A Pakistani Air Force F-16 taxis past a Pakistan Air Force Mirage fighter jet in this file photo. Published reports say Pakistani Mirages traveled to China last week to take part in the Shaheen 2 air exercise. (Air Force)
ISLAMABAD — China and Pakistan last week began a three-week air exercise titled Shaheen 2 (Falcon 2) in Hetian Prefecture of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The exercise, which lasts until Sept. 22, is the second in a series of such exercises, the first of which was held in Pakistan in March 2011.
Shaheen 2 will be the first time an air force of another country will be participating in such an exercise in Chinese airspace.
The Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) first reported the exercise was to take place, citing the Chinese Defense Ministry.
The Air Force here did not reveal any further details, such as participating aircraft, or if there had been any changes to the size, scope or format of the exercise since 2011.
However, an APP report last week stated Chengdu F-7PG and Mirage aircraft had traveled to China to participate in Shaheen 2.
It also stated: “The prime objective of the exercise is to excel in the air combat capability with focus on air power employment in any future conflict.”
Pakistan’s latest fighter type, the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder, is operational with two Pakistani Air Force (PAF) squadrons, but has not been sent to participate on this occasion.
Kaiser Tufail, a former Air Force pilot, said the choice of aircraft will limit the scope of the exercise “from an operational standpoint as far as the PAF is concerned, though one cannot be oblivious of the diplomatic ‘coziness’ that ensues from such contacts.”
Having traveled to China’s northwest during his career to evaluate the F-7MG, from which the Pakistan-specific F-7PG is derived, Tufail said the choice of Hotien as a venue will prove a challenge to some of the Pakistan Air Force aircraft.
“Hotien airfield does not have arrester barriers, so the longer take-off at a relatively higher airfield [4,500 feet] can make matters tricky, especially in an aborted take-off. The F-7PG has no such issues and can take-off or stop in much shorter distances,” he said.
Tufail noted that the F-7PG, though a potent dogfighter, would be limited in “operation to within visual ranges.”
Analyst Usman Shabbir, of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, said that in 2011, China dispatched some of its J-11 Flanker fighter aircraft to Pakistan, where they flew against F-7PGs and Mirages.
Though he thinks it unfortunate that the PAF could not have participated with JF-17 Thunder aircraft this year, he says it is “still [a] very useful experience for the F-7PG pilots.”And although the multi-role Mirage crews will find Shaheen 2 “a very good experience,” their participation may also benefit the Chinese.
“The Mirage units have participated in multiple foreign exercises over the past few years. I think the training will be more beneficial for the Chinese pilots in terms of [air combat maneuvering] and anti-[beyond visual range] tactics as the PAF has a very large and up-to-date skill set in this,” he said.
Similarly, Tufail believes Shaheen 2 will “give the [Chinese Air Force] a chance to evaluate itself vis-a-vis the air combat skills of its pilots, while exercising against an air force that is rated very high, professionally.”
As with international exercises in general, both air forces try to determine “the areas of greater operational focus in modern day combat while identifying any redundant methods or procedures that need to be reviewed,” he added.
Tufail said the exercise comes at an interesting point in Sino-Pakistani relations. Recent months have seen the “signing of various agreements, including the prospects of a Kashgar-Gwadar road link or an ‘economic corridor.’ ”
Therefore, “greater military cooperation is a logical development, and underscores the strategic nature of ties between the two countries.”
This military cooperation was underscored with the conclusion of the tenth round of defense and security talks between China and Pakistan, in Beijing recently. The annual talks are held alternately in China and Pakistan.
The Chinese side was represented by Fang Fenghui, chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army. Pakistan was represented by Gen. Khalid Shameem Wynne, chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The APP reported Wynne told reporters the talks reviewed the strategic situation in the region and beyond, joint military training programs and plus defense equipment procurement prospects.
Former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad Brian Cloughley said he believes the meeting was not out of the ordinary.
However, “The meeting is welcome for Pakistan, of course,” he said, “as it maintains and enhances the cordial relations that exist between the countries, and no doubt there were discussions on provision of equipment and systems that neither side is going to divulge.”
Pakistan, though, has some clear requirements, but is hampered in being unable to acquire them due to lack of finances.
“The main items that Pakistan is interested in are combat ships and warplanes, notably the fifth-generation Chinese fighter, the J-20, but we are talking serious money, here, and at the moment Pakistan cannot afford to enter into a major commitment, and will have to keep the [US-supplied] F-16s flying for a long time yet,” Cloughley said.
Nevertheless, Cloughley believes “there are aspects of materiel cooperation — mainly in ammunition and electronics — that will continue to prosper.”
For Pakistan therefore, Cloughley thinks the talks, and wider Sino-Pakistani relationship, are of critical importance.
“The defense link is a most important one for Pakistan, and it can be expected that Islamabad will work hard to keep it smooth and worthwhile for both parties,” he said.