PAF’s plan to acquire 150 JF-17s is fast becoming a reality as progress continues in the joint Pakistan-China defense venture. Ever since the roll out ceremony of JF-17 Thunder in Nov 2009, the assembly lines of PAC, Kamra are going ahead of their projected milestones.
By mid April 2011, JF-17 was flying in the No.16 and No.26 Sqn from Kamra and Peshawar, respectively. Since Thunder is operating in different roles in both these units, one may expect different levels of evaluations of JF-17 being done within these units.
No.16 Sqn serves as Test & Evaluation Flight wing. It is responsible for conducting T&E of each and every aircraft that leaves the assembly lines. They start with statically running the engine and then conducting ground runs of aircraft before clearing it for flight. In the later stages more tests are added in the T&E process, depending upon the performance of each aircraft at different levels of flight. After successfully completing the defined T&E flight hours, the aircraft is cleared for operational use.
No.26 Sqn is tasked with Multi Role assessment of JF-17 Thunder. Apart from conducting next stage T&E flights, the unit also performs air defence role. Its pilots and ground crew have been pre-occupied in carrying out pilot training, operational, test and evaluation duties.
At least 33 examples of JF-17 Thunder have been delivered to PAF. With a rate of two aircraft per month rolling off the production lines, it is evident that a third squadron of JF-17s will be set up, soon.
Which unit will form the third JF-17 squadron remains shrouded in mystery. But is seems very likely that it will be either one of the ageing F-7P and Mirage-III/V squadrons.
F-7 in PAF:
F-7P is a modified version of F-7MP aircraft developed by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. After conducting test and evaluations in both Pakistan and China, PAF received first batch of 20 F-7P aircraft in early 1989. All these aircraft were modified to meet PAF’s requirements, which included Martin Baker Mk10L ejection seat, Macroni Type226 Skyranger radar and ability to carry Aim-9 sidewinder missiles. Navigation and communication system was also updated.
By 1993 160+ F-7s were flying in various squadrons of PAF. In early 2000s, F-7s original Skyranger radar was replaced by Italian FIAR Grifo 7 fire-control radar, which had a range of more than 55km. This upgradation was done at Kamra Avionics and Repair Factory (KARF- now Avionics Production Factory (APF)) at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).
Today F-7P equips the Combat Commanders School, No.2, 14, 18 and 19 Squadron.
Mainwali AB based No.18 and No.19 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) are tasked with initial fighter training of young pilots which have recently passed out from No.1 Fighter Conversion Unit (FCU). With basic and intermediate level knowledge about aircraft radars and its performance in various modes of operation, formation flying and combat training these young ‘rookies’ are taught in both Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground missions. For this purpose these units operate single and dual seat F-7P aircraft.
Both F-7 units will perform operational conversion duties with current F-7P aircraft for at least another five years which will later be replaced by double-delta winged F-7PG aircraft.
No.2 and No.14 Air Superiority Squadrons operate from Masroor AB, Karachi and Minhas AB, Kamra. Both are tasked with defending southern and northern region of Pakistan, respectively.
No.2 Sqn received F-7P in 1990. Some more FT-7s were added to their inventory in 1993. Over the years No.2 Sqn has taken part in various exercises including Sea Spark exercises with Pak Navy, Inspired Alert exercises with the US Navy, Saffron Bandit and High Mark. It has also participated in close air support role in Pak Army’s exercises too.
Being a unit that operates on sea and coastal areas, its aircraft is configured with corrosion resistant WP-7C engines. For JF-17 to be added to this unit, PAC/CAC will most likely make the necessary changes to the engine for it to be better suited for routine training and patrol missions over the Arabian Sea.
No.14 Sqn ‘Shaheens’ received F-7P in September 1993 when it relinquished its F-16s (which were evenly distributed in the remaining F-16 squadrons) due to sanctions faced by the country. 14 Sqn is playing an important role in maintaining routine combat air patrols over Northern region of Pakistan, including the capital Islamabad. During Nuclear ADA (1998), Operational Sentinel 2001/02 and tensions with India 2008, 14 Sqn was deployed to Chaklala for air maintaining round-the-clock air defence patrols. The Sqn also routinely deploys to Skardu for keeping a check on activities up North.
No.14 Sqn has the honour of being PAF’s third oldest and second fighter squadron to be made after independence in 1947. Over the past six decades Shaheens have made their name in all the battles of Pakistan. It will not be surprising to see induction of JF-17 in this squadron. Inclusion of JF-17 in 14 Squadron will boost the air defence of northern sector of Pakistan.
Pakistan Air Force’s Combat Commanders School (CCS) is composed of a Mirage and F-7 Squadron. The purpose of CCS Mirage and F-7 squadrons is to sharpen the skills of pilots who are proficient in Mirage and F-7 aircraft. The advanced tactics are taught in multiple air-to-air, air-to-ground attack and network centric warfare.
For this purpose Air Combat Manoeuvering Instrumentation Range (ACMI) and Electronic Warfare Test and Training Range (EWTTR) are also used for tactical training in real-world combat scenarios.
CCS F-7 squadron is flying F-7P since 1993, whereas CCS Mirage is flying Mirage-IIIEA since 2003. All the pilots that join these squadrons have an extensive experience of the aforementioned types. It is too early to speculate about induction of JF-17 in CCS, before re-equipment of JF-17 in other squadrons and extensive operational experience on the type is gained.
Mirages in PAF:
Pakistan Air Force’s association with Mirages’ started after the 1965 war when the then PAF leadership decided to look elsewhere for combat aircraft. The initial procurement included 24 Mirage-III aircraft received in 1967/68. PAF’s thirst for more Mirages continued to increase in coming decades. The past 44 years have seen Pakistan buying over 200 Mirage-III/V aircraft and related equipment from France, Australia, Libya, Lebanon and Spain. All the procurements that subsequently took place were made with two main objectives; condition and hours on the airframe. Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF), PAC Kamra has always provided a helping hand in keeping old air frame operational. Over past few decades MRF have overhauled and delivered 150+ Mirages to PAF.
Mirages have been the workhorse of PAF for over four decades. The structural life of several old Mirages has reached its end and in June 2010, No.5 Sqn Mirages were re-equipped with F-16 Block52 aircraft. Despite its age, Mirage equips half a dozen operational squadrons in the PAF which include No.7, 8, 15, 22, 25 and 27 Squadron.
Masroor AB based No.32 Wing operates three Mirage squadrons; No.7, No.8 and No.22 Sqn, whereby each unit having been assigned its own dedicated role.
No.7 tactical attack squadron is equipped with Mirage-IIIEA aircraft. All these Ex-RAAF Mirages had undergone ROSE-1 upgrade in Mirage Rebuild Factory, PAC Kamra in 1996 which added some 12 years of life to them. No.7 Sqn is a specialist in all-weather deep strike and tactical attack missions. Over the past decade No.7 Sqn has participated in various national and multi-national exercises which include High Mark (2005, 2010), Al-Saqoor-I (2006), Falcon Talon (2005 and 2009), Bright Star (2009) and Falcon Air Meet (2010).
No.7 Squadron pilots have also conducted the test of Air Launched Cruise Missile Ra’ad in 2007 and flight trails of in-flight refueling with IL-78 tanker in Exercise High Mark 2010. This squadron is expected to continue to operate in the tactical attack role in the foreseeable future.
No.8 Squadron is PAF’s only tactical and maritime support squadron. The unit operates Mirage-VPA2/3 aircraft. Having no combat aircraft in Pakistan Navy, No.8 Sqn takes on the responsibility for carrying out naval support missions. The unit’s Mirage-VPA3 aircraft are equipped with AM-39 Exocet anti-shipping missile capable of striking targets and enemy vessels from a range of 70 kms (35 miles). No.8 Sqn has been operating Mirages since almost three decades, several of which were upgraded at PAC in 2004/05.
For JF-17 to be a replacement of this naval support unit, it has to have the capability of anti-shipping strike. Albeit flight trails of JF-17’s anti-shipping missile C-802/803 are scheduled to start in near future, till then No.8 Sqn will continue to defend naval and aerial frontiers of Pakistan.
No.15 Sqn has been operating Mirage-VPA aircraft since 2002 from Rafiqui AB. Most of these aircraft have earlier served in two or three different squadron over more than past 3 decades.
No.15 Sqn being a Tactical Attack Squadron has also conducted various tests of Joint Stand-Off Weapons (JSOW) such as the H-weapon (H-2/4). Today, this unit also operates reconnaissance pods, which it received from re-distribution of No.5 squadron’s equipment. Being a user ‘old timers’, No.15 Sqn has can be considered as the next potential squadron to receive Thunders. 15 Sqn is located in the Southern region of Pakistan. Such strategic placement of Thunders will boost PAF’s round-the-clock vigilance of Pakistan’s territorial borders.
PAF Base Rafiqui also operates F-7PG and ROSE-III upgraded Mirage-VEF aircraft. Having both air-to-air and air-to-ground radar modes, state-of-the-art avionics, an effective countermeasures and electronic warfare suite, Thunder will be a good a competitor against other resident units at Rafiqui.
No.22 Sqn is the third Mirage squadron based at Masroor. Unlike its other counter parts (No.7 and No.8) it is not a tactical attack squadron, rather it’s an operational conversion unit (OCU). No.22 OCU is tasked with conversion of pilots onto Mirage aircraft. No.22 OCU has been flying Mirage-IIIEE/EL aircraft since 2004, all of which were subsequently upgraded to ROSE standard in 2003/2004.
With Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) placed under the cockpit, No.22 OCU conducts both day and night training missions. The role of this dedicated Mirage conversion unit holds a very important position in PAF and is expected to do till 2015.
No.25 and No.27 Sqn are equipped with ROSE-III upgraded Mirage-VEF and Mirage-VDD aircraft. Both units have a tactical night attack role, which is performed by using Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) capability.
No.25 Sqn currently operates from Shahbaz, Jocababad, where as No.27 Sqn operates from Rafiqui, Shorkot. These units also operate from remote forward bases, maintaining round the clock air defence of the aerial frontiers in routine exercises and deployments. But it is the night strike and surgical strike capability that makes them superior over other version of the type!
As a rapidly evolving program, the planned modifications in JF-17 include integration of Helmet Mounted System, addition of re-tractable air-to-air refueling probe, WS-13 engine, integration of modern-day air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-sea weapons and Infra Red Search and Track (IRST).
Besides the above mentioned capability enhancements, PAF also plans to integrate JSOW and Pakistan’s own Ra’ad cruise missile in future as well. Such an integration will make it an all weather multi-role aircraft able to counter multifarious and multidimensional threats.
With the crucial phase of JF-17s weapons testing and trials well under way and once fully operational, the Thunder will provide the PAF with a true offensive punch both qualitatively and will form the backbone of the PAF well into the 21st Century.