SOURCE: ANAND SG / FOR MY TAKE / IDRW.ORG
The Pakistani Air Force’s combat jet for years have centered around the JF-17 Thunder fighter program, Pakistani military officials might boost in public that it is as capable as American built F-16 jets but in private they seem to be worried about the future fleet that now they are actively considering procuring Chinese J-10C jets powered by domestically developed WS-10 Taihang engines to counter Indian acquisition of the Rafale jets, but in reality, it is more to do with easing pressure on the aging fleet of F-16s at that their disposal.
Exactly 40 years back in 1982, the First Two F-16 A/B jets were handed over to PAF in the United States and within two years fleet size grew to 40 that were later upgraded through Mid-Life Upgradation (MLU) for Block 15 aircraft that took place in 2009, enhancing it to Block 20 standards that included the mission computer upgradation, avionics, Electronic Warfare (EW) suite and integration of new AN/APG-68v9 radar system, leading to the compatibility of platform with AIM-120 AMRAAMs and supporting Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS); allowing it to nearly matching the latest Block 52 in terms of combat ability.
Out of the original 40, 10 were lost over the last 40 years in accidents to bring back it to its original numbers In 2014, a deal was signed with Jordan to purchase the 14 F-16 ADF Block 15 units previously operated by Royal Jordanian Air Force, which includes 12 single-seater and 2 twin seater variants. Ex Jordanian F-16s were relatively new and were made in 1988/89 but a major boost came when 12 F-16C Block 52 and 6 F-16D Block 52 were supplied in 2010 which still now remains the newest and most upgraded fleet of them all three F-16 variants in service with PAF.
PAF’s F-16 fleet out of 75 is made of 30 F-16A Block 15 that are nearing 40 years in service and 14 F-16 ADF Block 15 that are over 33 years old now. First F-16 fleet operators like Israel have retired their Original F-16A/B fleet after 36 years in service due to the lack of a modernization roadmap to upgrade them further and also due to their airframe restrictions being of the older design. PAF mostly likely will stretch F-16 service life for another 10 years or more as seen with its Mirage-III/V fleet but eventually, age will catch up with airframes due to high usage and F-16 being the first choice of the BARrier Combat Air Patrol (BARCAP) duties it had to take some measures to ensure that it can preserve them for much longer as JF-17s cannot act as the second line of BARCAP as seen in recent times in support of F-16 fleet.
After fallout over Afghanistan, PAF sees slim chances of acquiring used F-16s from other operators that still requires United States approvals, and diminishing upgrade capabilities will also mean it will need to start looking at alternatives for the majority of its F-16 fleet that it might be forced to retire at the turn of this decade if the relationship with the United States continues to deteriorate further. J-10 was never the first choice of PAF to be seen as its F-16 replacement aircraft but with Project AZM a 5th gen fighter jet program now hitting a dead wall and with completion of the J-17 Block-III, PAF has achieved aircraft that it always desired but it also means that there will be no further development of Block-IV or Block-V as fleet size already is over 150 unit mark and production might be capped at 250 after induction of 100 latest Block-III jets.
PAF in the future might work with China in the development of a new single-engine 5th gen stealth fighter as a successor to the JF-17 program that will supersede both F-16 and J-10C in performance and capabilities but that could require time but other alternatives could be to acquire export variant of the twin-engine J-31 5th gen stealth fighter whenever it available. PAF’s J-10C acquisition is rather a smart move to act as a fill gap arrangement before it can acquire another rebranded Chinese jet either as a joint venture or directly when it’s available. J-10C fleet will ease the pressure on the F-16 fleet and help PAF preserve them for much longer in service. J-10C in agility and performance is nowhere close to Indian Rafale but it will act as a better backup to the F-16 fleet than the JF-17 fleet that had lackluster performance over recent skirmish with older Indian Mirage-2000 jets.
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