WITH the inclusion of a new squadron of F-16s in the fleet, the Pakistan Air Force continues its quest for sought-after fighter aircraft.

The PAF recently purchased over a dozen American-built F-16s from Jordan to boost its strength. Eleven of these aircraft joined the PAF squad at the Mushaf airbase in Sargodha on Wednesday. With this, the total number of F-16 aircraft in the PAF is said to have reached around 80, thought to be more than sufficient to lead an aerial offence or defence tactic.

Though earlier it enjoyed supremacy in South Asia, the PAF was hit with financial constraints during the 1990s, and hardware restrictions were imposed on it by the US and its Western allies due to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Specifically, the refusal by the US to deliver 28 F-16s despite receiving a hefty price of $685 million hit the steady development of the PAF. This prompted Pakistan to evolve an alternative strategy: this is the first time the PAF has purchased F-16 fighting falcons from a Middle Eastern country.

Pakistan not only acquired the maximum number of Mirage aircraft to build the world’s largest fleet of the 40-year-old warplane but also upgraded available F-16s with the new technology of Block 52 from Turkey. It also equipped its frontline squads with the latest avionics system, Beyond Vision Range missiles and air-to-air refuelling systems. The Mirages were upgraded at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra, and after overhauling, these planes are now said to be serving to the maximum required standards.

The PAF also manufactured its own JF-17 Thunders with the help of China and inducted about 50 planes in the fleet. The plan now is to induct up to 200-250 in the squad over a couple of years as production has been doubled. Previously, Pakistan was producing around 10 JF-17 Thunder planes in a year; now, annual production stands at 20.

“Our fleet has a modest number of fighting falcons now. This includes old but overhauled and very effective Mirages, new F-16s with Block 52 technology, JF-17 Thunders, and the latest missile and avionics systems,” said PAF spokesperson Air Commodore Tariq Mahmood.

“The recently inducted F-16 squadron from Jordan has been purchased at a nominal price. Similarly the cost of co-produced JF-17 Thunder is almost one-third in comparison with any modern aircraft of its category.”

But former vice chief of air staff Air Marshal Shahid Lateef says the F-16 squadron from the Royal Jordan Air Force was available at a low price because its technology was getting old.

“The A&B version of F-16 aircraft, which we have just bought from Jordan, was available to us at a low price because Jordan was also upgrading their fleet to the C&D version of F-16. The A&B version of F-16s is now an old technology.”

Despite the PAF’s strategic expansion or upgrade, it remains far behind the Indian Air Force as far as numbers are concerned.

“India has an air force that is three times bigger than that of Pakistan,” says Lateef. “Their budget is six times higher. They have recently ordered 126 Rafale jets from France and have well over 1,000 fighter planes. We are no match for them in numbers.”

But Mahmood insists the difference in the number of planes and weapons becomes immaterial when human resource delivers better results.

“Besides technology, our main weapon is the motivation of our human force,” he argues.

“They know very well how to fight against an enemy three times bigger, and our pilots and engineers have proved themselves better in the past. Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt attaches great importance to human resource, realistic training, empowerment at field commanders level and progressive approach to tackle every challenge.”

The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2014



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