China Pak Aerospace Connect

Sub Title : The China Pak aerospace connect and its implications for India

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 6 Jan/Feb 2020

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 58

Category : Military Affairs

: January 28, 2020

China and Pakistan forged a strategic alliance in 1972, which has since grown from strength to strength in almost all spheres, including defence. Pakistan is China’s biggest arms buyer, accounting for nearly 47% of Chinese arms exports. The article details the China Pak aerospace connect and its implications for India and what India must do to keep pace

The JF-17 Thunder, fighter aircraft jointly developed by Pakistan and China can be considered a showcase of Sino-Pak defence cooperation. Pakistan continues to be China’s strongest ally. China began providing economic and military assistance to Pakistan in early 1960s. After dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan forged a formal strategic alliance with China in 1972. In 1978 Chinese operationalised the Karakorum highway linking northern Pakistan with western China. China later became Pakistan’s largest arms supplier and third largest trading partner.

While China supports Pakistan on Kashmir, Pakistan in turn supports China on Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. Pakistan also acts as a link between China and the Muslim world. China’s national strategic interest to get port facilities and a highway close to the oil rich middle east made it originally commit US$ 46 Billion in the Gwadar deep-water port and the road and rail corridor leading to it, called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The value of CPEC projects crossed US$ 62 billion in 2017. Long term plan is to lay an oil/gas pipeline from Gwadar to central China. CPEC remains the ‘crown-jewel’ of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Pakistan continues to be a key element of China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy to create sphere of influence around India. The relations between Pakistan and China have been described as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey”, and so on. For Pakistan, China is a low-cost-high-value deterrent against India. China is Pakistan’s ‘time-tested all-weather friend’. China has for long helped Pakistan build its military-industrial complex, and according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar, are the biggest purchasers of Chinese weapons. In the 10 years period (2008-18), China has supplied weapons worth over $6.4 billion to Pakistan, with the US coming a distant second at $2.5 billion. Aerospace cooperation has been the lynchpin of Sino-Pak relationship.

China the Evolving Aerospace Power

China’s aerospace industry, and in turn the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is developing its capabilities at a rapid speed, and spending vast sums on breakthrough technologies like artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, hypersonic, and robotics, which could tilt the nature of warfare to its advantage. China’s 2019 defence budget was US$ 177.54 billion, albeit it is still small vis-a-vis USA’s US$ 750 billion. China’s military aerospace modernization objectives remain very ambitious as China is convinced that aerospace is the principal instrument of waging war. The same was visible from the air assets on display at the 70th Anniversary Parade in October 2019. ‘Made in China 2025’ is the target to acquire all aerospace technologies.

Aviation Industry Corporation of China

China has consolidated its aviation industry under the state owned aerospace and defence umbrella organization called the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), ranked 151st in the Fortune Global 500 list. It has over 100 subsidiaries, 27 listed companies and 446,613 employees across the globe. It covers manufacturing of all military, air transport, and general aviation aircraft. AVIC also manufactures helicopters, UAVs, aircraft systems and automobiles. Initial aircraft building plants in China had come up with  Soviet/Russian support. As Chinese began to grow, China wanted to free itself of the Russian control and therefore began stripping Russian aircraft and systems, and weapons to understand technology and manufacturing details and started reverse engineering the systems much to the anger and helplessness of the Russians. China also used cyber attacks and Chinese Diaspora in USA to steal sensitive aerospace designs and technologies. They have often been accused of infringing Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), both by Russia and USA. China however continues to lag in critical aviation technologies including, aircraft engines, aerial radars, Electronic Warfare (EW), stealth technologies, ejection seats, and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) technologies. But all this is work-in-progress. China is also working on Lasers and Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications for defence aviation, and hypersonic systems technologies. With US$ 25 billion budgeted for defence Research and Development (R&D) every year, Chinese are fast catching up.

Sino-Pak Military Production Evolves

In the early 1980s China started making huge investments in Pakistan military industrial complex. It was looking for partners and markets to buy its relatively low end products and platforms. Pakistan needed an ally to balance strong dominance of USA in their relationship. China initially helped Pakistan set up munitions factories and upgrading the ordnance factory at Wah near Rawalpindi. China also allowed license production of MBT-2000 (Al-Khalid) tank which was essentially a Chinese variant of Russian T-90. It also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi. China is building the most advanced naval warships for Pakistan. China has also committed to supply Pakistan with 8 new stealth attack submarines by 2028, four of which will be built in Pakistan. Significantly, all these involve transfer of technology to Pakistan. China reportedly supplied Pakistan with nuclear technology including perhaps the blueprint for Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. After India signed the 123 civil nuclear agreement with USA, China agreed to set up two nuclear power stations in Pakistan.

Sino-Pak Aerospace Cooperation

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the 7th largest Air Force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world with 400 combat and over 200 other support aircraft. China supplied PAF 250 F-6 aircraft (air defence version of MiG-19) in mid 1960s. A squadron of Harbin H-5, a Chinese version of Russian Illyshin IL-28 was formed in early 70s. China helped establish Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra in 1973. In mid 1980s PAF received 55 A-5Cs (Chinese MiG-19 ground attack variants) and 186 Chengdu F-7s (Chinese MiG-21).

USA froze F-16 deliveries and stopped supply of spares for many years as a result of Pressler amendment, 1990, which banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan after nuclear tests. Hereafter, Pakistan went whole hog to China for all its aerospace needs. In 2007, as a part of a joint-venture project, China rolled-out a ‘designed for Pakistan’ Fighter JF-17 ‘Thunder’. 36 Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ fighters (PAF designation FC-20) are under supply. This tail-less delta wing with canards is being compared by the Chinese with JAS 39 and Dassault Rafale. J-10 B will one day have the AESA radar, and be equipped with the improved version of the failed Chinese WS-10A engine which is a copy of AL-31FN. Short range air-to-air missiles PL-8 and PL-9, medium-range radar-guided air-to-air missiles PL-11 and PL-12, precision guided munitions including laser-guided bombs, anti-ship missiles YJ-9K and anti-radiation missiles PJ-9 are part of the package. Six ZDK-03 Chinese AWACS have been inducted. 60 Chinese designed K-8 Karakorum intermediate jet trainers are currently in service and more are on order. PAF has also received four CH-4 Recce-cum-strike drones which can carry up to 4 PGMs and reportedly have endurance of 30 hours. PAF has bought Chinese SD-10 (ShanDian-10) radar-guided, mid-range homing air-to-air missiles to equip the JF-17 fighters. China has transferred 34 M-11, road-mobile, short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) with related technology, and manufacturing capability to Pakistan. Despite Chinese pledges to the contrary, it has continued to provide Pakistan with specialty steels, guidance systems and technical expertise in the latter’s effort to develop long-range ballistic missiles. Hatf, Shaheen and Anza series of missiles have been built using Chinese assistance. China helped Pakistan develop nuclear warheads that directly contributed to Pakistan having nearly 150 of these warheads as on date.

JF-17 ‘Thunder’ – a Joint Success Story

The JF-17 Thunder (Joint Fighter-17) is a light-weight single-engine, third-generation-plus multirole combat aircraft jointly developed by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of   China. The JF-17 can be used for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack, and air interception. This fly-by-wire, 1.8 Mach fighter is powered by Russian Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine. Russia has cleared up to 400 engines to be supplied to Pakistan. It could later be powered by the Chinese indigenous Guizhou WS-13 engine. Aircraft has wide-angle Head Up Display, aerial refuelling, a data-link, and KLJ-7 Doppler radar. Aircraft has  an electronic warfare suite. The JF-17 can deploy diverse ordnance including air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, and the 23 mm GSh-23-2 twin barrel cannon. Its seven hard-points can carry external load of 3100 Kg. Weapons include the PL-5 short-range air-to-air missile, LS-6 ‘Thunderstone’ GPS-guided glide bombs, and YJ-12 supersonic and YJ-83 subsonic anti-shipping missiles. PAF maintains one squadron in the maritime strike role. PAF had ordered 600 Chinese PL-12 radar-guided beyond-visual range (BVR) missiles with a range of around 80 km. Chinese claim that missile is comparable to the American AIM-120 AMRAAM and the Russian R-77.

Thunder is claimed to be highly manoeuvrable. It is to become the backbone of the PAF complementing the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. The PAF began inducted the JF-17 in February 2010. In 2015 Pakistan produced 16 JF-17s. As of 2016, Pakistan is believed to have the capacity to produce 25 JF-17 per year. Work share wise, 58% of the airframe is Pakistani and 42% Chinese/Russian-origin. As of 2019  Pakistan operates around 100 JF-17s in five operational squadrons, plus a testing and training unit. In the long term they plan to have 300 aircraft. Nearly 70 jets are of Block 1 Type, and remaining are Block Type II.  The aerial refuelling got introduced in Block II. In May 2019, China has delivered the first overhauled multi-role JF-17 fighter jet back to PAF. The last three JF-17 Block II aircraft were delivered to the PAF in June 2019.

A Block III variant of the JF-17 is under development. Production of the Block III aircraft has reportedly started. It will have the Chinese KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, digital fly-by-wire flight control system, a new helmet mounted display, network-centric warfare capability, an infra red search and track system, new electronic warfare systems, weapons upgrade and a radar cross-section reducing ‘pseudo-stealthy’ airframe. The weapons  include new longer range and more sophisticated air to air missile, the PL-15 (150 km). The Block III is being called a 4th generation-plus fighter by the Chinese. The Block III with AESA and PL-15 combination with a 150km range could outrange analogous systems with IAF. It was expected to make maiden flight by the end of 2019. PAF plans to procure fifty JF-17, Block III standard by 2024 and 26 two-seat JF-17Bs with additional fuel stored in a dorsal fin and enhanced application to training and possibly strike missions. Older JF-17s may also be upgraded to the Block III variant later. The initial JF-17 aircraft were priced quite cheap at $15-28 million. The new Block III, will supposedly cost around $32 million each. Since its induction in 2011, the JF-17 Thunder has accumulated over 25,000 hours of operational flying.

Three JF-17’s have been sold to Nigerian Air Force in 2018 and have delivered at least six out of an order of eighteen JF-17Ms to Myanmar. It is competing with India’s Tejas and South Korea’s FA-50 in Malaysia’s new fighter jet purchase plan. China and Pakistan are aggressively trying to find possible export customers. Targeted countries are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. The reasonable price makes it attractive.

Sino-Pak Air Exercises

PAF and PLAAF participate in a series of joint exercises called Shaheen since 2011 to improve inter-operability to respond to ‘mutual threats’. The missions include simulated air combat, surface attack missions, air-refuelling and logistic support missions. Shaheen-I was held in Pakistan. Shaheen-II was held in September 2013 in Hotan in Western China. The three week-long Shaheen-III exercise was held in May 2014 at PAF Rafiqi airbase near Shorkot in Western Punjab. The exercise gave both the Air Forces opportunity to improve specific skills and to practice Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT). It also allowed to train under different threat environment and training philosophies. PLAAF was reportedly impressed by PAF’s aggressive combat style and by the streamlined efficient training approach. These exercises were of special importance to PAF as it gave them exposure to fly against Chinese Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30MKK aircraft which are similar to the IAF frontline SU-30 MKI aircraft and to help them validate their tactics.

The most recent Shaheen VIII (Eagle VIII) was also held at Hotan in August 2019, primarily to develop a mechanism for interoperability of both air forces. This was the first war-game after India’s Abrogation of Article 370. PAF participated with JF-17s while China fielded J-10 and J-11 fighters which are PLAAF’s backbone. The J-10 had been evolved from the abandoned IAI Lavi fighter program. The J-11 is a copied variant of the Russian Su-27 air superiority fighter.

Aerospace Implications for India

The changed South Asian dynamic (with China rapidly expanding its footprint) necessitates action options for India to be considered on an urgent basis. India’s muscle flexing, and the military response for terrorist provocations – air and land strikes – have driven Islamabad deeper into China’s camp. Pakistan is strong enough to be a spoiler and, in cahoots with China, poses a substantial threat.

It is unlikely that India can break up the Pakistan-China nexus.

Close ties between PLAAF and PAF force IAF to cater for a two front war and to acquire advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. PLAAF with nearly 1700 aircraft (600 4th Gen plus) and aggressively modernizing, and nearly 450 aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and the soon to be inducted state-of-the art aircraft carriers, makes a great air power. PAF has 21 fighter squadrons and has target of 28. Current IAF: PAF ratio of 1.4:1 is a far cry from the once 3:1 dominance. The Force ratio edge of IAF over PAF is thus at an all-time low. With eight Chinese airbases in the Tibet Autonomous Region and many more in Chengdu Military region east of Myanmar, any collusion with PAF would encircle India and create significant air threat to counter. India thus needs to re-look at the force structure. IAF is currently down to 30 squadrons. Many Indian defence analysts believe that to cater for two-fronts, there is a need to eventually increase combat squadrons from hitherto targeted 42, to around 50 squadrons. IAF immediately requires advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons.  The Defence R&D and Indian aircraft industry too would have to get their act right. India must fast-track acquisition of 114 medium multi-role  fighters, hasten development and production of the LCA and AMCA. This would require significant funding over the next three decades and defence budget increased to at least 2.5  percent of GDP from current 1.41 percent. IAF needs to deploy more Surface-to-Air missiles on China border. There is a need for IAF to build up force levels quickly lest IAF gets left too far behind PLAAF and PAF to bridge the gap.