By Farhan Bokhari JDW Correspondent, Islamabad.
A year after the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was called to join the country's military effort in combating Taliban militants along the border with Afghanistan, the planned arrival in August of the first air-to-air refuelling aircraft on lease from Ukraine for training purposes carries a special significance.
By 2010, the PAF plans to complete the induction of up to four Ilyushin Il-78 aircraft fitted with a mid-air refuelling capability, extending the capacity of its fighter aircraft to patrol areas over the border region.
Western defence officials see the induction of a mid-air refuelling capability as a significant boost to the PAF at a time when the force aims to reconcile itself with duties related to anti-terror operations while maintaining what its senior commanders describe as a "minimum deterrence" against the much larger Indian Air Force (IAF).
According to the chief of the air staff of the PAF, Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman, the refuelling capability is an "extremely significant" development. "This is an absolutely new capability we are getting, which we are inducting. We never had this capability in the Pakistan Air Force," ACM Qamar told Jane's.
The PAF's operations in Pakistan's northern areas, ranging from the northern Swat valley and its surrounding region, have been carried out mainly by some of the 45 US-supplied F-16 multirole fighter aircraft in Pakistan's inventory.
"These armed aircraft can stay for up to four, five, six hours in the area," ACM Qamar said.
"During this time, if there is any militant attack anywhere in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], these aircraft can go there immediately, within minutes, and they can bomb the militants. It will create the right kind of deterrence against the militants."
ACM Qamar said the PAF's operations in the north have brought significant pressure to bear on Taliban militants, who were on the advance until the recent military campaign in Swat began reversing the tide. "They [Taliban militants] never see us on the ground. The only time they find out that an aircraft has struck is when the bomb explodes on them. It creates a great psychological impact."
The PAF's experience in the past year is beginning to influence its future plans, both in terms of operational procedures as well as the choice of aircraft and ammunition.
"This was a new kind of warfare for us. The PAF was focused on enemy air forces. We remained focused on enemy land forces and enemy air forces and, therefore, we were preparing ourselves to fight against organised modern air forces and against modern armies," ACM Qamar said. "We never thought we would be required to fight against militants or be involved in counter-insurgency operations. When we started this [counter-insurgency], we had to learn while on the job. We had to re-orient our thinking, we had to refine our ... existing SOPs [standard operating procedures] and we had to develop new SOPs for this kind of warfare. However, we did that very quickly."
This experience has led the PAF to identify new areas for development, such as acquiring more precision-guided bombs, enhanced night precision attack capabilities and the capability to monitor communications and track the movement of militants.
The PAF's other, already established, requirements include the development of the JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft, co-produced with China.
The PAF plans to eventually induct up to 250 JF-17 fighters, making the aircraft the backbone of its inventory. The first 'fully made in Pakistan' JF-17 is expected to be produced by the end of this year at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra, north of Islamabad. However, there is still a requirement for a more advanced fighter aircraft, as the PAF prepares to counter the future edge that may be acquired by the IAF once it completes the planned purchase of 126 multirole combat aircraft (MRCAs).
"We knew about this requirement of the Indian Air Force for 126 latest-generation fighter aircraft. Yes, it is an alarming development because when they get 126 such capable aircraft, then we also need to have something matching to counter that threat," ACM Qamar said.
For the PAF, not only will the induction of 14 used F-16 aircraft and 18 new F-16C/D aircraft figure prominently in narrowing the gap, but continuing negotiations with China to purchase up to 36 FC-20 fighter aircraft - designated the J-10 in China - will also play an important role.
ACM Qamar said the PAF has finalised the technical proposal for the FC-20 and informed the Chinese of its requirements.
"[The technical proposal] is more or less finalised now. There are some changes that are required, which [the Chinese] are making," he said.
The next stage of the contract will involve financial negotiations between China and Pakistan. ACM Qamar believes that, following the signing of a contract, it will take two to two-and-a-half years before the first FC-20 aircraft is received.
Other elements of the PAF's force expansion include the purchase of four Erieye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft from Sweden.
The PAF expects to receive the first of these aircraft by end of this year and the other three next year.
ACM Qamar said the PAF has also signed a contract for the purchase of four Chinese airborne early warning and control aircraft. The first of these is due to arrive in 2011 and the remaining three will be delivered in 2012.