Excellence in Air Combat: PAF’s Forte

Air Commodore (Retd) JAMAL HUSSAIN discusses PAF’s strong point.

Air enthusiast and air strategists maintain that air power is intrinsically offensive in nature and its primary mission should be the destruction of the enemy through aerial bombardment. Air power in the defensive role is acknowledged only to the extent that it is necessary to blunt the enemy’s air assaults before launching ones own. Logically then, strike missions should occupy the highest priority. Yet in reality this is not true. Air combat missions involving duels between opposing aircraft attempting to shoot each other down in an effort to win control of the air has traditionally occupied the top slot in the various roles that air power is expected to perform.

Air combats between opposing fighter aircraft are often viewed as contests between knights in shining armour and it evokes all the romance of bravery, skill and gallantry associated with such duels. Success in air combat is the fastest route for a pilot to achieve celebrity, in fact legendary status, in the eyes of his nation. There is, however, another very compelling reason why air forces put such a high premium on developing air combat skills of their pilots. To be able to perform any of the assigned roles of air power, winning control of the air is an essential pre-requisite. While enemy air power can be blunted in many different ways, dedicated air superiority fighters remains the most effective defence against enemy air assaults. When air power of a nation is to operate against an adversary that also possesses air power assets, the first priority of air missions has to be neutralization, or at the least, sufficient degradation of the opponent’s air power capability. An offensive counter-air operation that focuses attacks on air infrastructure including aircraft inventory becomes imperative. The other side will attempt to counter it though their air defence network in which air superiority fighters form a key element. Air combat then is inevitable and it plays a vital role in determining if the offensive side has managed to establish control of the air or the defenders have successfully denied it to the aggressors. For both the contestants air combat becomes the lynchpin on which future success or failure of their air strategy depends.

Skill in air combat has always been considered the most important attribute of a fighter pilot. In fact it is his defining characteristic. A modern combat pilot operating a multi-role aircraft, however, is expected to be proficient in a number of roles besides air combat. Ironically, from the viewpoint of causing attrition to the enemy, missions like airfield strikes, interdiction and close support when successfully executed are far more effective. They are also more dangerous when compared to air combat missions because the former has to run the gauntlet of the entire spectrum of ground and air defence while the latter has to content with only the opposing fighters. Yet shooting down of enemy aircraft in air combat universally wins far greater accolade than destroying twice or even thrice that number of enemy aircraft on ground through air strikes. The history of air power during the two great wars is replete with the exploits of air aces (shooting down of twenty or more non-jet aircraft) like Baron Von Richtofen, Rickenbacker, Eric Hartmann, Adolf Galland, Richard Bong, Marseille, Douglas Bader and Johnny Johnson. On the other hand, the sacrifice and contribution of the Bomber Command’s aircrew to the war effort was significantly higher   yet they never received the same degree of recognition as their fighter comrades. Nearly all air power legends of the both the Great Wars were air combat aces.

Our own two wars bear a testimony to this phenomenon. M M Alam and Rafiqui have achieved legendary status in the annals of PAF history for their aerial exploits of shooting down enemy aircraft in air combat missions. Yet not many can recall the exploits of Sajjad Haider and his band of gallant pilots who, without any loss, in a single raid destroyed over 11 enemy aircraft on the ground besides severely damaging the airfield infrastructure. We still recount the exploits of Changezi shooting down an Indian aircraft over Lahore, Bhatti accompanying Rafiqui accounting for four Indian Vampire jets over Kashmir and Qazi Javed surviving the Indian Hunter jet attack when he was caught in the very vulnerable position while rolling for take off at Sargodha, getting safely airborne and then shooting down his attacker. Not so well-known is the successful attack by a single Sabre formation on an Indian tank brigade as it was advancing towards Lahore and was about to breach a key line of defence.  The mauling given to the Indian tanks by the Pakistani jets forced them to abandon their attack, thereby giving Pakistani land forces enough time to regroup and take fresh defensive positions. This single event made a major contribution to the successful defence of Lahore in the 1965 War. Yet the air combat exploits of our pilots received far greater publicity. Such is the romance of air combat. During peacetime or during war, a combat pilot’s reputation revolves more around his air combat skills than any other role.

From its inception, PAF has placed air combat proficiency at the very top of its agenda when selecting and training its combat pilots. In the environment it was placed, it knew its main adversary would always enjoy a substantial numerical advantage that could only be overcome through superior training, bold planning and unconventional concepts. Because of its numerical inferiority, PAF realised that complete neutralization of the adversary’s air power would be an unrealistic goal. It, however, could deny the enemy control of the air especially over its own territory.

History of modern warfare has demonstrated that for a land offensive to succeed neutralization of enemy air capability, or in other words gaining control of the air, is an essential pre-requisite. PAF’s ability to deny it would thwart any successful execution of the enemy’s land offensive. Success in air combats, or dogfights as it is known in fighter pilots’ parlance, would be the key element in this strategy.  These are some of the imperatives that have made PAF put a very high premium on its training standards, especially in the art of air combat.

PAF is now in its sixth decade of existence. It has fought two major wars with India, taken part with the Arab Forces in both ’67 and ’73 Middle East conflicts against Israel, besides participating and interacting with a number of air forces in friendly exercises. PAF over the years has established a well-deserved reputation for its skills in air combat. In both the ’65 and ’71 war, despite substantial numerical disadvantage PAF achieved a kill ratio of over 2:1 in air combat missions over its adversary (the figure has been compiled from an independent source after taking into account only those losses that IAF has itself confirmed or that has been substantiated by an independent neutral source). Against Israeli Air Force, which also rightfully enjoys a very high reputation in air combat skills of its pilots, PAF’s performance has been commendable. In the limited encounters between Israeli Air Force pilots and PAF pilots during the ’67 and ’73 wars, PAF pilots shot down three IAF aircraft without losing any of its own. While the number of encounters and planes shot down are too small to draw any major conclusions, they do reflect very positively on PAF’s reputation in air combat.

In the 60’s PAF did enjoy a degree of technological superiority over the Indian Air Force because of the American aid. With the cessation of American aid after 1965 this gap narrowed quickly and as things stand today, IAF enjoys both numerical and technological edge over PAF. PAF’s effort to modernize has been hampered by severe financial and political constraints. It goes to its credit that despite these limitations it has successfully maintained its fighting capability through ingenuity and unconventional wisdom. While IAF, since 1980, has added Mirage 2000s, Jaguars, Mig-25s, Mig-29s and Su-27s, some of the most current fighters, in its inventory in large numbers, PAF’s only major addition of modern aircraft has been the 40 F-16s it received in 1984. Unable to procure any modern fighters it adopted the next best option. It was able to enhance its Mirage III/V fleet substantially at a fraction of cost by acquiring them from nations that had declared them obsolete. Through a very bold and innovative initiative it upgraded the fleet with modern radars, radar warning receivers and the best available dog fight missiles. These almost redundant aircraft have suddenly been transformed into very potent air defence fighters. In addition, the new radars have given a tremendous boost to the weapon accuracy of the fleet which, coupled with the inherent long range of the aircraft, has also given PAF a substantial boost in its offensive strike capability. PAF undertook a similar upgrade programme on its fleet of Mig-21s (known as F-7s) that it had acquired from China.

IAF planners have been presented with an unenviable dilemma: in any major land offensive by the Indian forces IAF will have to conduct extensive counter-air operation against PAF and besides the very potent F-16s, they will have to face the upgraded Mirages and F-7s whose air combat capability has enhanced tremendously and in some areas they match or even exceed those of the F-16s. Winning the air battle over Pakistani air space will be a daunting task for the IAF.

Today, PAF should be able to withstand any sustained IAF’s assault despite the latter’s numerical and technological superiority.  PAF’s strategy of enhancing the air combat capability of its fleet through intelligent and selective upgrade is paying dividends. IAF is well aware of PAF’s strength and its future plan aims to neutralize this edge. It has already acquired Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. PAF is handicapped by the fact that it does not possess a similar capability. Acquisition of BVR missiles for its fleet should be at the top of PAF’s weapon acquisition priority. Similarly, India is investing heavily in space satellites through which it hopes to emulate some of the capabilities that USAF has demonstrated in the recent Afghan conflict. If it succeeds in achieving even a fraction of intelligence gathering, targeting and communication jamming that USAF has displayed in Afghanistan without a similar matching response by PAF, Pakistan’s air deterrence will stand compromised.  Investment in space technology is imperative if Pakistan wants to maintain its air power deterrence a decade from today. The nation as a whole will need to concentrate on this vital aspect. That it was able to establish its nuclear deterrence despite total opposition of the entire world should give it the confidence that aerospace power is well within its technological and economic reach. A firm commitment and resolve is all that is needed.