Making Up For Shortfalls

Pakistan Air Force buying up to 60 J-10CE M-MRCA from China

Prasun K. Sengupta

In an attempt to reverse the growing power differential with its arch-rival India, Pakistan has begun procuring up to 60 Chengdu J-10CE medium multi-role combat aircraft (M-MRCA) from China. The first tranche of these aircraft comprising 25 single-seat J-10CEs  were ordered on June 25 last year, and  deliveries commenced on March 4 this year.  The first six aircraft arrived at  Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) Minhas air base at Kamra in Punjab’s Attock district, and were inducted by the PAF’s No. 15 ‘Cobras’ squadron on March 11.


No.  15 is a tactical attack squadron under 33 Wing of the PAF’s Northern Air Command. The J-10CEs will eventually replace the PAF’s existing Dassault Mirage-III/-V fleet. Interestingly, the J-10CE’s service-induction event occurred 54 years to the day since the first of the French delta-wing Mirage-IIIPs arrived In Pakistan. No. 15 squadron previously flew Mirage-IIIPs and Mirage-VPs from the Rafiqui air base (under 34 Wing of the Central Air Command) at Shorkot in Punjab’s Jhang district. This squadron began flight-testing for a 30-day period the J-10CE in November 2020 at the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) flight-test/evaluation and operational conversion air base at Dingxin. Essential design and performance parameters of the J-10CE include a length of 16.9 metres, wingspan of 9.8 metres, height of 5.7 metres, maximum indicated airspeed of 1,350kph or Mach 1.8, G-sustainment load of -3 G/+9 G, 300 metres/ second rate of climb, service ceiling of 56,000 feet, un-refuelled air combat radius of 1,240km, aerially refuelled combat radius of 2,600km, maximum ferry range of 2,950km, internal fuel capacity of 3,860kg, and weapons load of 5.5 tonnes on 11 external hard-points. For air superiority, the principal weapons carried are an internally-mounted clone of the Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 cannon, along with PL-15E beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) and PL-10E short-range air-to-air missile, or SRAAM (FORCE November 2021).

Unlike the PLAAF’s J-10C M-MRCAs that are powered by Russia’s NPO Saturn-built AL-31FN turbofans rated at 134kN thrust with after-burning, the PAF’s J-10CEs are powered by China-developed Shenyang-Liming WS-10B Taihang turbofan, rated at 89.17kN dry thrust and 132kN with afterburner and with a total technical service-life of only 700 hours of operation, due to Russia’s refusal to authorise China to re-export the AL-31FN. In addition, the PAF, unable to source a functional active electronically scanning multi-mode radar (AESA-MMR) from China, has selected the Grifo-E AESA-MMR from Italian company Leonardo’s SELEX-ES subsidiary for its J-10CEs—this also being the same AESA-MMR that is going on board the 50 Chengdu JF-17 Block-3 light-MRCAs that are now being delivered to the PAF after being licence-built by the Kamra-based Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). The Grifo-E is derived from SELEX-ES’ mechanically-scanned Grifo-7 MMR (already installed on the PAF’s upgraded Mirage-IIIPs and the JF-17 Block-1s and Block-2s) developed at the company’s Nerviano-based facility in Italy and is a gallium nitride (GaN), liquid-cooled, eight-channel receiver AESA-MMR. AESA technology involves a matrix of hundreds of tiny transmit-receive modules being used to ‘steer’ electronic beams, rather than the radar’s antenna physically moving to point a beam at a target. This means that the beam can be moved around extremely quickly, allowing the radar to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.

Another crucial item from Leonardo that is finding its way on both the J-10CEs and JF-17 Block-3s is the multifunctional information distribution system-low volume terminal Block Upgrade 2 (MIDS-LVT BU2)—an L-band tactical data-link with an embedded tactical air navigation (TACAN) system using the Link-16 network that was developed by EuroMIDS, a consortium of European avionics manufacturers that includes THALES of France. The MIDS-LVT features high-capacity, jam-resistant, L-band digital communications links for exchanging real-time secure tactical information in both voice and data formats. MIDS-LVT is Europe’s answer to the US-origin Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), which is an L-band distributed time division multiple access (DTDMA) network radio system using the Link-16 air-to-air/air-to-ground voice/data communications network and which is on-board the PAF’s F-16A/B/C/D combat aircraft.

Finally, there is the VHF/UHF SWave Airborne SDR SRT-800 software-defined radio (SDR) from Leonardo, which will enable the PAF’s J-10CEs and JF-17 Block-3s to engage in line-of-sight secure voice/data communications with one another, as well as with the land-based ground-controlled intercept controllers and airborne early warning and control (AEW & C) platforms like the Saab-2000 and China-supplied ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3. The SWave Airborne SDR SRT-800 also has a Ku-band beyond line-of-sight SATCOM voice/data channel for communicating with ground-controlled intercept controllers, which will enable the J-10CEs and JF-17 Block-3s to obtain the tactical air situation picture in real-time in case of extreme jamming of the VHF/IHF/L bands. Together, the MIDS-LVT BU2 and the SWave Airborne SDR SRT-800 constitute the PAF’s indigenously-developed Link-17 air-to-air/air-to-ground voice/data communications network.

All such Italy-origin mission avionics will be installed on the J-10CEs and JF-17 Block-3ss by the Kamra-based Pakistan Aeronautical Complex since such avionics cannot be sent to Chengdu in Sichuan province (where the systems integration facilities and final-assembly lines of the J-10CE and JF-17A/B Blok-3 are located), thanks the embargo on weapons exports imposed by the European Union against China since June 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

However, despite such enhancements, both the J-10CE and JF-17 will still not be par from a technological standpoint with the Indian Air Force’s front-line combat aircraft assets like the Dassault Rafale M-MRCA and Sukhoi Su-30MKI. That is because the latter have on board a radar finger-printing avionics suite that is still unavailable to the PAF from China and elsewhere. In essence, this suite, when operating in the all-passive non-cooperative target recognition (NCTR) mode, enables a combat aircraft to approach its opponent/s in all-passive mode while at the same time maintaining total situational awareness about the range and bearing of the opposing MRCA whose on-board MMR is operating in the track-while-scan mode and the subsequent target lock-on mode when firing a BVRAAM. However, the laws of physics dictate that when the MMR is activated, the on-board airborne self-protection jammer (ASPJ) has to be switched off for preventing electromagnetic interference (EMI) with the MMR. This is when the NCTR mode enables an aircraft like the Rafale and Su-30MKI to passively track its opponent and fire beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) or even IIR-guided short-range air-to-air missiles (SRAAM) while at the same time keeping its own ASPJ activated for completely neutralising the hostile MRCA’s X-band MMR. The hostile MRCA, on the other hand, remains unaware of the approaching BVRAAM or SRAAM from the Rafale or Su-30MKI (until it is too late to take evasive action) because it is illuminating its own already-launched BVRAAM while at the same time being forced to de-activate its own integral ASPJ.

Presently, the PAF can effectively muster only 20 combat-capable squadrons made up of some 300 serviceable combat aircraft (about 400 if reserve Mirage-III/-V airframes and K-8 primary jet trainers are also included), that are supported by three combat-support squadrons (versus the IAF’s 31 combat squadrons and three combat-support squadrons). These include about 45 Chengdu F-7PGs (upgraded with Selex-Galileo-supplied Grifo-F Mk.2 multi-mode radars), eight FT-7PG tandem-seat conversion trainers, about 40 Chengdu F-7P Skybolts (fitted with Grifo-F Mk.1 radars), 13 Chengdu FT-7P Skybolt conversion trainers, 28 Mirage-IIIEAs and four Mirage-IIIDPs in ROSE-I upgrade configuration, six Mirage-VDFs in ROSE-2 upgrade configuration, 14 Mirage-VEFs in ROSE-3 upgrade configuration, 100 JF-17 Thunders (50 Block-1s and 50 Block-2s), 26 JF-17B Block-2 operational conversion trainers, and 43 F-16A/Cs and 31 F-16B/Ds. Airframes held in reserve include 16 Mirage-IIIEPs, 11 Mirage-IIIELs, seven Mirage-IIIDAs, 11 Mirage-IIIRPs, nine Mirage-VPA3s, 30 Mirage-VPA2s, 28 Mirage-VPAs, and 30 Mirage-VDPA2s.

The entire combat aircraft fleet is spread out among 12 full-fledged air bases and 12 satellite air bases (the latest being Bholarii in south-eastern Sindh), plus recent ones in Balochistan that include airfields in Gwadar, Pasni, Ormara, Dalbandin, Turbat and Panjgur from which the ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3 AEW & CS platforms can operate) that come under the command-and-control of three Air Commands. The Kamra-based Northern Air Command’s 33 Wing comprises the No. 15 ‘Cobras’ Sqn now converting to J-10CEs, No. 16 ‘Black Panthers’ Sqn with JF-17s, 17 ‘Tigers’ Sqn in Peshawar with F-7PGs, and No. 26 Black Spiders’ Sqn with JF-17s under 36 Wing. The Sargodha-based Central Air Command comprises the Rafiqui-based No. 34 Wing with No. 14 ‘Tail Choppers’ Sqn flying the JF-17s, No. 18 ‘Sharp Shooters’ Sqn flying Mirage-VPAs, No. 20 ‘Cheetahs’ Sqn (flying F-7PGs) and No. 27 ‘Zarrars’ Sqn (flying Mirage-VEFs in ROSE-3 upgrade configuration); No. 38 Wing with its No. 9 ‘Griffins’ Sqn, No. 11 ‘Arrows’ (Operational Conversion Unit) Sqn and No. 19 ‘Sherdils’ Sqn flying Block-15 MLU F-16AMs/-BMs; and No. 5 ‘Falcons’ Sqn flying F-16C/D Block-52s from Jacobabad. The Masroor-based Southern Air Command comprises the Samungli-based No. 31 Wing with its No. 17 ‘Tigers’ Sqn and No. 23 ‘Talons’ Sqn both flying F-7PGs, plus No. 28 ‘Phoenix’ Sqn flying JF-17s; and the Masroor-based No. 32 Wing with its No. 2 ‘Minhas’ (equipped with JF-17s) Sqn, No. 7 ‘Bandits’ Sqn flying Mirage-IIIEA/-DPs in ROSE-I upgrade configuration and Mirage-VELs), No. 8 ‘Haiders’ Sqn (flying Mirage-VPA2/3s), and No. 22 ‘Ghazis’ (Operational Conversion Unit) Sqn flying Mirage-IIIDF/-IIIDA/-DL/-EL variants. All these are supported by the Kamra-based No. 3 ‘Angels’ Sqn with seven Saab 2000 AEW & C platforms, Masroor-based No. 4 Sqn with four ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3 AEW & CS platforms, and the Chaklala-based No. 10 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) Sqn’s four IL-78MKPs.



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