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On 11 March 2022, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) received its first tranche of six J-10CE “Dragon” multi-role fighter aircraft from China. The new aircraft joined the PAF’s No. 15 Squadron, “Cobras.” The induction of the J-10CE marked the end of the PAF’s six-year-long effort to seek a new fighter aircraft.
The PAF intended to acquire a new off-the-shelf fighter since around 2016. Originally, the PAF had sought to enlarge its F-16C/D fleet. In 2015, it secured approvals to order eight F-16C/D Block-52 with apparent plans to follow it up with another order of 10 aircraft.
It seemed that the PAF was working towards building its F-16C/D fleet to the originally planned force of 36 aircraft. Interestingly, before the 2005 earthquake, the PAF had reportedly planned to procure upwards of 55 F-16C/Ds with an option for another 20. While significant, the latter made sense as the PAF usually inducts a new fighter platform with a purchase roadmap for at least 90 units through the long-term.
However, the PAF’s F-16 plans fell through when the U.S. decided to prohibit the PAF from using Foreign Military Funds (FMF) to co-finance the acquisition. This triggered a series of rows between Islamabad and Washington that eventually led to the U.S. withholding future FMF and Coalition Support Funds (CSF) from Pakistan. As a result, the Pakistani military as whole lost interest in purchasing U.S.-origin weapons.
Thus, in 2016, the PAF decided to move ahead with an alternative fighter platform. Reports had emerged of the PAF showing interest in the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) J-10CE as well as Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation’s (UAC) Su-35. In 2017, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) at the time, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman indirectly confirmed this interest, stating, “Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.”
ACM Aman’s statements showed that the PAF was – at least by 2017 – not evaluating any Western aircraft for procurement. Moreover, though the PAF seemingly had Russian options, the realistic outcome was for the PAF to procure a Chinese fighter. Thus, at this point, the J-10CE was an eventuality as it was – and still is – the only full-fledged Chinese fighter for sale (aside from the JF-17).
n 2020, the next PAF CAS, ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan, again reiterated that the PAF was open to procuring an off-the-shelf fighter. However, ACM Khan conditioned the purchase of another fighter on the need to induct a net-new air warfare capability. In an interview, ACM Khan said, “we have to be aware of modern technologies, and if the acquisition of a new fighter fits into our doctrine, then we will try to acquire it. The balance has to be maintained.” By this point, a new off-the-shelf fighter was firmly on the roadmap.
Ultimately, in June 2021, the PAF signed a contract with China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) to purchase the J-10CE. The contract included both the aircraft plus training, ground support equipment (GSE), and weapon systems (notably the PL-15 or PL-15E)…