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When the ‘Wright Brothers’ flew the first ever airplane successfully in 1903, they had little idea that their invention would be modified to the degree that it would be used for warfare. Their aircraft had a wingspan of 12 meters, with a top speed of about 48 kilometers per hour. Today, super-sonic jets can fly at two or even three times the speed of sound and fire a barrage of ammunition and missiles within seconds. In other words, modern fighter jets can hit a target without a sound, or at least, before the sound of their arrival. In addition to that, stealth fighters are almost impossible to detect on radar.
Regarding the Pakistan Air Force, the father of the nation once said, “You are second to none!” Three wars have been fought between Pakistan and India and both their Air Forces have come head to head. Muhammad Mahmood Alam, Squadron leader and commander of No. 11 Squadron in the Pakistani Air Force in the 1965 war with India, scored a record when he shot down 9 aircraft from the Indian Air Force. Five of them were discarded in less than 60 seconds and the last four in 30 seconds (i.e. one kill every seven and a half seconds). M.M Alam used to fly an F-86 fighter. Now, Pakistan has developed the indigenous capacity to manufacture export-quality fighters as well.
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In totality, Pakistan possesses at least 1300 fighter aircraft in its Air Force. As per data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), 3rd generation fighter jets in PAF include the mirage and F6, 4th generation includes the F16 and JF-17 thunder and 5th generation includes FC-31. In addition to that, the Mirage is used for reconnaissance purposes and C-130 for transportation. By 2016, Pakistan had at least 70 JF-17 thunder multi-role aircraft. In 2017, orders were placed for 50 more. And the number of F-16s is estimated to be almost 70.
The F-16 has remained a very popular fighter aircraft in Pakistan. It was originally designed in the 1970s by General Dynamics as a light-weight air-to-air fighter. Soon, it was modified with air-to-ground capabilities and this transformed the F-16 into a multi-role fighter. The fighter aircraft now has capabilities for navigation and precision attack at day and night and in all weather conditions. It has also traded its original analog flight controls for a digital system and new core avionics. It comes with infrared sensors, laser targeting devices, missionized rear cockpits, dorsal fairings, data-links, satellite communications, helmet-mounted cueing systems, conformal fuel tanks, large color displays, all-glass cockpits, improved stores (reconnaissance pods, weapons, and other wing-mounted systems), and auto-recovery systems. With a unit cost of about $18 million, the F-16 weighs over 9000 kilograms, has a wing-span of more than nine meters and can travel at speeds over Mach 2 i.e. twice the speed of sounds. Being a multi-role fighter, it can be equipped with a wide variety of weaponry such as anti-ship missiles, air-to-ground missiles, medium-range air-to-air missile, a 20 mm Vulcan cannon and more.
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The other major multi-role fighter that the Pakistan Army has is the Jf-17 thunder. It comes at a cost of $15-25 million, has a length of 14.9 meters and a maximum speed of Mach 1.6. The fighter jet is an advanced, light-weight, all-weather, day/night multi-role fighter aircraft; developed as a joint venture between Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Kamra and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC) of China. It has an operational radius of 850 miles, air-to-sea missiles, laser-guided weapons, 23 mm barrel gun, highly agile infrared imaging of short-range missiles. Pakistan is also developing and exporting the JF-17B. Nigeria allocated $36 million for three fighter jets from Pakistan. Reportedly, orders for import of the aircraft were booked even before its maiden flight. Deals with Turkey and Senegal have also been hinted at.
There are also a number of helicopters and trainer jets in the Air Force’s fleet. The Pakistan Air Force has also formally inaugurated a new main operating base (MOB), PAF Bholari. The Air Chief Marshal (retd) of Pakistan, Sohail Aman, said that the new base would help PAF support the Pakistan Army “more efficiently” and “augment and supplement” Pakistan Navy’s operations. The focus of the base is on ‘conventional threat’ i.e. threat from India.
What about India?
For its part, India needs to have a strong air force as it wants to be able to challenge China and fight Pakistan at the same time. The Indian Air Force seems to have a bit than twice the number of aircrafts Pakistan has, at over 2000. However, quantity does not automatically ensure quality of its own. .” At a meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defense on 27 October 2017, senior officers of the Indian Air Force, including Vice Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal S.B. Deo, were reportedly rebuked by Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for “inappropriate responses” to the issue of declining squadron strength.
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The Indian Air Force (IAF) has traditionally relied on Russian-made MiG-29 and MiG-21 fighter. MiG-21s have been in use since the 1970s. They are being phased out but their replacement has been marred by delays. The IAF is down to 33 squadrons now that are actually operable. The total number of squadrons is about ‘36.6’, as per a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. These numbers vary because different squadrons are at varying levels of operability. Dr. Sanjay Badri Maharaj of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in India writes that the effective strength of the Indian Air Force is at 31.
The MiG-29, called ‘Fulcrum’ by NATO, is a twin-jet multi-role fighter aircraft designed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It weights over 1100 kilogram, has a wingspan of 37 feet and a length of 56 feet. It can travel at speeds up to Mach 2.3. It comes equipped with one 30mm GSh-301 cannon with 150 rounds, Six AAMs including a mix of SARH and AA-8 Aphid. The MiG-21, on the other hand, is said to be the most successful fighter jet of the Cold War in terms of reach. Nearly 50 countries have it in their Air Force. Its maximum speed is over 2200 kilometers per hour.
Some analysts in India have expressed concerns that India may be down to about 300 fighter jets by 2032. A report by Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that “At nominally 36.5 squadrons, it [IAF] is well short of its sanctioned strength, and many of its frontline aircraft are obsolete. The report is titled “Troubles, they come in Battalions: The Manifest Travails of the Indian Air Force” and presents sharp criticism over the IAF’s ability to respond to any challenge by Pakistan or China, both of which are said to be fielding around 750 advanced fighter aircrafts while India has some 480 odd ones. Although the Indian government has committed to procuring over 200 fighters to raise the total number of Hal Tejas fighters to 324. However, these aircraft are still at an early stage of their evolution and are perhaps not comparable to other classes of fighter jets. The F-16, for instance, has a larger payload.
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New Delhi will hope to cater to these deficiencies by getting close to Washington in order to secure lucrative deals for better fighter aircraft. There has been some speculation the US might help India establish an F-16 manufacturing unit in India. The “Make in India” initiative is also aimed to expand India’s defense industry’s base. Pakistan, on the other hand, is rapidly improving its indigenous capacity to develop export-quality aircraft. Newer technologies will also continue to add further capabilities to modern fighter aircraft.