Chengdu J-10C

Pakistan confirms Chinese ‘Firebird’ fighter acquisition

Pakistan confirms Chinese ‘Firebird’ fighter acquisition (Photo by Rehan Waheed)

By Usman Ansari

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has officially confirmed its long-speculated acquisition of the Chinese J-10C Firebird fighter jet, which is slated to arrive in time to take part in the March 23 Pakistan Day Parade. Rasheed Ahmed, Pakistan’s interior minister, told the media last week the country acquired 25 aircraft. He linked them as a counter to India’s growing Rafale fleet.

He did not detail the value of the deal, and a source familiar with Pakistan’s military acquisition programs said he does not know if the fighters were “purchased or loaned to Pakistan’s Air Force.”

However, the source said, he is “more inclined to the latter, as [the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force] may have given a few units to the Pakistan Air Force to test on a delayed cost basis.”

Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told Defense News there “is imagery suggesting that finished J-10Cs at the Chengdu factory are ready for near-immediate transfer,” referring to a manufacturing location in China.

Pakistan’s interest in the J-10 spans more than 10 years. The country was first interested in the FC-20 export variant of the single-seat J-10A. This was part of the wider Armed Forces Development Plan 2015, derailed by a lack of funding under the 2008-2013 Pakistan Peoples Party administration.

Pakistan’s interest in the FC-20 was partially driven by a need to complement its F-16, when further acquisition of that program appeared unlikely. Pakistan also reportedly examined acquiring the Russian Su-35 Flanker-E, potentially to help better cover naval operations in the Arabian Sea.

When speculation first arose of a Pakistani J-10C purchase in early 2021, it was linked with one of the Pakistan Air Force squadrons based in Karachi.

China’s naval air arm, the PLANAF, operates the earlier J-10AH and J-10SH Firebird variants from shore as multirole aircraft. Though unconfirmed, Pakistan may operate its aircraft similarly.

Pakistan’s Firebirds are believed to be the J-10CE export variant of the latest J-10C, featuring an active electronically scanned array radar and long-range PL-15 air-to-air missiles. Twenty-five aircraft could equip two squadrons of 12 aircraft each. Royal United Services Institute airspace analyst Justin Bronk said the J-10C will significantly boost Pakistan’s air power.

“The J-10C is a potent modern multirole light fighter, which represents a rough Chinese equivalent to a modern F-16 Block 60/70,″ he said. However, he noted, it’s not quite on a par with the Rafale.

“The AESA radar and access to the long-ranged PL-15 air-to-air missile make it a potentially serious long-range threat to non-stealth aircraft, although it might still struggle as a counter to India’s Rafale at long ranges. The latter’s superior kinematic performance and access to the Meteor missile [provide] a decent counter to the PL-15,″ Bronk said.

“The J-10C is also unlikely to be able to match the Rafale for electronic warfare capabilities.”

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