Air Superiority in South Asia
7 October 2010
Today India announced plans to purchase 250 to 300 advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter jets from Russia over the next 10 years. The aircraft in question will be some version of the Sukhoi PAK FA. If the purchase goes through, it will be the biggest military deal in India’s history. India has long been a major purchaser of Russian manufactured military equipment, as much during its “non-aligned” phase during the Cold War as it is today as the largest functioning democracy (in terms of population) in the world. Political regimes may come and go, but arms purchasing relationships transcend ideology and changing times.
The contest to watch in South Asia is that between India and Pakistan. The two have been rivals if not enemies since the partition of 1947, so that everything India does in terms of defense is done with an eye on Pakistan, while everything Pakistan does in terms of defense it does with an eye to India. Pakistan developed nuclear weapons not least because India already had the bomb, and Pakistan tested its nukes, thus making itself an “official” nuclear power in response to India’s nuclear tests (in 1998). It is a quid pro quo relationship.
Given Pakistan’s recent turmoil, and its deep engagement (both politically and demographically) with the turmoil in Afghanistan, one might reasonably think of Pakistan as being not much of a rival to India, with the latter’s democratic institutions, its growing economy, and its enormous population, except that Pakistan was a stalwart Cold War ally of the US, and as such received military hardware from Washington DC that not everything country had access to. Many of these sales were controversial and widely reported in the press.
Since Pakistan has been dropped from the list of countries receiving the best US armaments, they have been building a new fighter with the cooperation of the Chinese in Chengdu. The Pakistani air force already operates Chinese fighters, including the Chengdu F-7 Skybolt, which is the largest constituent of their fighters in terms of absolute numbers (192), followed by the French Dassault Mirage III (121). The Pakistanis also have 63 F-16 Fighting Falcons, with another 14 to be delivered this coming December.
The fighter that the Pakistanis and the Chinese are building jointly, the JF-17 Thunder (Urdu: تھنڈر), also designated Chengdu FC-1 Xiaolong (English: Fierce Dragon; Chinese: 枭龙; pinyin: Xiāo Lóng), represents something of a step down from the capabilities of the F-16 (see the accompanying chart), but the JF-17 is something that the Pakistanis can count on, and they know that they can’t count on the Americans. Pakistan has even recently built some of the JF-17s on their own soil with Chinese assistance and expertise, so they need not even wait for them to come from the production facility in Chengdu.
While there is only one squadron of 25 JF-17s flying in Pakistan to date, the plans are to produce between 250-300 total units. We cannot but notice that this is the same number of Sukhoi PAK FAs the Indians hope to acquire from Russia. The JF-17 is by no means an equal to the Sukhoi PAK FA, but in terms of what is possible for the Pakistanis, it is a good choice. Not only do the most advanced military powers face a “death spiral” of increasing costs of production and decreasing number of units produced. Even in Pakistan and India their military hardware has evolved to the point that the same is true for them. The JF-17 was designed to be as inexpensive as possible, and now it is an inexpensive fighter produced domestically.
While India has an edge with the Sukhoi in terms of capability, these are expensive planes produced in Russia with Russian technology and Russian expertise. With these conditions noted, we can see that Pakistan has a different kind of geopolitical edge with a less-expensive fighter that can be produced domestically. If both nation-states buy or build the planned 300 units of each, Pakistan will not be so badly off in a contest as it may appear at first sight, since they certainly don’t have to worry about fighter aircraft from Afghanistan — their other long border — while India is a large country that also has a long border with China. By concentrating its fighters near the Indian border, Pakistan can prevent India from achieving absolute air superiority in South Asia, and there are many instances in which denial of superiority can be decisive in the overall geopolitical context of a military contest.
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