China–Pakistan Aerospace Nexus: Implications for India
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Issue Vol 38.3, Jul-Sep & 38.4, Oct-Dec 2023 | Date : 01 Jan , 2024

Despite the current economic and political turmoil in Pakistan, the Sino-Pakistani strategic nexus remains stable. The two nations are coordinating well in all regional forums, something that was visible at the recent Heads of Government SCO meeting. Military cooperation between the two continues to deepen. Beijing stands firmly behind Pakistan in respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, travelled to China to boost bilateral ties. Earlier, Pakistan Naval Chief Amjad Khan Niazi visited China in May 2023. Chinese defence leadership reiterated that military cooperation was the core of the bilateral relations between the two nations and they will jointly maintain their security interests and that of the region. Pakistan’s location is a gift of geography. It remains crucial for China’s access to the petroleum rich West Asia, investment hungry Africa and also for power projection in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Pakistan-China Strategic Alliance

After the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Pakistan saw an opportunity to befriend China and in 1963, ceded nearly 5,000 sq km of its territory in Shaksgam Valley to China. Immediately after the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, China and Pakistan forged a strategic alliance in 1972, which has grown since then from strength to strength in almost all spheres, including defence. While China supports Pakistan on Kashmir, Pakistan, in turn, supports China on Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. Pakistan also acts as a link between China and the Muslim world. China’s national strategic interest to get port facilities and a highway close to the oil-rich West Asia made it commit nearly $62 billion in the Gwadar deep-water port and the road and rail corridor leading to it that is called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Long term plan is to lay an oil-gas pipeline from Gwadar to central China. Pakistan continues to be a key element of China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy to create a sphere of influence around India. For Pakistan, China is a low-cost-high-value deterrent against India. Beijing’s open belligerence, salami slicing attempts on India’s borders and Islamabad’s export of terrorism combined with strategic military closeness, poses a two-front challenge for India.

After India secured a nuclear deal with the United States (US), China agreed to set up two nuclear power stations in Pakistan…

China Supported Pakistan’s Military Industrial Complex

In the initial decades after Partition, Pakistan’s military depended almost entirely on American armaments and aid which increased considerably during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Post 1963, China began supporting Pakistan to build the Military Industrial Complex. Meanwhile, the Pressler Amendment in 1990, resulted in suspension of all American military assistance amidst concerns that Pakistan was attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Many Pakistanis saw this as a betrayal. Consequently, since 1990, Pakistan has tilted more actively towards China for military and economic cooperation. China helped Pakistan set up munitions factories and upgrade the existing ordnance factory at Wah near Rawalpindi. China allowed the licensed production of the MBT-2000 (Al-Khalid) tank which was essentially a Chinese variant of Russian T-90. The militaries of the two nations began exercising together. China helped build a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi. It also helped Pakistan in submarine production capability. Chinese F-22P frigates joined the Pakistan Navy. China also 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 United States (US), China agreed to set up two nuclear power stations in Pakistan. However, the greatest progress in the China-Pakistan relationship has been seen in the domain of aviation.

Military Aviation Industry of China

China has state-of-the-art aircraft programmes with two stealth fifth-generation fighters (J-20 and J-31), large military transport aircraft (Y-20) and a Flight Refueller variant. The Y-20 can carry a payload of 66 tonne. China has three home-developed AEW&C aircraft including the KJ-2000. The H-20 is the Chinese stealth strategic bomber under development that is planned to undertake its first flight in 2025. China manufactures the J-11 air-superiority fighter aircraft based on Russian Su-27 design. The J-16 was the Chinese version of Su-30MKK procured earlier from Russia. The J-15 is the carrier version of Su-33. The J-20 first flew in January 2011, and till date, nearly 150 have been built. The J-31, an F-35 look-alike, has had a fresh infusion of funding. China has built nearly 600 J-10 fourth-generation combat aircraft. China also has two attack helicopter programmes – the 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 the Global Hawk class.

China’s Military Aviation Production Support to Pakistan

Commencing 1965, China supplied to Pakistan 253 F-6 aircraft, China’s Air Defence version of the Russian MiG-19. 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 the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra North of Islamabad in 1973. From 1983 onwards, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) received 55 A-5Cs ground attack variant of the MiG-19 and 186 F-7 aircraft that is the 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 PAF has 150 of these and the strength is likely to increase to over 200 in the future. This programme is also a signal to the US that Pakistan has other nations to bank on for its security needs.

Pakistan has ordered 25 Chengdu J-10CE ‘Vigorous Dragon’ multi-role fighters, with the option of 11 more. So far, 14 have been delivered. Some contemplate that another 25 may be ordered for a second squadron. This tail-less 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 variant reportedly has an AESA radar and will be equipped with the improved Chinese WS-10A engine. A host of Chinese missiles and PGMs are part of the package. Pakistan has acquired the Chinese HQ-9/P AD system, a Chinese variant of S-300, that covers High-to-Medium level threats.

China and Pakistan are aggressively trying to find possible export customers in Africa and Asia. Nigeria and Myanmar have ordered some small numbers…

Four ZDK-03 Chinese AEW&C aircraft with an AESA radar mounted on the Shaanxi Y-8F-600 cargo aircraft, have already been inducted. Three Harbin Y-12 are operated as light utility aircraft by the PAF. The fleet of Chinese Shenyang FT-5 and American T-37 trainers are being replaced by Chinese-designed and Pakistan-manufactured K-8 Karakorum intermediate jet trainers. 60 of this platform are currently in service and more are on order. A large number of these have been exported to air forces in Africa. The PAF has also received four CH-4 recce-cum-strike drones which can carry up to four Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) and reportedly have endurance of 30 hours. Many more Chinese drones are on order. Chinese SD-10 air-to-air missiles arm the J-10CE and JF-17 aircraft. Despite China’s 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 Flagship Project

The JF-17 Thunder is claimed to be a fourth-generation fighter developed by China for Pakistan and produced jointly. It can be considered a show-case of Sino-Pak defence cooperation. The JF-17 outwardly appears to be a combination of Chinese fighter F-7P and the American F-16, both of which were used as a platform to evolve the Lavi with Israel, from which flowed 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 JF-17 has Wide-angle Head Up Display, aerial refuelling, a data-link and the Chinese NRIET KLJ-7 radar. A Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) pod for low-level navigation, Infra-red search and track (IRST) system and a Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) are available on later variants. The aircraft has eight hard-points including two on wingtips and can carry external load of 3,700 kg. The weapons inventory includes the PL-10 and PL-12 missiles, and possible PL-15 with Block III.

Currently, 134 JF-17s are in active service with the PAF, comprising 47 JF-17A Block 1, 62 JF-17A Block 2 and 25 JF-17B Block 2 variants. 50 Block III variants incorporating advanced avionics systems and a new AESA radar, are under induction. With 26 two-seat JF-17B variants on order, the JF-17 is set to become the ‘backbone’ of the PAF. China and Pakistan are aggressively trying to find possible export customers in Africa and Asia. Nigeria and Myanmar have ordered some small numbers. The reasonable price makes it attractive.

Comparisons are being drawn between the JF-17 and India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ 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. The Tejas Mk 1A will be better than the Block III and the will be better than the J-10. At unit cost, the JF-17 seems lower than the cost of the LCA Mk2.

Sino-Pak ‘Shaheen’ Air Exercises

The Pakistani armed forces carry out a number of military exercises with the Chinese armed forces. The most important and extensive is the Shaheen series between the PAF and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) which began in 2011. These are meant to improve inter-operability to enhance response to ‘mutual threat’. The missions have included dissimilar air combat, surface attack, air-refuelling and logistic support missions. Shaheen-I was held in Pakistan and Shaheen-II was held in September 2013 in Hotan in Western China. The PAF had then sent Mirage III EA and F-7G aircraft to participate in the exercises. The PLAAF fielded J-10 multi-role fighters and J-7C aircraft. The more manoeuverable J-10s acted as the aggressors. The three week long Shaheen-III exercise in May 2014, was held 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 the Indian Air Force (IAF) frontline SU-30 MKI aircraft.

Shaheen-III exercise, held in May 2014, was important to the PAF as it gave them exposure to fly against Chinese Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30MKK aircraft which are similar to the Indian Air Force frontline SU-30 MKI aircraft…

Shaheen VIII was conducted in 2019, at the Chinese airbase at Hotan, close to the Indian border in Ladakh. This saw a mix of Chinese Chengdu J-10C, Shenyang J-11B, Xi’an Y-20 heavy lift transport aircraft, Shaanxi KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft and Shaanxi Y-8 EW aircraft while the PAF deployed JF-17 Thunders and Dassault Mirage III/5s as also various force multipliers. The PAF did not operate the F-16s, mindful of US concerns. Both Air Forces focused on large force engagements, carrying out BVR air combat, close air combat and ground attack, all in a dense EW environment. More than 200 sorties were flown by both sides. The three-week Shaheen IX in December 2020, was held at the new PAF base at Bholari, 120 kilometres from Karachi. Chinese pilots were exposed to Western tactics as practised by the PAF. The joint exercises helped to improve the actual level of combat training and strengthen practical cooperation between the two air forces.

Sino-Pak Cooperation in Space

China has a very advanced space programme which includes the launch of a variety of ballistic missiles, thousands of artificial satellites, a well-developed global satellite navigation system, anti-satellite missile capability, crewed spaceflight, an indigenous space station and plans to explore the Moon, Mars and the broader Solar System. China has tested hypersonic cruise missiles and Glide Vehicles. Today, China has one of the most active space programmes in the world. It conducts among the highest number of orbital launches each year. China has conducted multiple complex extra-terrestrial exploration missions, including landing and sample-return. China will soon have a crewed mission to the Moon and is working on space transportation, in-orbit maintenance of spacecraft, space telescope, counter-space capabilities, 3D-printing and manufacturing in space, asteroid mining, power-generation, quantum communications, orbiter and sample-return missions to Mars and exploration missions throughout the Solar System and deep space.

Pakistan’s Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was established in 1961. The agency had little to show in the initial 35 years. The country’s first technology demonstrator satellite, Badr-I, was built by SUPARCO and was launched by China in 1990. SUPARCO played a significant role in the development of Pakistani missiles such as Hatf-I and Hatf-II that was supported by China based on its M-11 missile. Pakistan does not have its own launch vehicles and aims to launch more satellites with Chinese help.

Pakistan and China have been strategic partners in the space sector for three decades. Since 1992, China has helped Pakistan develop and launch communications satellites and remote sensing satellites, among others. The two nations signed a series of space exploration agreements in 2019 as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. They include China helping to train Pakistani astronauts and send them into space and to the newly completed Tiangong space station in Low Earth Orbit. Pakistan has access to Chinese BeiDou satellite navigation system. ICUBE-Q, a Pakistani CubeSat will be part of China’s Chang’e 6 mission to the moon and will look for traces of water ice from a lunar orbit in 2026.

Aerospace Implications for India

The PLAAF is the world’s second largest Air Force with nearly 1,700 fighter-bomber class aircraft of which, close to 1,000 are of fourth generation plus. The PLAAF has been under aggressive modernisation. Combined with 450 aircraft of the Chinese 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 PAF has plans to increase from current 22 to 25 squadrons. Current IAF: PAF ratio of 1.5:1 which is a far cry from the once 3:1 dominance.

After India revoked Article 370 in August, 2019, China raised the issue in the UNSC on three occasions and could well do so again, indicating its willingness to strain ties with India…

China has begun major infrastructure build-up in Tibet and Xinjiang and especially in the area near Aksai Chin. The Kashgar-Karachi CPEC passes through the contested areas of Gilgit-Baltistan. Baluch nationalists have been protesting that the Pakistan government is conspiring to plunder the province’s waste natural resources. Wealthy and connected Pakistanis are being accused of a major land grab exercise all along the so-called economic corridor. India’s potential to become a democratic counter-balance against authoritarian China is of concern for them. Closeness with Pakistan can put India further on the backfoot. Any enhancement of Sino-Pak relationship could damage India’s aspirations to be the pre-eminent power in the South Asian and Indian Ocean Region.

The rise of India since 2014 is bothering China. After India revoked Article 370 in August, 2019, China raised the issue in the UNSC on three occasions and could well do so again, indicating its willingness to strain ties with India.

The Western Theatre Command is the largest of China’s five Theatre Commands. The operational tasks allotted to it are significant. The Western Theatre Command is a very real and potent threat for India. The PLAAF and the PLA have commonality of equipment. Both are continuously growing in technology and numbers. China will provide Pakistan with satellite-based ISR support, in addition to the use of BeiDou GPS network. Both exercise regularly and have sorted out inter-operability issues. The intelligence establishments of China and Pakistan have developed very close ties over the last few decades. Skardu airfield has two large runways and can be used by the PLAAF. China might sell its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, to Pakistan, once its fourth aircraft carrier is ready. The convergence of Sino-Pak interests on strategic and territorial issues points to increased and enduring Chinese military pressure on India, as presently seen in Ladakh. China could well open hostilities through Pakistan, creating a ‘two-front war’ situation for India. It is unlikely that India can break up the Pakistan-China nexus.

After the Ukraine conflict, Russia has been pushed more into China’s corner and will be of little support in case of a regional conflict. India cannot bank on any international partners for any physical support. Yet it must build and sustain closer relations with friendly democracies. India must also maintain its time-tested strategic autonomy. India thus needs to re-look at its force structure. Currently, the IAF is down to 31 fighter squadrons and this number could dip further. The IAF immediately requires advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. Many contend that the IAF eventually needs to increase combat squadrons from currently targeted 42, to around 50 squadrons. But presently, it may take nearly 15 years to even reach 42 squadrons. To achieve this, the defence budget must be increased to at least 2.5 per cent of GDP from the current 2.04 per cent. The soon to be third largest economy must spare more money for its security.

The last two decades have seen the PRC devoting substantial funds/effort towards enhancing CGZO capabilities globally, including its conventional/paramilitary strength that can be leveraged towards CGZO…

The atmanirbharta has to be pushed to its logical end through whole of nation approach. The Defence R&D and the Indian aircraft industry too would have to get their act right if the ‘Make-in-India’ programme has to succeed. The LCA Mk1A and Mk2 development and production must be hastened. Similarly, the AMCA design and development must be pushed. India has to invest much more in critical game-changing technologies such as hypersonic, directed energy, cyber, electronic warfare, Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum and robotics. India is way behind in inducting own unmanned platforms. India needs to accelerate the hypersonic cruise missile BrahMos II. Manned, Unmanned Teaming needs acceleration. Also, we need to hasten procurement of critical operational platforms. The RFP for 114 aircraft must go out without any delay. Similarly, the AEW&C and FRA numbers are too low for a continental-sized country with serious threats on its borders. These are critical for India’s global reach and great power aspirations.

India must also get out of the heavily Russia inclined air assets basket. Ultimately, India should target 40 per cent indigenous, 30 per cent Russian and 30 per cent Western arms basket by 2040. India’s satellite navigation system must be operationalised quickly. India needs many more satellites for ISR and secure communications including data handling. They are also required for redundancy. Launch on demand capability has to be built up and kept ready on standby. India may wish to reconfirm its ASAT capability to increase assurance. There is a need for the IAF to build up force levels quickly lest it gets left too far behind the PLAAF and the PAF reduces the gap.

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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

Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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One thought on “China–Pakistan Aerospace Nexus: Implications for India

  1. I’m nearly 100% sure that we will pause all our “indigenous” programmes & divert the saved cash to buy Fifth generation stealth fighters off the shelf. Mostly the Russian Su-57s or maybe even the US F-35s

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