ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is considering purchase of the South Korean KAI T-50 Lead In Fighter Trainer (LIFT) to revamp its Air Force training program, although some viable alternatives remain.
Interest in the T-50 comes amid moves to improve Pakistani-South Korean defense industry collaboration, possibly including a new shipyard in the Pakistani port of Gwadar.
On March 26, a memorandum to ensure mutual standards of quality was signed by South Korea's Defence Agency for Technology & Quality and Pakistan's Ministry of Defence Production.
Pakistan's Secretary for Defence Production Lt. Gen. Tanvir Tahir said, "Pakistan is examining the [T-50] and assessing our needs and requirements accordingly."
Author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley said, "It is apparent that the Koreans are serious about further collaboration, they are not going to waste their time on a meaningless visit but they can be expected to examine options very carefully."
Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said new training aircraft could be needed once the current Chengdu F-7 variants are retired and stealth aircraft possibly acquired.
Currently, trainees transition from the subsonic intermediate K-8P jet to the supersonic FT-7P, which "seems to be sufficient for now," he said, adding that the K-8P appears to be performing satisfactorily in the LIFT role.
If a higher performance type is required, the T-50 fits the bill, but Shabbir said financial restrictions may dictate selection of a more affordable Chinese option. The Hongdu JL-10/L-15 has previously been examined by the Pakistan Air Force and could therefore be a more realistic option.
Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies highlights the potential benefits of operating a twin-seat JF-17, currently under development in China.
"As far as LIFT goes, a training pipeline using the K-8 as the intermediate jet trainer and then pilots doing advanced jet training with a two-seat JF-17 would be one option. An alternative would be to use an L-15-class aircraft as an advanced jet trainer with pilots only doing type conversion on front-line squadrons to the JF-17, although again this could be done using a two-seat version. Using a two-seat JF-17 for advanced jet training would avoid introducing another aircraft type into inventory."
Justin Bronk at the Royal United Services Institute is also unconvinced of the need for a supersonic LIFT and said the "K-8's suitability for continued use will depend on fleet fatigue, life remaining and avionics fit, rather than performance characteristics per se."
He said a dedicated supersonic LIFT would cost as much to operate as an F-16, and that a twin-seat JF-17 would be preferable.
"A twin-seat JF-17 would certainly make it easier for new pilots to transition to the type straight from a K-8/Yak-130-class trainer. Being only slightly more expensive to operate than a T-50, its introduction to service would probably kill much of the rationale for a Pakistani purchase of the latter," he said.
Even possible acquisition of the Shenyang J-31/F-60 may not justify a supersonic LIFT.
"I would regard potential acquisition of the FC-31 for Pakistan as far enough away in terms of any meaningful operational capability that I'd disregard it as a significant factor in evaluating current requirements for advanced jet trainers in the PAF," he said.
Still, a new type may be required, said analyst, author, and former air commodore Kaiser Tufail, who added that use of T-37 and K-8P jets for basic and advanced training is undesirable.
"Use of turbojets/turbofans for basic training is contrary to the current trend, where turboprops have virtually taken over this role. Turboprops do not lack in performance in the training regime compared to turbojets/turbofans, and are much cheaper to operate all the same," he said.
"Looking at this trend, the PAF would do well to start looking at turboprop trainer options to replace the T-37s, just as the Turkish Air Force is doing by developing the Hurkus as a T-37 replacement."
The Turkish Aerospace Industries Hurkus is being promoted to Pakistan, but is not yet in Turkish service and therefore has limited attraction for Pakistan. Turkish deliveries are expected beginning in 2018.