The Struggle for Self-Reliance in the PAF

Columnist Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain describes how PAF managed to remain an effective force despite resource limitations.

Self-reliance in the defence field is a cherished goal for all nations. It is also a very elusive goal to achieve, given the technological complexity of modern weapons. This is especially true in the field of military aviation. USA, the sole super power, is perhaps the only nation today that has come close to achieving self-sufficiency in its weapons requirement for the projection of air power. Russia too can meet its air power needs indigenously but their weapon systems have time and again proved inferior to those produced by USA and Western European nations. All other nations are inter-dependant on one another to various extent. Total self-reliance in military technology is fast becoming an unachievable goal even for the Industrially Developed Nations.

The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the birth of air power and in less than a hundred years air power has become the dominant factor in modern warfare. The rapidity with which air power’s lethality and effectiveness has grown and is continuing to grow has given it a decisive edge over the other two mediums of war. Air power has come to epitomize the rapid advancement in science and technology that has been witnessed in the 20th century. Modern aircraft and their weapon systems are the product of the latest scientific research and require large funding and resources. On both these counts the developing world fall way short of the requirement and they are dependent on the advanced nations for both weapons procurement and is maintenance. This has resulted in a power differential between the two halves with one having a virtual monopoly of modern arms over the other that has led exploitation and a new form of colonialism. This chasm has to be bridged if the developing nations want an end to exploitation. Pakistan, being a part of the developing world has had the bitter experience of having to depend on other nations for its legitimate defence needs and has tried to reduce its dependence to what ever degree its potential and resources permitted.

While it is true that in 1947, the infant state of Pakistan did not have the necessary wherewithal to establish an air force, it had been fortunate enough in having a handful of pioneers who had flown and fought alongside the allied forces during the Great War. Their pioneering spirit and the farsightedness of its founding father whose declaration in 1948 that “A country without a strong Air Force is at the mercy of any aggressor. Pakistan must build up her Air Force as quickly as possible. It must be an efficient Air Force, second to none” made it possible to defy all odds and establish an Air Force that has been the pride of the nation and has created a niche for its professionalism both within the country and abroad.

The period between 1947 and 1954 may be classified as the formative years for the young service. Having won independence from the British, the Government realized that the experience level of the Pakistani officers was not enough for them to occupy the top slots in command and staff appointment. After a lot of deliberation, it was decided that Britain might be requested to send some of their officers on secondment to RPAF. Britain obliged. In fact the first four Commanders in Chiefs of RPAF were RAF officers on deputation. This move did have some negative connotations, as these alien officers owed their loyalty to their mother country more than to the service they were in command of. However, with hindsight it can be concluded that the decision to import seasoned British officers was a correct one as under their guidance the inexperienced and some times impulsive Pakistani officers matured enough to be able to take over the rein of leadership at the appropriate time.

In 1947 RPAF had inherited just three squadrons of which two were Tempest fighter-bombers. To quote from the story of Pakistan Air Force, “The Royal Pakistan Air Force of 1947 was a fighter pilots’ paradise and an aero-engineers’ nightmare.” What it implied was that the pilots of that era flew with gay abundance with little regard to the aspect of flight safety. A horrendous accident rate of over 26 times of what the PAF achieved forty years later bears testimony to the statement. From the maintenance point of view, RPAF was fortunate that at Karachi Drigh Road, RAF Repair Depot had been set up in 1921 and over the years and especially during the war this Unit was actively engaged in recovering, assembling and servicing World War II combat aircraft of various vintage. This unit being based at Karachi became a part of RPAF and in 1950 it was given the fresh nomenclature of 102 MU which was again changed to 102 AED. 102 MU formed the backbone of the infant service’s maintenance effort. Fortunately too the piston engine combat aircraft did not require the level of sophistication in their maintenance as their jet engine successors needed, a decade later. Despite the best efforts of the young tigers of RPAF to bend their machines and despite very limited experience level in maintenance, these machines were kept serviceable and in flying status.

From the point of view of self-reliance, the formative years did not see any serious effort on the part of the planners to enhance this capability. As has been mentioned earlier the generation of aircraft that RPAF was handling did not require very sophisticated maintenance and all second, third and fourth line maintenance could be accomplished within the country. There seemed to be no urgency in investing in and working towards enhancement of the goal of self-reliance.

In 1954, Pakistan joined the SEATO Pact and thus aligned itself with the Western Block. As a result, amongst other things, it became eligible for US arms aid with the aim to contain the expansionist design of the Eastern Block, headed by USSR. After two years of US Military aid negotiations, the re-equipment of RPAF was finalized and by the end of 1956, the first consignment of aircraft and weapons began to arrive. For the fledgling RPAF (to be renamed as PAF after 1956) it was a bonanza. Within an eight year time span, it had received some of the most current jet trainers, fighters, light bombers and turbojet transport aircraft, along with radars and other ancillary equipment. PAF now had in its inventory T-37 basic jet trainers, T-33 advanced jet trainers, the famous F-86 Sabre fighter-bombers, and B-57 light bombers. With the arrival of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) F-104 Star fighters PAF were one of the few air forces in the world operating the then state of the art Mach 2 aircraft. PAF squadron strength grew from a handful to twelve within a short span of time. With the American aircraft came the American training and maintenance concepts that were a radical departure from the then prevalent RAF concepts in use by RPAF.

The period 1956 to 1965 can be termed as the golden era for the PAF as far as operational flying was concerned. Alas, it was also a lost decade from the viewpoint of self-reliance. In the re-arming of PAF, Uncle Sam was footing the bill and he was liberal in provision of spares and reserves. PAF never felt the need for setting up any repair or manufacturing capabilities. Although No. 102 AED was upgraded to carry out timed inspections of aircraft and engines, PAF was totally dependent on USA for the entire supply of spare support for its war fighting machines. Compared to the bonhomie attitude of the earlier era where dare devilry and branches of flying discipline were considered the hallmark of combat pilots and that had resulted in the terrible safety record, the new phase brought in much needed professionalism both in flying and maintenance fields with a lot of emphasis on flight safety. PAF safety record registered a marked improvement yet the overall accident rate still remained high as compared to Air Forces of the advanced western nations. One of the reasons was that each aircraft destroyed or damaged was promptly replaced by USA at no cost to Pakistan. Except for the loss of the pilot in case of a fatal accident, the country did not have to pay hard cash to replace its losses due to accidents. The maintenance procedures, too, were replacement rather than repair oriented. A new part generally replaced an unserviceable one. Since spare parts were available in abundance, the Service found it convenient to keep its machines at a high state of readiness through replacement of spares rather than their repair. For as long as USA kept up the supply pipeline open, the system worked well but by adopting such a policy, the country had placed itself in a very precarious position. It should have been obvious to our planners and leaders that basing the country’s defence on military hardware for which it was totally dependent on another country would seriously compromise its sovereignty. We apparently lost sight of this obvious danger. To make matters even worse we failed to appreciate that US had a different perception than ours for strengthening of Pakistan’s defence forces. US had wanted us to act as a bulwark against the perceived communist expansionist design of the Eastern Block. For Pakistan, the modernizing of its Armed Forces gave it the confidence to face its archenemy, India, in any future conflict. Our war plans during that period primarily catered for the Eastern front contingency. We naively assumed that in a conflict with India, USA will continue to be our ally and the supply of arms will not be affected. Come the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, we were to get a rude shock. USA promptly ceased all military aids to both the warring factions. To India it mattered little as their dependence on USA for their military hardware was minimal. For Pakistan, it was a major disaster. The romance between USA and Pakistan that had commenced in 1954 came to an abrupt end in 1965. Its bankrupt policy of total reliance for its defence needs on another country stood fully exposed. From this period onwards, Pakistan started to make serious efforts towards diversifying its military hardware procurement policy and also started the process of achieving as much self-reliance and autarky as its technical base and economy permitted.

Pakistan had fought the 1965 September war against India with the help of American arms it had acquired after 1954. The cessation of American arms aid at the start of hostilities was also one of the reasons Pakistan had to accept

ceasefire within three weeks as by that time its reserves had been nearly consumed. This was a bitter lesson for the nation and the realization quickly dawned that autonomy in arms was a must if a country desires to maintain its sovereignty.

Immediately after the war, Pakistan had to reassess its defence requirements. Although PAF had come out of the war relatively unscathed with its reputation enhanced, the cessation of US military aid meant its present fleet of combat aircraft could no longer be maintained at the pre-1965 operational level. Fresh inductions from alternate and more reliable sources had to be undertaken. Within a year, PAF had accepted the offer of a large number of Chinese built Mig-19s (renamed F-6s) from its trusted ally, China. Furthermore, it contracted to buy 24 French Mirage 111 Mach 2 supersonic fighter-bombers from France on cash. Canadian version of Sabres (renamed F-86Es) was also purchased on payment and it arranged much needed spare support for its existing fleet through alternate sources. Some radar and surveillance equipment from UK were also inducted. The free lunch was finally over. Now the already cash strapped nation had to pay for its purchase in foreign exchange. The old replacement method of aircraft maintenance could no longer be sustained.

Production of modern combat aircraft and their weapon systems requires a very vast technological base and a lot of resources. On both counts Pakistan was grossly want-

ing. Even manufacture of aircraft spare parts needs considerable technical expertise and a sizeable investment. For over two and a half decades since gaining independence the country had not made any meaningful investment in this field and although the importance of self-reliance had finally dawned, it took time and effort before a beginning could be made. Within six years Pakistan had to undergo the trauma of 1971 war where its Eastern Wing was severed. The quest for self-reliance was finally started in earnest. The conception of setting up an F-6 overhaul and rebuilt factory in 1972 at Kamra which we now know as Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra marked the first major step towards achieving some degree of self-reliance in maintenance of modern aircraft and weapon systems.

Between 1972 and 1998, Pakistan’s relationship with USA went through a roller coaster ride. It remained turbulent during the 1970s, as USA was very perturbed about Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. Things changed dramatically in 1980 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. USA rediscovered its lost ally and the period between 1980 and 1988 witnessed another influx of US arms aid to Pakistan. For PAF, the crowning success of the decade was the supply of one of the most potent combat aircraft of its time, the F-16s. The great American betrayals of 1965 and 1971 tended to recede in the background. By 1988, USA had more or less succeeded in their aim of inflicting a mortal blow to the USSR misadventure in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan and the Afghan Mujahideens. Russians were on the verge of pulling out. Pakistan had served its purpose and quickly fell out of favour with USA. The Pressler amendment was applied against it and once again embargo on all arms sales was slapped. The delivery for 60 new F-16s, which Pakistan had ordered and paid in advance a substantial amount, was cancelled. 28 of these aircraft were ready for delivery when USA took this unilateral step and to add insult to injury, it initially refused to return the amount Pakistan had paid for the aircraft and did so a decade later when it was threatened with a lawsuit. Once again, Pakistan had to look for alternate sources to keep its existing fleet operational.

By 1998, some thaw in the relationship had taken place and it was hoped that the arms embargo would be lifted. The nuclear explosions by India and Pakistan in May 1998 put paid to any such speculation. More stringent sanctions on military and economic fields were applied. PAC Kamra, had in the meanwhile, expanded its scope and had acquired the capability of overhauling, repair and manufacture of selected parts of its Mirage fleet in addition to the Chinese fleet. It had also undertaken overhaul of its low-level radars and in collaboration with China and Italy, developed Radar Warning Receivers and Airborne Interceptor Radars for its combat fleet. Under licence manufacture of Swedish MFI-17 light trainer aircraft code named Mushak had also commenced. In addition, PAC Kamra in a joint venture with China has begun to co-produce a two seat jet trainer code named

K-8. In 1990, an Air Weapons Complex (AWC) had been established which had undertaken to produce some of the specialized weapons which the service needed. Because of the facilities that were available at PAC Kamra, and AWC, PAF was able to withstand the various sanctions without getting morally wounded. Today, despite all the financial and technical constraints, PAF still remains a very potent force against the might of Indian Air Force. The contribution of PAC Kamra in helping PAF in achieving some degree of self-reliance has been immense.

Self-reliance in defence hardware is very desirable for any self-respecting nation. For the developing world, achieving self-reliance in production of modern weapons, especially combat aircraft is almost impossible. For them, their minimum goal should be achievement of self-reliance in maintenance, repair and overhaul of military hardware. Our fifty years chequered history in this field has revealed our inability to pursue the goal of self-reliance for a variety of reasons during the first decade; our being lulled into false sense of security by easy and almost free access to US arms in the next decade, and the final reawakening since then, following the 65 / 71 wars. Post 65 period witnessed a determined push towards self-reliance, and for the PAF, PAC Kamra epitomizes this struggle. This is not to overlook the contributions of Air Weapons Complex, No. 102 AED, Precision Engineering Complex (PEC) and a host of other set ups which have played an important part in PAF’s march toward self-sufficiency. PAC Kamra, however, has contributed the lion’s share in this struggle. Today the nation has the capability of overhauling nearly all its major combat aircraft and their engines. It can also rebuild/repair damaged ones and manufacture selected spare parts and other key user items. The ability to overhaul its radars has also been developed. In addition, Pakistan manufactures MFI-17, piston engine two seat military trainer aircraft under licence and in fact has on its own developed and produced a Super Mushak. The capability of producing drones and unmanned Aerial Vehicles (of the very basic design) have also been acquired. In addition, in collaboration with China, PAC Kamra is manufacturing certain segments of the K-8 two seat jet trainer, which has been jointly developed and is under co-production. The stage is set for co-production of the Super-7 combat fighter/interceptor that is currently under development by the two nations.

We have come a long way forward since 1965 but the changing environment in the projection of air power as a result of the latest innovations and technological breakthroughs has brought in fresh challenges for the nation. If the Gulf War and the Kosovo Conflict are any indicators of the future trends in aerial warfare, two aspects stands out very vividly, that is Electronic Warfare and the role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). In both these areas our indigenous capability is very limited. On the plus side, the performance of both Electronic Warfare equipment and UAVs/UCAVs depends as much on software development as on its hardware. Fortunately our nation has the demonstrated potential of very able and innovative engineers. We need to harness this talent, provide them the incentive, opportunity and resources to develop indigenous capabilities in these two vital sectors. While it is possible to import aircraft and their weapon systems, from abroad, Electronic Warfare systems and UAVs/UCAVs are very hard to obtain. In Electronic Warfare Department especially, imported programme will invariably get compromised during a crisis and will be of little use. Indigenously designed, and very well safeguarded software programme are the only solution. We are already behind in these two areas and a firm commitment of manpower and resource allocation to develop in these two fields is an inescapable requirement. We must not lose any further time.