Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pakistan Expands Fighter Force


The Pakistani air force is gearing up for a major expansion of its JF-17 single-engine fighter force.
The service just began taking delivery of the first batch of Chengdu FC-1/JF-17s (now produced in Pakistan) this year, with about half of the 42 ordered now in place. With one squadron operational, service officials now plan to set up a second unit.
What’s more, the Pakistani government hopes to order a second batch of 50 fighters next year, says Air Commo.Junaid, who is involved in the JF-17 project. Pakistan is looking for enhanced features on the second batch, although the exact requirements have not been spelled out.
Both South African and French companies have shown interest in updating the JF-17’s avionics and weapons package. After looking at new candidates, the preferred option appears to be staying with Chinese suppliers, Pakistani officials suggest.
Despite the interest in enhancement, Junaid notes that the avionics package fielded on the baseline JF-17 has been one of the positive surprises. They have performed “better than expected,” he says, and pilot transition to the new aircraft has proceeded smoothly. And operations in the high mountain regions have not posed a problem, he asserts.
Fleet development is still at a relatively early stage, though. The focus so far has been on familiarizing pilots and maintenance crew with the new equipment. Preparations are underway to fully qualify crews for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Full operational capability is not far off, Junaid notes, adding that progress is much better than when the air force introduced its F-16A/B Block 15s in the early 1980s.
In parallel, the service has been taking delivery of the newest batch of Lockheed Martin F-16s in the Block 52 configuration. The last of these aircraft were delivered to the Shahbaz Air Base on Dec. 13. The air force has fielded 12 F-16Cs and six F-16Ds under the so-called Peace Drive I program.
The Pakistani air force argues that the precision strike features of the latest F-16s is bolstering operations in the contested border region with Afghanistan, such as South Waziristan, and the federally administered tribal areas.
The service also is awaiting completion of the ZDK-03 airborne early warning aircraft, which was rolled out last month at Hanzhong, China. The 2008 contract calls for delivery of four systems.
Meanwhile, fielding all the equipment is forcing the service to rethink its operational concepts, particularly regarding how to employ the various new tools in an integrated fashion, Junaid says.
Pakistan also continues to work on enhancing its unmanned aircraft inventory. It is already operating the Italian Selex Galileo Falco, but Italy has apparently been reluctant to allow the arming of that UAV. As a result, Pakistan is now acquiring armed CH-3s from China, which are still in development.
Photo: Alan Warnes

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