum mind-set is deeply concerned over the project. Any enhancement of a Sino-Pak relationship could damage India’s aspirations to be the pre-eminent power in the South Asian and Indian Ocean Region. The Corridor running through the Karakoram affects India’s claims over the territories of the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the Northern Areas. Three parallel corridors will give strength in depth and Indian military concept of slicing through the country will become redundant.

India is crucial to the US in its desire to create a stable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific…

India’s policy makers are also worried about a possible two-front war in future. Any Indian protests are unlikely to yield anything. India may instead progress its own Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) corridor for continuation of economic integration of regional markets at a faster pace to stay relevant. After PM Modi’s recent visit to Iran and signing of an MOU, India should accelerate the Chabahar port project located 170 km West of Gwadar in Iran that was partially built by India in the 1990s. India aspires for an important role in the Asia region. Simultaneously, India is crucial to the US in its desire to create a stable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and needs partners like India to shore up its sagging credibility in the region in face of Chinese onslaught. US-India military relations derive from a common belief in freedom, democracy, and the rule of law and seek to advance shared security interests which include maintaining security and stability, defeating violent religious extremism and terrorism, preventing the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction and associated materials.

Yet India should be conscious that American capacity to shape global outcomes (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine) has had its limitations. India being a large country attaches importance to safeguarding its national interests with its own strategic objectives and imperatives and it will act only where interests converge. India’s desire to sit on the global high table with membership to United Nations Security Council; getting an upgraded position in trade and investment fora such as the World Bank and IMF; admission into multilateral export control regimes (NSG, Australia Group) are possible only through active US support. In recent years, India has conducted large joint military exercises with the US in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

Click to buy: IDR Jul-Sep 2016

In June 2015, Ashton Carter became the first American Defence Secretary to visit an Indian military command. Later, in December Manohar Parrikar became the first Indian Defence Minister to visit the US Pacific Command. In March 2016, India rejected the US proposal to join naval patrols in the South-China Sea alongside Japan and Australia. Singapore’s Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen observed, “By virtue of its economic and military heft, China’s leadership role in international affairs is a given. We cannot pretend that China is just like any other major economy.” Engagement may thus also be an option. As China surmounts the need to go through the Malacca Strait, and with Pakistan’s help, gets a strategic entry into the Indian Ocean, India has a geo-political dilemma looking for answers and alliances. The close nexus between India’s two estranged nuclear neighbours will engage the Indian strategic establishment in times to come.

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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.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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6 thoughts on “Sino-Pak Collaboration – Military Aviation

  1. One thing I appreciate that IAF officers are better managers than Army officers. Army officers are the verse managers. The majority officers use slang words if they cannot give a satisfactory answer. But our defence officers lack in war strategy and purchases unwanted defence equipment like Aircraft carrier etc. They will not take an overall view and do not keep the latest information. India need not worry about China. China is indirectly helping us to prevent a full-scale war against Pakistan.
    China has to fully depend on India for the uninterrupted oil supply or gas from the middle east . If China attacks India a naval blockade near Nicobar island is sufficient to cut off their supply. Our Navy officers were not aware that Nicobar Island is the most strategic location in the Indian Ocean till the USA told us in 1995. It is a similar location as shown in the Guns of Navarone. film. Without Indias help, the USA cannot fight against China. So China is not going to attack India. China is constructing a big port in Pakistan. If Pakistan attacks us the fist causality will be that port. Pakistan Navy cannot save that port . No Chines warships will cross Malacca strait and reach the Indian Ocean. So India is in a far better position than the two enemies. Water is our Trump card. So do not underestimate the present Govt. and civilians. The present defence mister knows all the above details. A few civilians better than defence officers. Please read an article given below-

    Part Five: Air War in the West

  2. You are writing about BVR missiles SD-10. Its range is 70Km. Astra has a range of 80 to 110Km. Pakistan has got the USA make AIM-120C-5: >105 km (>57 nmi) But they will not get the range till they fit AN/APG-68 Radar. But this radar cannot be accommodated in old F-16.s The USA refused to supply F-16C/D Block 25. fighter planes to Pakistan. Moreover, if we know the exact working frequency all radars can be jammed, Isreal knows the technic. Nobody knows how Tejas will perform having partially stealth body and small size. Gnat fighter aircraft performed far better than any other aircraft. Due to its small size Pakistan radars. were not able to detect its movement. But you feel Tejas is an inferior fighter plane. IAF wants only Rafael the costliest plane in that category as if it will solve all the problems. So I do not what actually iAF want.

  3. It seems to me by reading several articles by the IAF higher authorities over a considerable period recently that AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Arrays) and “Stealth” technology as integrated in modern fighter-interceptors are giving a great headache to Indian defence planners. To my mind these technologies will be secondary at present when standing up to China and Pakistan in the battle field air war. To operate successfully AESA is a difficult job scientifically and DRDO must get involved. AESA is of significance only when you want to track several targets at very long distances. Otherwise standard phased arrays are adequate. For shorter distance infra-red imaging seekers on missiles as used by Russian Air Force could be more effective.

  4. Dear Air Marshall – sir; you have not stated all the facts about Chinese Air Force. The summary at the front states that Chinese Air Force as the second largest at 2500 plus. What you failed to state that a bulk, about 1700 of these are Korean War vintage MIG -17 or 19. They stand no chance in a battle. These are maintained in the Air Force inventory to give writers like you a false impression of the size.

    Everything else they have which you have confusing details are of dubious quality except about 200 of Su-27.

    Chinese use the old inventory to train pilots. It serves no other purpose.

    • If we follow these defence officers India will never be able to bring down poverty level. They do not know the actual requirement of fighter planes. and give a gloomy picture about countries defence preparedness. Some officers will write iAF is down to 34 squadrons another officer will write IAK Sanctioned strength is 42 Squadrons. But if you asked them from where they got the figure they will not answer. India never had 42 squadrons at any point in time. IAF fought the 1971 war with 34 squadrons. As per IAF Wikipedia, they have 560 fighter plane excluding Mig -21. In 1971 IAF fought the war with 408 fighter planes. They fought the war using Hunter and Gnat . They used 240 planes in the west and 168 in the East. Now IAF has all front line fighter planes much better than 1971 planes used my IAF. Still, IAF officers are not satisfied

  5. China is spreading it’s wings to places, where she gets the latest technology by way of corruption to woo the persons into her trap & then, get the blueprint to make her own way of modified design & then Shopfloor production.
    I can cite the example of US Stealth aircraft which was duly copied by means of getting it’s blueprint by the
    illicit way from a person, now, allegedly accused of providing full details of the said aircraft; Sentencing 32 yrs in US jail, the case is still going on to prove himself innocence.

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