The Pakistan air force is due to begin receiving new-build F-16s from Lockheed Martin beginning in 2009. The 18 aircraft on order–plus a major upgrade package for the nation’s existing aircraft and further options–will dramatically enhance the service’s capabilities and will bring to a close a controversial 20-year procurement saga. During that time Pakistan turned increasingly to China for the majority of its weaponry, and while it ordered large numbers of F-7 and JF-17 fighters to maintain numbers, the U.S.-made F-16s will bring a welcome boost in precision attack capability.
Pakistan received its first F-16s in January 1983 through U.S. foreign military sales channels. The initial batch comprised 28 F-16As and 12 F-16Bs, all to Block 15 standard. Starting in January 1986 these were modified to carry the French ATLIS II laser designation pod, allowing them to deliver Paveway laser-guided bombs.
In September 1989, Pakistan ordered another 71 aircraft in a $1.75 billion deal. Of this total, Pakistan provided $658 million as a down payment and production got under way. Then in October 1990, the U.S. Congress put a stop to the contract in objection to Pakistan’s nuclear program. Twenty-eight aircraft had been completed and they were put in storage pending a decision on their future. Despite proposals to sell the aircraft to the Philippines, Taiwan or New Zealand, the 28 F-16A/Bs eventually went to U.S. forces–some to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base for trials/chase duties and some to the U.S. Navy’s Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon for adversary work.
Despite the arms embargo, Pakistan had little difficulty keeping its F-16s airworthy throughout the 1990s. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. stance toward Pakistan changed dramatically. In recognition of Pakistan’s contribution to the “War on Terror”–and especially its assistance during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan–the U.S. announced in 2002 that military aid would resume, including the supply of F-16 spares, and two years later Pakistan was declared a major non-NATO ally. This paved the way for the resumption of F-16 deliveries. Pakistan also evaluated other Western fighter options made available after the lifting of the embargo, including the Saab Gripen.
Negotiations began in September 2004, and on March 25, 2005, President Bush notified Congress of the U.S.’s intention to sell F-16s to Pakistan. The initial request was for 55 new-build aircraft, plus 20 options. The order was greeted warmly in Fort Worth, Texas, where Lockheed Martin was considering closing F-16 production had further orders not been forthcoming. Then Greece signed for more aircraft, allowing the Pakistani government more time to deliberate.
Despite a thaw in Indo-Pakistan relations since the two countries nearly went to war in 2002, news of the sale was greeted coolly in New Delhi, which accused the U.S. of creating an arms race in the subcontinent. However, the F-16 or similar hardware was at the same time also made available to India as part of the medium multi-role combat aircraft program. The recent re-equipment of the Indian air force with types such as the Sukhoi Su-30 has led to something of a technological imbalance, which the F-16s will redress to some extent.
The major earthquake that struck northern Pakistan in late 2005 delayed the signing of a contract for new aircraft until September 2006 and also reduced the numbers. The deal covers up to 36 Block 52-plus aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engines, featuring synthetic aperture-capable Northrop Grumman APG-68(V)9 radars. The first firm contract covers 18 aircraft–12 single-seaters and six two-seaters, to be completed by 2010.
Weapons requested for the aircraft include the AIM-120C5 AMRAAM (advanced medium-range air-to-air missile), AIM-9M Sidewinder, GBU-31 and GBU-38 JDAM GPS-guided bombs, and GBU-12 and GBU-24 laser-guided bombs. The latter will be provided with designation from the Lockheed Martin Sniper advanced targeting pod.
The Pakistani F-16s will have the ability to carry conformal fuel tanks and will be equipped with the ALQ-173 ECM suite. The deal is believed to include certain safeguards that prevent third parties from gaining access to the F-16’s technology. This is aimed principally at preventing the Chinese from acquiring sensitive technology from the aircraft.
As well as the new-build aircraft, the contract also covers the upgrade of existing aircraft and the delivery of additional aircraft from U.S. stocks. Two surplus F-16s were delivered to Pakistan in December 2005 following a minor upgrade at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The main elements of the full mid-life upgrade are the Falcon Star structural enhancement, APG-68(V)9 radar, JHMCS helmet-mounted sight, Link 16, Sniper targeting pods, upgraded electronic countermeasures and AMRAAM capability.
There are expectations in the defense industry that Pakistan’s 34 existing aircraft will be upgraded in the first contract. An option exists for more aircraft–believed to be another 26–to be acquired second-hand and upgraded, in addition to the option of an additional 18 new-build aircraft.
The Pakistan air force currently operates 34 F-16A/Bs in two squadrons as part of No. 38 Wing at Mushaf (formerly known as Sargodha). The main operational unit is No. 9 Squadron (“Griffins”), partnered with No. 11 Squadron (“Arrows”), which has a type conversion role. A third unit, No. 14 Squadron (“Shaheens”), previously flew the F-16 from Kamra. This latter unit was heavily involved in the fighting along the Afghan border in 1986-88, when Pakistani F-16s shot down at least eight Afghan aircraft. One F-16 was lost in April 1987, almost certainly inadvertently hit by its wingman during an engagement with six Afghan aircraft.
Pakistan Meets Developing World’s Defense Needs
Pakistan’s Integrated Defence Systems (IDS) may be a novice player in the international defense market but it has made a virtue of this by developing modern products that meet the needs of developing countries without the complication of political “strings.” The IDS product range includes weapons ideally suited for carriage on modern combat aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-16 operated both in Pakistan and by some other air forces in the region.
Having been on the receiving end of a U.S. arms embargo, Pakistan is aware of problems that can arise from international arms sales and, consequently, has positioned itself as a low-profile source for state-of-the-art conventional weapons. Indeed, IDS can supply air-delivered weapons that often match similar products available from major arms manufacturers.
For example, it has devoted years of intense research and development to a series of effective air-delivered cluster bombs, including the combined effect munitions (CEM)–an all-purpose air-delivered weapon that combines light armor capabilities with anti-personnel and incendiary effects.
A total of 247 triple-effect bomblets are loaded in each dispenser, enabling a single payload attack against a variety of targets and with wide area coverage. The CEM is claimed to be effective in halting the advance of armored columns in the hope of bringing an invasion by enemy forces to a standstill.
The Hijara anti-armor bomb designed to hit and destroy enemy tanks and armored vehicles is also marketed by IDS. It can be used against soft targets such as supply routes, open aircraft bunkers, runways, large infantry/armor formations and columns of vehicles. The Hijara is similar in design and capabilities to the U.S.-made “Rockeye” bomb.