May 20, 2005
The American decision to sell new F-16 fighters to Pakistan comes not a moment too soon for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). PAF used to have technological superiority over it's Indian counterpart as recently as the 1980s, when the PAF received some 40 state of the art F-16 Block 15 fighters. These aircraft were were a cut above the warplanes of the Indian Air Force (IAF).
However, all changed in the 1990s, when the US sanctioned Pakistan for nuclear weapons development and stopped delivery of more F-16s. What's worse, the spares for PAF's existing F-16s dried up as well and the air force had to effectively ground its F-16 fleet for a few years. Meanwhile, IAF began to induct the powerful Sukhoi-30 MKI air superiority fighter, even as it added new capabilities to its existing Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 fighters by equipping them with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. This posed a particular threat to PAF, which lacked BVR capability.
PAF's plight was exposed during the Pakistan army's incursion into the Kargil sector of Indian Kashmir in the summer of 1999. Analyses by Pakistani experts revealed that when the rubber met the road, PAF simply refused to play any part in support of the Pakistan army, angering the latter. While PAF fighters did fly Combat Air Patrols (CAP) during the conflict, they stayed well within Pakistani air space. On occasions, IAF MiG-29s armed with the deadly R-77 BVR Air-to-Air missiles were able to lock on to PAF F-16s, forcing the latter to disengage. In the absence of a PAF threat, the IAF was able to deliver numerous devastating strikes on intruder positions and supply dumps.
The situation changed little during the 2002 border crisis between India and Pakistan. Defense commentators in Pakistan noted later that despite public bravado, PAF had less than 50 percent of its top-end fighter jets available since the rest had to be cannibalized to keep the others flying. One Pakistani military expert observed that PAF's perceived inability to defend Pakistan's airspace and even put up a token fight against the IAF was the biggest driver for Pakistani leaders' warnings that any Indian attack would lead to an immediate nuclear strike by Pakistan. It would be no exaggeration to say that after the Kargil and 2002 experiences, PAF's psyche took a big beating.
In this context, PAF's planned F-16 purchase is clearly a massive boost to its sagging morale. For starters, PAF is likely to buy Block-52 F-16s, which are only surpassed by the Block-60 model currently being delivered to the United Arab Emirates. The Block-52 F-16 comes with the Northrop Grumman APG-68(V)9 multimode radar which has five times processing speed over the previous APG-68(V)7/8 radar. The F-16s also feature a new Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) with two-feet resolution, which enables autonomous delivery of precision, all-weather, standoff weapons like the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), both of which are rumored to be on offer to Pakistan.
Most importantly, the new F-16s finally give PAF a BVR air-combat ability along with the peerless AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile, which is perhaps the best BVR weapon of its kind in the world today. PAF's existing 32 F-16s are also likely to be given a Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU), making them BVR capable as well. While the PAF has yet to release the exact number of new F-16s it will buy, reports say that it is likely to be around 55. Given that IAF's plans to procure newer planes are headed nowhere in the coming years and the slow rate of induction of IAF's Su-30s, it is quite likely that by 2009 or so, PAF will be in a position where it can confidently defend Pakistan's airspace and perhaps even be capable of deep strikes into India should the US supply offensive weapons like the JDAM and JSOW.
Still, PAF faces some challenges. According the recently released official flight safety statistics, the air force logged around 82,000 hours in 2004. Given that PAF has over 550 combat aircraft and at least two pilots per available aircraft, the average comes to less that 75 hours per pilot per year. This is clearly a far cry from the PAF's past claims of averaging over 200 hours per pilot annually. The IAF reportedly averages between 150 and 180 annual flying hours. Regardless, it now appears likely that with the F-16 purchase as well as other planned acquisitions including Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircrafts, PAF is well on its way to erasing the painful memories of Kargil and the 2002 crisis. -- Kaushik Kapisthalam