“We have plans to have more F-16s and are negotiating with the U.S. government for more,” says Air Chief Marshall Rao Qamar Suleman, the Pakistani air force chief of air staff. Rao spoke to Aviation Week here, where he was attending an air chiefs’ conference.
When asked how many more aircraft Pakistan wants, Rao declines to specify the number on the grounds that “we are still in the process of negotiations.” “It depends in what form and the time frame,” he adds.
In 2006 the U.S. Congress agreed to give Pakistan 28 F-16C/Ds under an excess-defense articles scheme. Pakistan recently received the first 14, but has yet to get the others. Rao says it is unclear when these aircraft will arrive and it is part of the current negotiations.
Pakistan has a total of 63 F-16s, of which 45 are A/Bs and 18 are C/Ds. Rao says all the A/Bs are to undergo a midlife upgrade and become C/D aircraft “close to block 50” standard. The first three A/Bs are now undergoing the upgrade at Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). “In 2013-2014 all of the A/Bs will have been upgraded to C/Ds.” He also says four other F-16s were sent to the U.S. for technical verification inspections so the upgrade kits could be developed that TAI will install.
While Pakistan is an ally of the U.S., it is also an ally of China. Pakistan, for example, is producing JF-17 fighters at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra, a city in northern Pakistan. The JF-17 is a fighter jointly developed by China and Pakistan.
Rao says since becoming chief of air staff, he has made a concerted effort to increase the manufacturing capability of Pakistan’s defense industry. This is important because the country has in the past been subject to sanctions and embargoes, including by the U.S. over its nuclear weapons efforts.
Rao says Pakistan will have the second squadron of JF-17s enter operation at the end of March while simultaneously phasing out all of its Nanchang A-5s. The A-5 is a ground attack aircraft from China that was first produced in 1969.
“As for the Chengdu F-7s and Dassault Mirages, we will phase these out as we get JF-17s,” Rao says. “Some of Pakistan’s Mirages are the oldest in the world,” he says, adding that some were built in 1967. Phasing out the older Mirages is a top priority. The Mirages are difficult and costly to maintain because no one is producing spare parts for these aircraft anymore, he says. “We are getting secondhand parts, but we don’t know the history of these spare parts we are getting. It’s a flight safety issue and a nightmare for me,” he adds.
When asked about datalinks that could connect the F-16s to the JF-17s, Rao says Pakistan is working to develop its own solution. “We have Link 16 on the F-16s. We will not fiddle with Link 16 and not have direct linkages [between the JF-17s] with the F-16. However, we are trying to develop our own tactical datalink.” It will send information from the JF-17 to a ground station where there will be an interface, he says, adding there will be a short delay, and then the information will be sent to the F-16s.
Like with its fighters, Pakistan also has different types of airborne early warning and control aircraft. The country has three Saab Erieye aircraft and will receive its fourth by midyear, Rao says. This is its last Saab Erieye on order. Pakistan will also receive in the middle of the year its first Shaanxi ZDK-03. Pakistan has four on order, and the first rolled out of the Shaanxi Aircraft factory in November. But Rao says China is still busy installing the equipment and doing the necessary upgrades.
Another major requirement that Pakistan has is for UAVs. It already has Italian Selex Galileo Falco UAVs, and Rao says Pakistan has reached an agreement with the company whereby some Falcos will be made in Pakistan for the local market and export. Production will start in Pakistan this year, he says. In the past Pakistan reportedly wanted to have the Falco armed, a request that Italy rejected. Rao says the UAVs made in Pakistan will carry no weapons and will be for reconnaissance and surveillance, mostly of areas where insurgents and terrorists may be hiding.