Bilal Khan: Revolution Observer: Pakistan’s Air Force, an obstacle to US Interests?



 Bilal Khan, Revolution Observer: Pakistan’s Air Force, an obstacle to US Interests?


As of May 2013, Pakistan became the fourth country in the world to start using China’s navigational satellite network system, the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS).[1] A direct equivalent to the American Global Positioning System (GPS), BDS is expected to achieve global coverage by the year 2020. With its existing network of 16 satellites, BDS is currently active for use in the Asia-Pacific region.[2]
However, given how widely used GPS is for private commercial purposes in Pakistan, the country’s shift to BDS seems to be driven by specific strategic and security priorities.[3] In particular, it is apparent that access to BDS is of great strategic significance to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which is poised to make the most wide-scale use of BDS.[4] Security analysts, among them the retired PAF general, Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail, believes thatPakistan’s shift to BDS is driven in large by the PAF’s need to secure its strategic assets and ensure that its capacities to address external threats are immune from Western (and in particular, American) interference.[5]
Security analysts believe that the PAF will seek to integrate BDS into the following areas:
1.  Its inventory of land-attack cruise missiles (Ra’ad) and bombs (such as the H-4), thereby allowing it to maintain precision-strike capabilities at stand-off (~300km) and tactical (<120km) ranges.[6]
2.  Its overall combat information and management network connecting its fighter aircraft, drones, airborne and land-based surveillance assets, etc. In effect, BDS will allow the PAF to become a “network-centric” force, i.e. becoming more aware and responsive in times of conflict.[7]


These advances indicate that the PAF operates with a perspective that focuses on Pakistan’s external military threats, a deviation from General Kayani’s emphasis on internal threats.[8] Officially, the PAF communicated that it would be willing to intercept U.S incursions provided that it is a policy of the Pakistani government.[9] The PAF also supports an elaborate implementation of this perspective with strong support from the Pakistani defense industry. In addition to the JF-17 fighter, a flagship program pursued with China worth billions of dollars, the PAF is also at the forefront of armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) development.
As a result of insufficient access to GPS, Pakistan was unable to continue developing a drone similar in range and capabilities to the U.S Predator. Satellite communication is integral to being able to control medium-altitude and long-endurance UAVs similar to the Predator.[10] Access to BDS will enable Pakistan to expand its UAV programs, and it had reportedly been offered technical support from China in this regard.[11] Leaders of Pakistan’s defense industry have voiced their disapproval of U.S drone strikes, and are of the belief that Pakistan attaining armed-drones would demonstrate the country’s capacity to manage its internal security without external intervention.[12]
Overall, the PAF’s intention for maintaining territorial sovereignty from external threats is reflected in its organizational goals. In addition to frequently engaging in large-scale exercises with other regional powers (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China), PAF has made several strategic acquisitions that are characteristic of projecting power. These procurements include a fleet of aerial refueling aircraft, airborne early-warning and control (AEW&C) systems, long-range air-to-surface weapon-systems and as of late, a renewed effort to develop armed-UAVs similar to the U.S Predator.
Incidentally, these strategic assets had come under attack by militants over the past two years.In 2011 and 2012, militants armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades undertook a series of coordinated attacks against a number of air bases housing strategic assets. These attacks resulted in the destruction of two maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft and an Erieye AEW&C system valued at $250 million.[13] The facilities targeted – among them the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) that manufactures the JF-17 – were well outside the Waziristan/Afghan theater, and had little to do with the military’s campaigns in that area.[14]
For the most part, these attacks were against assets that are oriented towards protecting against external military threats. The direct benefactors of these attacks include India, whose increasing capabilities are constantly diluted by the PAF’s modernization, as well as the United States. PAF officials, serving and retired, repeatedly called for Pakistan to distance itself from the U.S-led War on Terror, to take independent ownership of its internal security affairs, and reduce reliance on U.S financial and technical support.[15] The PAF’s investment in Chinese and indigenous systems is reflective of this stance, and offers a feasible alternative to security-ties with the U.S.
However, because the PAF and its officials have abstained from pursuing their policy views outside of their legal mandate (which is to obey the civilian government), they cannot be considered active change-makers. Ultimately, the PAF’s achievements will be tempered by such excuses as budgetary constraints, as well as the government’s neglect of the concerns the PAF has managed to prioritize over the years. Nonetheless, it is clear that the PAF has support within Pakistan’s wider security circles; support which has allowed it to sustain its programs over the past five years. Whether this desired direction openly opposes the way Pakistan is heading politically; i.e. the emphasis of peace with India and the prioritization of the country’s internal security problems in favour of its external concerns, remains to be seen.
[1] Ellyne Phneah. “Beidou to build stations in Pakistan for location accuracy.” ZDNet. 20 May 2013. Available at:
[2] Ibid.
[3] Michael J. Listner. “Pakistan to have Functioning Global Navigational Satellite System by June 2013.” Space Safety Magazine. 7 November 2012 Available at:
[4] Usman Ansari. “Pakistan Employs China’s Beidou Guidance System, but Access Not Guaranteed.” Defense News International. 7 May 2013. Available at:
[5] Ibid.
[6] Usman Ansari. “Despite Missile Integration, Nuke Role Unlikely for Pakistan’s JF-17.” Defense News International. 7 February 2013. Available at:
[7] Usman Ansari. “China Provides Key to Pakistani Bandwidth Requirements.” Defense News International. 27 March 2013. Available at:
[8] Katharine Houreld. “Pakistan army will be watching Sharif’s cozying up to India.” Reuters. 19 May 2013. Available at:
[9] TV interview with Air Marshal (retired) Shahid Lateet: (Urdu)
[10] Usman Ansari. “China Provides Key to Pakistani Bandwidth Requirements.” Defense News International. 27 March 2013. Available at:
[11] Christopher Booden. “China Emerging as New Force in Drone Warfare.” Yahoo News via Associated Press. 3 May 2013. Available at:
[12] Dion Nissenbaum. “Pakistan Moves to Build Its Own Drones, Push Aside U.S.” Wall Street Journal. 18 December 2012. Available at:
[13] TV interview with Air Marshal (retired) Shahid Lateet: (Urdu)
[14] Ben West. “In Pakistan, Mixed Results from a Peshawar Attack.” Stratfor Global Intelligence. 20 December 2012. Available at:
[15] Ibid.

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