Minister: Pakistan Bought Chinese J-10 Jets To Counter India’s Rafales

BEIJING, April 16, 2018 — File photo shows a J-10C fighter jet in a training. China’s new … [+] multi-role fighter jet J-10C began combat duty Monday, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force announced. It is China’s third-generation supersonic fighter and made its debut when the PLA marked its 90th anniversary in July 2017 at Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Equipped with an advanced avionics system and various airborne weapons, the domestically-developed fighter has airstrike capabilities within medium and close range and is capable of precisely striking land and maritime targets. (Xinhua/Xi Bobo via Getty Images)

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On December 29, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed announced at a public event in Rawalpindi that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) would perform a fly-over using 25 “JS-10” jet fighters newly purchased from China for the Republic Day parade on March 23.

These jets, he added, would counter the 36 Dassault Rafale jet fighters India was receiving from France.

Ahmed was likely referring to the J-10 Vigorous Dragon, a single-engine tactical fighter built by the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation in Sichuan province. Developed in the 1980s and 90s, the J-10 was similar in concept to the lightweight but high-performing F-16 jet fighter, and incorporated DNA from Israel’s cancelled Lavi fighter as well.

There has not been official confirmation (nor denial) from China or Pakistan of the buy since Ahmed’s statement, which has been primarily reported in regional press. The size of the order is unclear too: while Ahmed mentions 25 aircraft in one squadron ready by the March 23 date, other sources claim the total buy would actually be for 36 aircraft in two squadrons.

If Ahmed’s claim that PAF J-10s will be flying before the public by March is true, it would imply Islamabad secretly arranged the purchase much earlier, as aircraft acquisitions usually take years to arrange, not months. After all, even once negotiations are concluded, it takes time to manufacture aircraft and train pilots to operate an entirely new design.

Pakistan, a longtime ally of China’s, first expressed interest in the J-10 back in 2006, but chose instead to co-manufacture with China a light fighter called the JF-17 Thunder, the latest Block III model of which introduces significant beyond-visual-range (BVR) warfare capability. However, Islamabad repeatedly explored buying the higher-performing J-10s as well, and has gained familiarity with the type in visits and joint exercises involving People’s Liberation Army Air Force J-10s.

Chinese J10 fighter jet perform during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. – … [+] Pakistan National Day commemorates the passing of the Lahore Resolution, when a separate nation for the Muslims of The British Indian Empire was demanded on March 23, 1940. (Photo by FAROOQ NAEEM / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images)

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It’s likely Pakistan would only buy the latest J-10C model which has Chinese-built WS-10B or WS-10C turbofan engines rather than Russian AL-31F engines used on the J-10A and J-10B, reducing political complexity of the buy. The J-10C also features an advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and compatibility with longer-distance PL-15 beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles.

Light Fighters on the India-Pakistan Border

Though world air forces are increasingly favoring heavier, longer-range fighters, cheaper short-range light fighters appeal to countries like Pakistan and its rival India that face possible aerial engagements near their borders. For example, in 2019 fighters from India and Pakistan clashed, with India claiming one kill and Pakistan two. However, only wreckage of one Indian MiG-21 has ever been confirmed by photos (the pilot ejected), as well as fragments of an AIM-120C missile likely fired by one of Pakistan’s F-16s.

The PAF acquired its first F-16A/Bs in the 1980s, and these soon shot down between 5 and 10 Soviet and Afghan fighters on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. During the 2000s, the PAF received improved F-16C/Ds as well.

Pakistani fighters F-16 fly on November 4, 2013 during in the Azm-e-Nau-4″ (New Resolve) military … [+] exercise in Khairpure Tamay Wali in Bahawalpur distirict. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on November 4 warned peace could not be achieved “by unleashing senseless force”, in his first public speech since a US drone strike killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. AFP PHOTO / Aamir QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

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However, Pakistan has drawn closer to China in the last decade and has been a longtime backer of the Afghan Taliban, leading to deterioration of its relationship with the U.S., which is keen to improve relations with India.

In that context, though sale of eight additional F-16s was authorized in April 2021, the PAF can’t be sure it will retain access to F-16s and their spare parts, upgrades and munitions. The poor state of U.S.-Pakistan relations motivates renewed interest in Chinese fighters, which Pakistan began acquiring in the 1960s in the form of F-6, A-5C and F-7P/PG jets, all export models of Chinese-built spinoffs of the Soviet MiG-19 and MiG-21.

If J-10s are delivered to Pakistan, they would likely first be used to replace the PAF’s 87 delta-wing Mirage III ROSE fighters, which remain quite old despite integration of modern avionics, satellite navigation and Italian Grifo radar. The Mirage IIIs are field in one combat squadron (No. 7 “Bandits”) based at the Masroor base near Karachi, as well as the 22 Training Squadron also at Masroor, and Skybolts squadron at the Combat Commander’s School in Punjab.

In this picture taken on December 27, 2017, a Mirage aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) … [+] prepares for a first test run at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex after an overhaul at the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) in Kamra, west of the capital Islamabad. – Fifty years after Pakistan bought its first Mirages, many planes in the venerable fleet are still being patched up, overhauled and upgraded for use in combat, years after conventional wisdom dictates they should be grounded. (Photo by AAMIR QURESHI / AFP) / To go with Pakistan-France-defence-aviation,FEATURE by Nasir Jaffry (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

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A match for the Rafale?

Ahmed and other Pakistani commentators explicitly cast the J-10 acquisition as a “counter” to the Rafale jets being delivered to India.

Indian Air Force’s Rafale fighter jet takes off during the first day of the Aero India 2021 Airshow … [+] at the Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bangalore on February 3, 2021. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

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The J-10C does appear to be a capable F-16-like fighter, with sensors and armament that would improve the PAF’s air warfare capabilities. Though Chinese J-10s have suffered a number accidents, perhaps related to computer systems designed to stabilize its aerodynamically unstable airframe, this was also true of the similarly engineered F-16 in its early years.

However, the J-10 doesn’t qualitatively overmatch the twin-engine Dassault Rafale, which has a superior thrust-to-weight ratio, and likely boasts a more capable AESA radar and self-defense jammer. Some cynics therefore claim the buy Islamabad’s inability to pursue other options, and at least one Pakistani politician has criticized a J-10 buy, arguing Pakistan should invest in domestically developed jets.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet stands next to a model of the Rafale’s new Active … [+] Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar as he visits the French aerospace and defence Thales Microelectronics plant on March 14, 2012, in the northwestern French city of Etrelles. AFP PHOTO / FRANK PERRY (Photo credit should read FRANK PERRY/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Nonetheless, the J-10C would be more capable than the PAF’s JF-17s and could potentially wield Chinese-built PL-15 missiles with a longer range than the AIM-120C missiles used on PAF F-16s. The PL-15, which is guided by an AESA radar seeker, is thought to have range lying between 124 and 187 miles, though the PL-15E export model is constrained to 90-mile range. Furthermore, the J-10C’s AESA radar (though of unknown characteristics) may give it a situational awareness edge versus Indian fighters besides the Rafale that lack AESA radars.

Confirmation of a J-10 buy should come early in 2022 if Ahmed’s statement is accurate. If true, it would mark another milestone in Pakistan’s embrace of Beijing as a patron, a big step for China’s aviation industry which has so far failed to export more advanced fighter-types, and a new chapter in the military aviation competition between India and Pakistan.

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