Amidst sustained tensions between the two nuclear armed South Asian neighbors, the Indian Air Force is scheduled to receive the first batch of four state-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets by the end of July 2020. The 7.87 billion euro Rafale deal between France and New Delhi for a total order of 36 jets was finally inked in September 2016, after much controversy and delay. According to the delivery schedule, the Indian Air Force shall receive all jets by May 2022. Armed with Meteor missiles and a highly sophisticated electronic warfare suite, New Delhi’s Rafale acquisition threatens to tilt the balance of power in South Asia in the IAF’s favor.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has been following the Indian Air Force’s modernization program with keen interest, but budget constraints mean that Islamabad’s chances of acquiring a fighter jet of similar capability are slim. Instead, Pakistan seems to be focusing on the latest variant of its indigenous JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter.
A prototype of the new JF-17 Block 3 fighter first flew in December 2019 and the jet has since undergone a further period of testing. By inducting an AESA radar-capable Block 3 variant in numbers by 2025, the PAF is confident that it can deny the larger Indian Air Force victory in a future conflict. Numerous reports have also hinted that the Block 3 would be armed with the much vaunted Chinese PL-15 missiles, which out-range everything in the IAF’s inventory, barring the Meteors.
Furthermore, unlike the IAF’s emphasis on induction of new platforms, the Pakistan Air Force has in recent years focused more on weapon systems and sensor upgrades to their existing fleet. This strategy paid dividends during the aerial engagement between the two air forces’ on February 27, 2019, as the PAF successfully infiltrated Indian airspace in Kashmir and managed to shoot down an IAF MiG-21.
However, despite the PAF’s well executed operation in February 2019, the Indian Air Force is equipped with aircraft that are both qualitatively and numerically superior to much of the PAF’s inventory. These include the IAF’s frontline air superiority fighter, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, and the highly capable Mirage 2000 multirole aircraft. On the other hand, the PAF still relies largely on its limited fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons as its primary air asset. The PAF has no more than 75 F-16 jets and a significant number of those are of the vintage Block A variant, delivered to Islamabad in the 1980s. Other aircraft include 100-plus JF-17s of the Block 1 and Block 2 variants, as well as a large operational fleet of the 1960s-era Mirage 3 fighter.
In the event of an all-out conventional war, the PAF’s limited frontline air assets are at risk of getting overstretched. More worryingly for Islamabad, the Indian Navy operates a sizeable independent air arm, which can be utilized in a conflict scenario to target Pakistan’s coastal industrial hub of Karachi. The much smaller Pakistan Navy does not operate fighter jets, instead relying on the PAF for aerial maritime strike operations.
This creates additional problems for the PAF, which is tasked with confronting the IAF along its long vulnerable eastern border as well as countering the Indian Navy’s air arm on the southern coast. The PAF’s problem of diverting much-needed air assets to the coast can be resolved by the acquisition of a cost-efficient aerial strike platform for the Pakistan Navy. Given Islamabad’s intimate relationship with China and the economic problems currently gripping the country, acquiring the JH-7 heavy strike fighter can both provide its navy with much needed aerial strike capability as well as free up PAF’s core assets to engage with the IAF for supremacy over the battlefields of Kashmir and Punjab.
The JH-7, while utilizing an old air frame, is a highly effective aircraft for deep strike operations. The jet first flew in 1988 and small numbers were delivered to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force during the 1990s. An improved version of the JH-7 fighter-bomber, also known by the NATO designation Flounder, began to be inducted in large numbers after 2004, after the Chinese aviation industry was able to indigenously manufacture a derivative of the Rolls Royce Spey engine. The Spey engine was designed specifically by the British for development of a low flying naval strike aircraft to counter the Soviet Navy in the Cold War.
Faced with cuts in defense expenditure and decreasing global influence after World War II, Britain could no longer afford to operate a sizable navy to deter the Soviet threat. Instead, the British opted for developing naval strike aircraft, such as the Blackburn Buccaneer, to extract a heavy toll on large Soviet Navy cruisers in a future conflict. The Spey engines were later utilized on the Royal Air Force’s fleet of F-4 Phantoms, giving the aircraft greater range and a shorter takeoff distance.
In addition to their low maintenance and impressive safety record, the Spey engine’s utility lies in the fact that it is designed specifically for sustained low altitude flight below the radar horizon of enemy naval vessels. Despite significant advances in jet engine development since the Cold War, the majority of engines today are designed for mid-to-high altitude flight. Flying at low altitude to avoid radar detection for longer periods thus decreases much of the engines’ range.
The JH-7 also complements the Pakistan Navy’s combat doctrine, which is based on the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) blueprint. The PN’s three Khalid-class submarines form the linchpin of their A2/AD strategy, with the wartime objective of preventing an attempted blockade of the vital Karachi port by the Indian Navy. Acquisition of the JH -7 by Pakistan would provide Islamabad with lethal capability to considerably limit the maneuvering capacity of the Indian Navy in the proximity of Karachi port.
Also, the JH-7, with its longer combat range, heavy payload capacity, and ability to fly under enemy radar cover provides Islamabad with an offensive capacity targeted at India’s protracted western coastline. Hence, acquisition of the JH-7 by Pakistan serves both defensive and offensive purposes. The improved JH-7A variant currently in service with the PLA Air Force is capable to carry over seven tonnes of armament, including four KD-88/YJ-83 anti-ship missiles.
The capability to carry long range anti-ship missiles, which can be launched more than 100 miles away from their targets, means that the JH-7 is able to utilize an asymmetric “hit and run” strategy before enemy air defenses can effectively engage with it. This doctrine was perhaps most aptly demonstrated by the Argentine Air Force during the 1982 Falklands War, as French Super Etendard strike aircraft armed with Exocet missiles sank two British warships.
One alternative to the JH-7 for Pakistan is its existing arsenal of cruise missiles, but this option has its own pitfalls. First, cruise missiles follow a predictable trajectory and are vulnerable to interception by India’s air defense network and fighter aircraft such as the Sukhoi 30 MKI. Second, the use of cruise missiles, even in an all-out conflict, presents a significant leap in terms of escalation. As such, a cruise missile attack by either New Delhi or Islamabad can lead to an eventual nuclear exchange.
Having extensive prior experience in operating and maintaining Chinese-built aircraft such as the H-5, J-6, and F-7, acquisition of the JH-7 by Pakistan and its effective combat use for the heavy strike role presents an ideal “stop-gap” solution for the PAF until sufficient numbers of the JF-17 Block 3 are inducted. The Chinese also appear eager to sell much of their JH-7 fleet, showcasing the fighter bomber for sale at air shows such as the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition. As prospects of inducting foreign jets from Western countries appear bleak, the JH-7 appears to be the PAF’s only viable option to assert itself in a volatile region.
Ammad Malik is a defense and security analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan. His work focuses on Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East and issues concerning military strategy.