While writing about Pakistan air force I have divided the history into different periods. This has been done merely to elaborate the different phases PAF went through to give a better understanding. I have also restricted present history to combat planes and AEW planes only and have excluded other history aspects such as radars, air defense network, missile development, communication and transport fleet etc.
1947 – 1954:
Royal Pakistan Air Force came into being on 14th August 1947 with the creation of Pakistan. At the time of creation RPAF inherited assets that were divided between the Royal Indian Air Force and Royal Pakistan Air Force. In 1947 RPAF strength consisted of around 2000 personnel. Order of battle in 1947 (1) was:
Tempest II 16
Tiger moth 7
Harvard T-6G 12
In June 1951 PAF entered the jet age with the induction of Supermarine Attacker fighters. Though these fighters remained in service for a short period of time PAF gained valuable experience of jet age, which resulted in smooth transition to F-86. Attacker fighters were phased out of service and replaced in 1958 with F-86 fighters.
During 1954 USA initiated military aid program for Pakistan. PAF equipped with British planes and doctrine subsequently switched to US planes. Between 1954 and 1958 PAF received some 100 F-86F Sabers, 12 F-104A Star fighters, 25 B-57 bombers and 12 T-33A planes.
PAF achieved its first air kill against the IAF on April 10, 1959 when an F-86 piloted by Flight Lieutenant M. Younas shot down a Canberra on reconnaissance mission near Rawalpindi.
In 1965 the word Royal was dropped and the service became Pakistan Air Force.
In 1965 Pakistan went to war against India and PAF went to action against an adversary that was almost 4 times its strength. Inspite of being outnumbered PAF performed admirably. Some of the IAF bases were attacked and many planes destroyed on the ground. Pathankot, Halwara, Avantipur, Srinagar and Gurdaspur air bases were attacked and Pathankot air base was severely damaged.
In the war PAF claimed it downed 35 IAF planes in air combat against the loss of eight planes.
This performance is further appreciable due to the fact that at the beginning of the war USA imposed sanctions against Pakistan and PAF had to maintain its fleet of fighters without much needed spares. Order of battle of PAF in 1965 (2) was:
F-86 E/F Sabers 100
F-104 Star fighters 12
T-33 A 16
After the war of 1965 Pakistan realized the mistake of relying on single source for the procurement of fighters and therefore alternate sources were searched for purchasing fighters.
Beginning in 1966 PAF started receiving from China F-6 fighters. These were copy of Russian Mig-19 fighters and a very potent fighter of its time. Further in 1968 Pakistan received from France Mirage fighters. These were the best fighters PAF had in its inventory in 1971 and continue to be part of PAF till to-date.
Around that time PAF also received some 90 Ex-Luftwafe Sabre Mk-6. These were Canadian built copy of US F-86. Some of these planes were used as spares to keep the F-86 flying and helped PAF coup with the arms embargo placed by USA.
In 1971 Pakistan again went to war with India over East Pakistan issue. PAF by now better equipped again rose to the occasion and performed exemplary.
The single 14 squadron of 16 Sabers based at Tezgaon was pitched against some 200 IAF fighters. Not only eleven out of sixteen Sabers survived but performed very well shooting down eleven IAF fighters. Remaining eleven Sabers were destroyed by PAF to evade capture by the Indians. Order of battle of PAF in 1971 (3) was:
F-86 E/F / Mk VI Sabre 72
Mirage III 18
In total PAF claimed shooting down fifty IAF planes and losing ten of its own.
During this period no new fighter systems were acquired. Though numbers of both Mirage and F-6 fighters increased substantially.
In 1974 F-104 Star Fighters were retired from the service.
PAF phased out of service F-86 in 1979.
During 1979 Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and subsequently Soviet and Afghan air forces started violating Pakistani air space. At that time Mirage was the best fighter PAF had and it too was not a match for the Soviet fighters. In order to counter the threat PAF in 1982 ordered F-16 Fighting Falcons from USA and were inducted in service in 1983.
During 1983 PAF also acquired from China Q-5 Fatan ground attack fighters. These were derivative of F-6 fighters modified for ground attack role.
From 1986 onwards PAF F-16’s assumed responsibility for patrolling Pakistan air space to prevent Soviet and Afghan air forces intrusions. A number of confrontations took place between PAF and Soviet/Afghan air forces and F-16’s reportedly shot down seven fighters while suffering no losses. Fighters shot down included Su-22, Su-25, Mig-21 and Mig-23. One F-16 was lost to friendly fire.
By 1990 PAF had placed orders for additional seventy-one F-16’s. However in 1990 PAF suffered a setback when Pressler amendment was passed by US congress banning the delivery of F-16’s to Pakistan. 28 already built F-16’s under peace gate III & IV program were shifted to AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB for storage. During the coming years various plans were conceived to resolve the issue however none of the plans were successful. In 1998 US announced that it would pay Pakistan USD 326.9 million in cash and USD 140 million in some other compensations to settle the case. Finally in 2002 US assigned these aircrafts to USAF and USN to fill the aggressor role.
In 1990 PAF inducted F-7P fighter into its inventory. F-7 is a Chinese copy of Soviet Mig-21. PAF modified F-7’s to meet its requirement.
During 1992 Pakistan conceived a plan to upgrade its existing Mirage fighters to reduce to capability gap developing against IAF. Sagem was selected to implement the modernization of existing Mirage fleet. The project named Retrofit of Strike Element “ROSE” was to be implemented in stages. Initially Sagem faced some difficulties with the program however by 1997-98 the program finally commenced. ROSE I comprised the avionics package including Inertial Navigation System, Head Up Display, Airborne Video Tape Recording System, and self-protection systems like RWR, Chaff & Flares and modern airborne radar the Griffo-M was also retrofitted. In ROSE II upgrade the modification is the same as ROSE-I except the Griffo-M radar is replaced by forward looking infrared “FLIR”. ROSE II was followed by ROSE III program. In total 42 Mirage III underwent ROSE I program, 40 Mirage V were upgraded under ROSE II and 14 Mirage V got ROSE III upgrades. ROSE I gave Mirage III’s BVR capability while ROSE II and III gave Mirage V’s air to enhanced ground capability.
In 1999 relation between Pakistan and India again deteriorated over Kashmir. PAF went on a high state of alert and kept vigilance in the sky. Although no confrontation took place between the two air forces PAF monitored the air space round the clock to ensure no intrusion was made into the air space. Order of battle of PAF in 1997 (4) was:
F-16 Fighting Falcon 32
F-7 Air Guard 160
Mirage III 102
Mirage V 58
A-5 III/C 50
During this period the single most important milestone in the history of PAF was the test flight in 2003 of the much talked about fighter aircraft JF-17. This joint Sino-Pak fighter shall reduce to a great extent PAF reliance on foreign fighters and shall also establish local aviation industry in the country. This aircraft is planned to replace F-7, A-5 and most of the Mirage fighters in use with PAF and shall be the main stay of the force. The plan is to initially manufacture the plane in China and assemble the same in Pakistan from kits and ultimately transfer technology enabling 100% manufacturing in Pakistan.
In 2003 PAF phased out F-6 fighters that were replaced by F-7.
After the 9/11 PAF again found US doors open to it for purchase of high tech weapons and sub systems. Not only US but some other nations also agreed to provide weapon system.
This led to the ending of long search for an air borne surveillance system and finally PAF choose Swedish Erieye system. The order was placed in 2006(5) with deliveries expected to commence by 2009. In 2008(6) first of the platforms was rolled out and handed over to PAF at a ceremony in Sweden. Presently the plane is undergoing testing and PAF personnel are being trained. First of the planes has been inducted in PAF in 2009 and rest are expected to be inducted during 2010.
At around the same time PAF ordered 18 block 52 F-16 C and D model planes and a mid life upgrade of the existing F-16’s. According to sources USA also agreed to provide the fighters that were withheld as a result of Pressler amendment. During 2007/2008 PAF was provided 10 used F-16 from excess inventory stocks. The deliveries of the new aircraft are expected to begin in 2010 and all are expected to be delivered by 2012.
Government of Pakistan has also approved the purchase of FC-20 from China. In 2008(7) Chief of Air Staff confirmed the news. The fighter was evaluated by the PAF and recommended. The plane most likely shall be equipped with western avionics & weapons and tailored according to PAF needs. The deliveries are expected to commence in 2010 and continue into 2012.
PAF has also been looking for other AEW&C system apart from Swedish system ordered. In 2008(8) it was confirmed that an agreement has been reached regarding the sale of systems. Though reports do not clarify the type ordered, however it is believed that PAF has selected KJ-200/ZDK-03(9)AEW&C system.
The PAF is presently going through a transformation phase and is planning to retire most of its ageing fleet by 2015 replacing it by new F-16, FC-20 and JF-17 fighters.
Order of battle for PAF in 2009 is:
F-16 Fighting Falcon 44
JF-17 10 (undergoing test & evaluation)
F-7 Air Guard 160
Mirage III 100
Mirage V 58
A-5 III/C 48
Analysis of PAF:
If one goes through the history and tries to analyze the PAF one fact is evident that PAF never had the things its way. Budget constraints, unfavorable international political environment and sanctions have affected the procurement of new fighter systems and maintenance of the ones in inventory. It is against the backdrop of this that PAF has to safe guard the air space against a much larger adversary who did not have any of these hindrances. Short windows of opportunity existed when Pakistan enjoyed favorable relations with USA and West and PAF tried to utilize those opportunities to its advantage. At other times PAF relied on China for its needs.
If one can describe the single most important asset PAF has acquired in its history it is the dedication, professionalism and expertise of its technical staff and technicians that have kept the planes in the air at most difficult of the times.
Presently PAF is going through another transformation phase perhaps like the one it went though in fifties when US military aid was provided. The difference is that this time instead of keeping all their eggs in one basket PAF is shopping intelligently. Fighter orders have been split between USA and China, AEW order has been awarded to Sweden & China and co-developed JF-17 is to be inducted in 2009. This shall to a large extent ensure that PAF does not go through the same problems it had to when USA embargoed the deliveries of F-16’s in nineties.
In the end one can summarize that if every thing goes PAF’s way then by around 2015 it should be a much better equipped air force having improved qualitative performance than the one today.