Pakistan’s Armed Forces

This is an article published in our December 2017/ January 2018 Issue.

Pakistan Air Force Chengdu JF-17/Pulqui-111 (Photo: Shimin Gu)

President Trump’s ‘Remarks on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia’ of 21 August, 2017 were regarded unfavourably by Pakistan. The government, opposition politicians, media and the army reacted forcefully to Mr Trump’s observation that the United States could “no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time, they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting . . . that must change immediately.”

Official refutation by Pakistan’s foreign ministry included the avowal that “No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism, often perpetrated from outside our borders. It is, therefore, disappointing that the US policy statement ignores the enormous sacrifices rendered by the Pakistani nation in this effort.” The National Assembly, in a rare show of cross-party unity, declared that it “unanimously rejects the unacceptable targeting of Pakistan by US President Trump . . .”

In a media release the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Bajwa, said “We have done a lot towards [achieving peace in Afghanistan] and shall keep on doing our best, not to appease anyone but in line with our national interest and national policy,” and the prominence of the army in Pakistan was demonstrated on 23 August when the US ambassador in Islamabad, Mr David Hale, called on the COAS and “briefed [him] about new US Policy.” It is the army that has most influence on Pakistan’s defence posture and even other aspects of government policy, to an extent unusual in democracies, and the implications of the US president’s strictures and especially his supportive stance regarding India have been acutely felt by the armed forces.

Although deeply involved in domestic terrorist campaigns, and having lost over 6,800 soldiers killed in counter-terrorist operations and extremist attacks since they began in 2002, Pakistan’s armed forces concentrate tactical and strategic planning on preparation for conflict with India. Following the war of 1971, relations between India and Pakistan were moderately tranquil until the situation in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir deteriorated in the 1990s when there were many incidents of violence initiated by local and foreign militants seeking separation from India. Concurrently there was a marked rise in mutual distrust, largely because India alleged and continues to assert forcefully that Pakistan supports terrorists who are active there and elsewhere in the country, but also because Pakistan objects to what it regards as brutal suppression of Muslims by Indian security forces.

It had been hoped that the unscheduled but widely welcomed stopover in Lahore (en route from Kabul to Delhi) by India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi in December 2015, when he had cordial discussions with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, would serve to reduce reciprocal hostility, but confrontation continued along the Line of Control dividing the disputed territory in 2016-2017, involving many exchanges of small arms, mortar and artillery fire that caused the deaths of a small (and disputed) number of civilians and military personnel. Politicians and media in both countries have indulged in combative nationalist rhetoric, and the possibility of more serious conflict has greatly increased. In October 2016 Mr Modi stated that “the mothership of terrorism is a country in India’s neighbourhood,” and observed that “this country shelters not just terrorists. It nurtures a mindset. A mindset that loudly proclaims that terrorism is justified for political gains. It is a mindset we strongly condemn.” His forum was a meeting in Goa of leaders of the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — attended by Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping, neither of whom endorsed Mr Modi’s statements.

In 2007 Pakistan’s government authorised military action to eradicate extremists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), abutting Afghanistan, and since then the army has conducted ten major operations in that region, aimed at subduing and killing terrorists. Many units were redeployed from the eastern border and initially experienced problems such as vehicle ambush casualties because they lacked counter-terrorism (and COIN) expertise, but training programmes were established and after a hesitant start the overall campaign has been markedly successful. Most aerial ground attack has been by army helicopters, but the air force has flown a large number of F-16 sorties, mainly delivering laser-guided bombs, and air force-army cooperation procedures, notably in command and control and gathering and exchange of tactical intelligence, have greatly improved. Initially the F-16s had to rely on Google Earth to assist in strike planning, but Goodrich DB-110 electro-optical reconnaissance pods were acquired in 2009. Additionally, a C-130 was fitted with a FLIR Systems Star Safire III EO/IR sensor ball for detection of ground movement.

A PAF C-130B outfitted for FLIR Star Safire III EO/iR sensor for counter-insurgency operations.

In February 2017 the government extended the sphere of responsibility of the armed forces (almost exclusively the army and the paramilitary Rangers) to the rest of the country with the aim of “indiscriminately eliminating residual/latent threat of terrorism” in Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, the eleventh counter-terrorism drive.

In June 2016 the army stated that 490 soldiers had been killed in the course of Zarb-e-Azb, while some 3,500 militants were killed and “over a period of two years, an area of 3,600 sq km in North Waziristan [was] cleared of terrorists.”

As noted above, in spite of the sizeable military commitment to countering domestic terrorism, which involves much expenditure on operating costs, some of which has been borne by the US, the armed forces consider India to be the greater challenge to Pakistan’s security. In this they are supported by the government, as evidenced by the March 2016 statement by the then Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz (now deputy chairman of the Planning Commission) that “India, not terrorism, is the biggest threat to the region.” At a US Congressional hearing in May 2017 the Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, Lt General Vincent Stewart, noted that India “is considering punitive options to raise the cost to Islamabad for its alleged support to cross-border terrorism,” and in June India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir, said that “Pakistan continues to be a chronic disease for [India] despite the government’s sustained efforts to contain it.”

Accordingly, Pakistan’s defence posture, force structure development, and equipment procurement continue to focus on what it regards as its major threat. The Pakistan Navy (PN), long the most neglected service, is to receive four Chinese F-22P frigates being built in Pakistan. Other major acquisitions involving China include eight Type-039A/Type-041 submarines, of which four are to be built in Karachi, as are six Type-022 Houbei stealth catamaran missile boats and four Azmat Class fast attack craft of which the third was commissioned in July 2017. Under an agreement of June 2016 the PN’s three Agosta 90B (Khalid Class) submarines are being upgraded sequentially by Turkey’s Savunma Teknolojileri Mühendislik ve Ticaret (STM).


2002-1             2010-49

2003-2             2011-41

2004-7             2012-39

2005-4             2013-43

2006-7             2014-25

2007-54           2015-19

2008-59           2016-19

2009-76           2017-15*

(*To August 17)

Source: South Asia

Terrorism Portal (India)

The army continues to develop the al Khalid tank in conjunction with China, and in November 2016 a $600 million agreement was signed with Ukraine for supply of 200 engines and for technical support in maintenance and modernisation of other tanks and armoured vehicles. Among other Chinese equipments developed and manufactured in Pakistan are the HJ-8 ATGW system, the Type 54 heavy machine gun, and NORINCO’s A-100 MLRS. All its 250 self-propelled 155mm artillery guns are US-supplied M-109s or M110s, and most of its heavier towed artillery is similarly sourced.

The Pakistan Air Force will receive a total of 12 AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopters by the end of 2018.(Photo: Pakistan Air Force)

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF), with 76 F-16s, had hoped to acquire a further two single-seat F-16C and six twin-seat F-16D Block 52 aircraft, but although it had been agreed that Pakistan would contribute only $270 million of their cost, with the remainder coming from US Foreign Military Financing (FMF), in May 2016 the State Department advised that Pakistan would have to “put forward national funds” for the purchase, after Congress objected to the FMF subsidy. It appears that the arrangement had lapsed, although in March 2017 the CAS said that talks with the US were continuing. The US is, however, abiding by the 2015 agreement to supply the army with 12 Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters under FMS terms. A statement from Bell Helicopter confirmed that the “award for the 12 AH-1Z Vipers is a government to government transaction between Pakistan and the US as part of a Foreign Military Sales (FMS). Bell Helicopter looks forward to supporting the Pakistan Army with the world’s most advanced attack helicopter, the H-1, to aid Pakistan’s national defense.” In August 2017 the PAF accepted a request to provide instructors to train Turkish F-16 pilots but the arrangement fell through because the US must give permission for any third party involvement in use of the aircraft, and declined to do so.

The Chief of Air Staff said in April 2017 that the PAF required a new combat aircraft type to complement its F-16s and JF-17s (the latter a joint venture with China, being manufactured at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra, near Islamabad), for which there are “Chinese and Russian options.” (The JF-17 is to be “powered for the foreseeable future” by the Russian-built RD-93 engine.) In August 2017 it was announced that Russia had delivered four Mil Mi-35M assault helicopters to the army, and it is possible that a total of thirty could be acquired. Cooperation with Russia, a major supplier of defence hardware and technology to India, was broadened by an August 2017 Letter of Understanding (LoU) signed by the Kalashnikov Concern and the military-directed Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) to jointly market and supply small arms to the civilian market. It is assessed that this collaboration is likely to deepen and extend to include military hardware. In September-October 2016, 70 Russian and 130 Pakistan army troops joined in the first ever military exercise involving both countries, called ‘Friendship 2016’.

Pakistan Air Force Chengdu JF-17/Pulqui-111 (Photo: Shimin Gu)

Cooperation with China includes joint exercises with the PLA’s individual services. In 2017 the navies had a minor exercise in the Indian Ocean (centred on a PLA-Navy visit to Karachi in June by the destroyer Changchun, frigate Jingzhou, and replenishment ship Chaohu); and the air forces combine in the Shaheen series of exercises (in which it is notable that the PAF does not deploy F-16s, which it did in 2016 when participating in exercises Anatolian Eagle in Turkey and Red Flag in the US). In October 2016, Pakistani and Chinese troops took part in a two-week exercise, YOUYI-VI 2016, at the National Counter Terrorism Training Centre near Islamabad.

The Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Bajwa, and the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, visited Beijing in 2017 to attend the 90 anniversary of the founding of the PLA on 1 August, and among other comments the COAS noted “defence collaboration in numerous joint projects,” and the expanding “professional collaboration between PLA and Pakistan army.” Although expressing gratitude to China for “its unflinching support to our perspective at all international forums, may it be expansion of Nuclear Suppliers Group, Kashmir issue, or Pakistan’s full membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” he made no comment on China’s stance in the then confrontation with India in the Bhutan region, along the disputed Line of Actual Control, which was resolved in late August.

As noted in the Asian Military Review in March 2017, Pakistan’s Army Aviation Corps is acquiring eight Airbus H-125M Fennec armed reconnaissance helicopters to complement the US-supplied Vipers. Although Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) is multinational, it is headquartered in Marseilles and the French government exercises considerable influence on its commercial activities. It thus appears that the comment by French defence minister Gerard Longuet in India in May 2011 that his country had decided to cease sales of military equipment to Pakistan because it did not wish to be regarded as “feeding Pakistan’s military ambitions” may be to a degree inoperative. In December 2016 it was reported that the French multinational Thales (represented at Pakistan’s annual International Defence Exhibition and Seminar, IDEAS, in Karachi in November) had been in discussions about provision of an air defence system, although in March 2017 the army formally took over an unspecified number of Chinese LY-80 (HQ-16) medium-range surface-to-air missiles.

Counter-Terrorist Operations 2007-2017

2007: Operation Rah-i-Haq-I in Swat

2008: Operation Rah-i-Haq-II in Swat

2008: Operation Sirat-i-Mustaqeem in Khyber Agency

2008: Operation Sherdil in Bajaur Agency

2009: Operation Rah-i-Haq-III in Swat

2009: Operation Black Thunderstorm in Buner and Swat

2009: Operation Brekhna in Mohmand Agency

2009: Operation Rah-i-Rast in Swat

2009: Operation Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan

2014: Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan

2017: Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, country-wide

Source: Pakistan Army

Pakistan’s defence forces are acutely conscious of the importance of ground-based air defences, as, although the PAF’s pilots are world-class professional standard, with an aircraft cockpit ratio of 1:2.5, the disparity in aircraft numbers between the PAF and the IAF militates against the former’s ability to achieve air superiority, battlefield or strategic. Given that Pakistan continues to place much emphasis on development of the Nasr tactical nuclear missile system, and that it and longer-range missiles are considered vital to the country’s defence, it is understandable that all measures to protect them receive priority.

The PN is supported by a dedicated PAF maritime strike squadron equipped with JF-17s and based in Karachi, but has no seaborne aerial attack capability and, facing the threat of India’s aircraft carriers, its surface ships are limited to onboard defence systems which are unlikely to prove effective against mass attack. Maritime surveillance, electronic warfare and ASW capabilities are adequate, with three UAV squadrons (Boeing ScanEagle; indigenous UQAB-II, German LUNA), seven P-3s, four Hawker 800s, and three German ATR-70s. Its future plans are concentrated on the submarine arm, which is likely to involve cruise missile capabilities and is expected to be fully effective by 2023, although it would like to acquire four more Type-039A/Type-041 submarines to add to the eight on order. The first underwater test of a 450 km range Babur 3 cruise missile was carried out ‘from an underwater, mobile platform’ at ‘undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean’ in January 2017.

The Pakistan Navy is hoping to aquire additional Yuan (Type 039A) Class Attack Submarines. (US DoD).

Although not as well-equipped as they would wish (especially the navy, although this will improve over the next decade), the armed services are competent and well-trained, and the army and air force are capable of a modest degree of interoperability. The major shortcoming lies in the highest command echelon because, as in India, there is no one person appointed with command responsibilities over all military forces. The Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, whose Chairman is titular head of the military as a whole, is responsible for effecting tri-service co-ordination but has no command authority. Although the army and the PAF cooperate effectively in the anti-terror campaign in the west of the country, it is far from guaranteed that this would apply in the event of more intense and fast-moving conflict.

The chain of nuclear command appears to be effective, in that release decisions would be made by the National Command Authority, which exercises nuclear “operational control”, consisting of the main cabinet ministers, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the commanders of the army, navy and air force, and the director general of the Special Plans Division (SPD), chaired by the prime minister [the SPD is responsible for developing and analysing doctrine, strategy and operational plans for use of nuclear weapons]. One major difficulty, however, would be timely passage of well-based decisions for release of tactical nuclear weapons, as real-time information about rapidly-changing battlefield conditions would be extremely difficult to obtain and process. Air force-army cooperation would have to be on the basis of mutual accord, which in war would be even more difficult to achieve than in peacetime.

While the domestic security threat is expected to continue and could increase if Islamic State managed to extend its influence in the region, Pakistan’s armed forces will continue to be India-centric in developing strategy, and it is unlikely that any civilian government would seek to alter that emphasis.

by Brian Cloughly