Harsh Vardhan Thakur shares his views on Islamabad’s latest arms deal with China

The Pakistani military confirmed on Wednesday that it was acquiring a new fighter from China, the J-10, in response to India's arms purchases.

Last week, Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed said 25 of the new jets would perform at a flypast for the country's republic day on March 23.

Rasheed had said the new jets would counter the Indian Air Force's acquisition of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters. At a press conference on Wednesday, Major General Babar Iftikhar, the Pakistan’s Army spokesperson, gave a similar rationale for the J-10 acquisition. “This is a step to upgrade our air force fleet and get the best possible technology available because we know what kind of technology is being acquired on the other [Indian] side,” Iftikhar was quoted as saying by Voice of America.

The J-10, a single-engine aircraft, is similar to the US-built F-16 and was revealed to the world by China in 2006. China is believed to have inducted over 460 J-10 fighters. Over the past two decades, the J-10 design has been incrementally improved, with newer versions having more advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and ‘diverter-less’ air intakes for its engine that reduce the possibility of being detected by enemy radars and sensors. An AESA radar has multiple 'transmit receive modules' and typically has longer range and capability to detect smaller targets, such as stealth aircraft or cruise missiles, than older-generation radars.

Media reports have claimed China could provide Pakistan the PL-15 very-long-range air-to-air missile, which could shoot down targets at a range of over 200km. China is believed to have offered Pakistan a variant of the J-10 dubbed the J-10CE.

The J-10 purchase also highlights Pakistan’s increasing reliance on China as a major arms supplier. China is now the main source of cutting-edge weapons for all three Pakistani services as US and European-origin equipment are retired.

While Pakistani officials have referred to India's recent arms purchases as the reason for buying the Chinese fighter, reports say Islamabad has been mulling acquisition of 36 J-10s for over a decade, long before the Indian Air Force selected the Rafale. Thus, the question arises: Why did Pakistan purchase the J-10 now? and what does the acquisition mean for India?

THE WEEK put these questions to retired group captain Harsh Vardhan Thakur. A veteran fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, Thakur is a senior test pilot with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Thakur has been involved in development and testing of unmanned systems and other futuristic equipment.

1. Talk of Pakistani interest in the J-10 dates back to as early as 2006. What explains the timing of this deal?

Unlike the Indian procurement system, which is ostensibly process-based, Pakistan's imports seem to rely heavily on when they can convince an ally to extend credit in the face of imminent threat to their sovereignty. Induction of Rafales in IAF may have been projected as a serious threat to the so-called balance and now, Pakistan would have been able to convince China to loan some of their J-10s.

China may have seen this as an opportunity to finally project successful exports of J-10s. But whether they are getting any money in return, one seriously doubts. Which portion of Pakistan is mortgaged to China for obtaining J-10s will emerge shortly.

2. What specific capabilities does the J-10 offer that the Pakistan Air Force would want against India?

Unless J-10CEs are equipped with PL-15 beyond-visual-range missiles, they do not offer any significant deterrence in the interest of PAF. The projected ranges of PL-15s make for a good brochure. This enhanced perception can be employed successfully by PAF as an information warfare tool to deter IAF's present supremacy. The PL-15 missiles are yet to prove themselves. Time will tell.

3. What do you make of the technologies on board the J-10 such as diverter-less intakes and AESA radars?

Diverter-less intakes employed on Chinese aircraft are a good technology. Such an intake gives lower drag and better supersonic acceleration compared with older J-10s. Obviously, that cannot be compared with its twin-engine cousin, the Su-30MKI of the Indian Air Force, which is powered by two of the same engines. The J-10CE's AESA radar may provide jamming resistance during combat, depending on its bandwidth. The radar is like Su-30 MKI's passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar, but may provide the user with a better mean time between failure (MTBF) also.

4. Will the J-10 be integrated with the PAF's fleet of Chinese and Swedish-origin airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft?

J-10s are not comparable with Rafale. But the timing is right, so adequate political noise can be created about having neutralised India's advantage. Surely, pilots in PAF know better. Integrating J-10s with AEWs/AWACS would be a challenge and will be years before that materialises.

5. Over the past decade or so, Pakistan's military has become predominantly reliant on China. What do you think are the implications of this transformation?

China has expanded at a rapid pace and Pakistan has been a loyal stooge. Pakistan has certainly got their act right, on whom to hang on to. Chinese success with consumer goods may have rubbed off into their military products as well. I think IAF takes them seriously enough. Hence, any operator of Chinese products is also taken seriously.

6. How do you think India should respond to the J-10 in PAF colours?

I think the Indian military aerospace industry must respond in equal measure and provide IAF with a one-on-one match against J-10CE like the Tejas Mk-2. Decision making should be quick, and an analogous platform should be rolled out soonest. There is no other way.