Interview by Farhan Bokhari JDW Correspondent - Islamabad, Pakistan.
Faced with mounting economic demands and the call for increasing involvement in continuing operations on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, the Pakistan Air Force (PAK) is faced with both challenges and opportunities.
Built primarily as a territorial force with the main objective of countering the military threat from India, the PAF is adjusting to the demand of supporting the country's ground forces operating in the border region.
For the PAF's chief of air staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed, the objective of making his force "lean, efficient and hard hitting" is central in two interconnected ways.
ACM Ahmed has to demonstrate the PAF's ability as a potent long-term force for Pakistan and its surrounding region as well as its ability to take charge of the skies over the border region and undertake operations that will encourage the US to leave the task to Pakistani forces.
This challenge has become increasingly intense as the US increases the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to attack sites in Pakistan's territory suspected of hosting militants from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Pakistan has repeatedly protested against such attacks, but without success in persuading the US to abandon this strategy.
In an interview with Jane's at the PAF's air headquarters in Islamabad, ACM Ahmed outlined the immediate-, medium- and long-term plans to make his force more central to Pakistan's defence.
"The warfare itself has changed shape from a conventional, land-based strategy to a new air-based strategy," he said.
Revealing details of discussions with China for the purchase of 36 J-10 fighter aircraft - which will be known as the FC-20 in Pakistani service - from China, ACM Ahmed said PAF officials had examined the aircraft in detail and the PAF was seeking improvements in its radar and avionics system.
He also revealed that the cost of the 36 J-10 aircraft, along with the supporting systems, would fall in the region of USD1.5 billion.
ACM Ahmed said given the economic crunch faced by Pakistan, the PAF was making efforts to establish credit financing from China for the purchase of the J-10 so that Pakistan could repay the loan over time, without adversely affecting its financial position as the country seeks international assistance to support its economy.
Other developments in a broadening defence hardware relationship with China include the finalisation of a contract by the PAF in September for the purchase of four airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. Without discussing the exact specifications of the aircraft or the radars accompanying them, ACM Ahmed said the Chinese would supply a newly built propeller-driven aircraft with a rotor dome.
While the Chinese technology is older than the radar systems employed by some of the world's newer AEW&C aircraft, ACM Ahmed said the cost of the four aircraft and the radars would be about a third of the USD1.2 billion AEW&C aircraft bought by India, placing Pakistan "at an advantage".
However, the current vital issue for the PAF remains that of completing the planned acquisition of JF-17 fighter aircraft from China, which are co-produced by the two countries.
In the past, ACM Ahmed has said that up to 250 JF-17 aircraft would be acquired by the PAF, with the acquisition planned to be completed in 2013. Western defence experts estimate the JF-17 project to cost about USD5 billion.
While both China and Pakistan have offered the JF-17 for export, ACM Ahmed said he is interested in taking the JF-17 from trials and tests to actual induction in the PAF, "making the aircraft a potent weapon system".
So far, the PAF has inducted eight of the JF-17s.
"We are hoping somewhere in 2009 we should be able to induct them into the PAF with some limited operational capability and expand: from short-range missiles to BVR [beyond visual range]; from normal clean iron bombs, conventional bombs, to smarter bombs; to carrying external pods of various types," said ACM Ahmed.
While the relationship with China has become central to the PAF's interests, ACM Ahmed is keen to carry forward the arrangement with the US for the supply of new F-16 aircraft along with midlife upgrades for older aircraft, including those already in Pakistan's inventory.
In recent months, some critics have called for a review of the F-16 programme on the grounds that other capabilities, such as advanced attack helicopters used by the army's aviation corps, would be far more central to operations in the border region.
"The major part of this war in Afghanistan is being done by air power, elements of air power. Nobody should really be questioning the role of air power in this unconventional war," said ACM Ahmed, adding that a detailed account of the vital role played by the PAF in the anti-terror operations provided to those critics now convinces him that "we are over the hump on this particular issue".