ISLAMABAD — Despite its crippling economic situation, Pakistan may be forced to fund its Air Force’s most important procurement programs on an emergency basis, or at least ensure sufficient finances for their regular progress.
Salma Malik, assistant professor in the Department of Defence & Strategic Studies, at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, said the “linkage between economic progress, energy sufficiency and security as well as physical security” has never before been so deeply felt in Pakistan.
This is highlighted by the predicament facing the Air Force, which has not received any finances for its modernization efforts since 2007 under the Armed Forces Development Plan 2025 (AFDP2025).
Also, it has received only a portion of its allocated share of the general defense budget under the recently ousted Pakistan People’s Party government.
In addition to the financial woes, Malik highlights the “qualitative” and “quantitative edge” of the India Air Force developed through “upgrades or procurements.”
Though not dismissing the myriad problems facing the Indians, she particularly highlighted the potential purchase of the French Rafale as the “most concerning for Pakistan.”
However, though she acknowledged that Air Force equipment is very expensive, the length of time between ordering a weapon such as a fighter aircraft and having it enter front-line service, dictates a “sense of urgency.”
Malik says this was most likely impressed upon Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, by the head of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt, during a June 13 meeting, and therefore “some allocation might happen straightaway.”
This emergency funding, Malik believes, could be injected into programs formulated in response to Indian developments, like the AFDP2025, to get them back on track and funded regularly.
If this does come about then the main focus, according to analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, will be the building of more JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft, “and inducting them into service fast to replace old Mirages and F-7 Fishbeds.”
He notes that pre-2007 programs have given the Air Force some breathing space.
“The air defense system has been upgraded with new radars and [command and control nodes, refuelers are in service, AEW&C are inducted, [beyond visual range] capability is acquired, Crotale SAM replacement is inducted.”
However, in the medium to long term, there are still concerns as the planned number of JF-17s has been slashed from 275 or 250 down to 150, which will not replace the current obsolete Mirages and F-7s on a one-for-one basis.
The J-10B/FC-20 program will also need to start progressing, and there is still a need for long-range SAMs, plus more Il-76 transport aircraft.
The FC-20 was supposed to enter service in the middle of the decade to form a high tech “spear tip” for Pakistani air power, but there appears to have been no progress with procurement.
Economic revival will dictate most action.
Among other economic woes, Pakistan is gripped by a crippling circular debt problem where the government and independent power producers owe each other huge amounts of money, hampering electricity generation to kick-start the economy.
The new government pledged to end this situation within 60 days of coming to power.
Analyst and former Army officer Ikram Sehgal is optimistic this will happen now that the previous government has been ousted from power.
“I have confidence that the economy will be turned around,” he said.
“The Pakistan economy is the most resilient in the world. If the [government of the PPP] could not bring it to its knees, then nothing can. It’s a question of management.”