On January 2, Pakistan Air Force Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Babar made a “big statement,” claiming that the Pakistani military is ready to purchase the FC-31 Gyrfalcon, an export model built by China’s aviation sector. He assured everyone that the J-31 fighter jets would be Pakistan Air Force’s most potent jets.
The statement of Air Chief Marshal Babar spread rapidly across international media. The initial response was one of surprise, given that the Chief of the Pakistan Air Force had taken the initiative to make an announcement of this magnitude.
Compare this to the procurement of the J-10CP fighter jets, which took place behind closed doors between China’s aviation sector and Pakistan. The contract terms were not finalised until the second half of 2021, and Pakistani Air Force pilots had already completed training in Chengdu. Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, Pakistan’s then-Minister of Interior, formally revealed the facts in a year-end public speech. He said the J-10C fighter jets would participate in the National Day celebration on March 23, 2022.
In contrast to the interior minister, the PAF Chief did not provide a timetable for procuring the J-31 fighter plane. Using the Interior Minister’s announcement as an example, one might conclude that Pakistan’s negotiations for purchasing the J-31 fighter jet are likely nearing completion. The plane may possibly take part in Pakistan’s National Day parade in 2024. As a result, Air Chief Marshal Babar’s comment is extremely high-profile.
The possibility of Pakistan purchasing a fifth-generation fighter jet so soon was unanticipated. Pakistan has been active in procuring fifth-generation fighter jets for some time. A Pakistan Air Force group visited Turkey’s IDEF 2023 International Defence Exhibition in August 2022, where they inspected the recently assembled Turkish Aerospace Industries TF-X fifth-generation fighter jet. This plane is currently referred to as KAAN. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex was designated as an outsourcing unit in Turkey’s TF-X programme, enabling cooperative research and manufacturing of the TF-X fighter jet.
Based on this information, Pakistan was initially leaning towards Turkey, leaving the Chinese fifth-generation fighter jet, but after several twists and turns, Pakistan announced that the FC-31 fighter plane would be their final option. A bankrupt Pakistan purchasing two types of fifth-generation aircraft is an absurd scenario. TAI KAAN is anticipated to cost $100 million per unit, with additional costs for weaponry, spares, and infrastructure. Perhaps the Pakistanis were using this as a bargaining chip with the Chinese.
The selection of J-31 by Pakistan might not be solely motivated by cost considerations. Considering Turkey’s technological expertise in the aerospace sector, the country lacks proficiency in aircraft manufacturing. Primarily, they have assembled F-16C/D fighter aircraft using American components and blueprints. (TAI has also designed and manufactured critical composite parts for key global aviation companies such as Airbus and Boeing. ) Their history is not as extensive as that of China’s aerospace sector, which encompasses a wide range of operations such as raw material component assembly, self-manufacturing, transitioning from self-manufacturing to independent innovation or design copying, and development of a fighter jet such as the J-10, maybe with Israeli help.
Turkey lacks the research and development skills necessary to produce even a fourth-generation, much less a fifth-generation, fighter. Turkey has thus far developed solely a handful of unmanned aerial vehicles, a light trainer, and armed helicopters on their own.
Turkey also lacks the facilities for critical subsystems required for whole aircraft manufacturing, such as advanced avionics, propulsion systems, and flight control systems. Turkey has some technological achievements in aerospace weapons, including self-produced electronic warfare pods and precision-guided munitions. However, they heavily rely on the United States, Ukraine and European nations for major components. Nonetheless, Turkey says that 85% of KAAN is produced in the country.
Another critical issue concerns the TF-X, for which the F-110-GE129 engine is licenced for import from the United States. This engine is for the TF-X’s test flights, with the idea that the US would sell 20 engines. It is improbable that Turkey will be able to manufacture a similar engine in the near future, and even if they manage to produce the TF-X, it will most likely be prohibited by the US due to national interests. Only Rolls-Royce and Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress have consented to participate in the tender, in which Turkey seeks to develop a homegrown engine with intellectual property rights. This type of engine takes at least ten years to create.
Furthermore, Ivchenko-Progress has no prior expertise in developing such engines. So Rolls Royce is the only option, and this engine sale must be viewed in terms of intellectual property rights. Pakistan cannot purchase this aircraft for the next 15 to 20 years if the US refuses to allow Turkey to export KAAN fitted with these engines.
Given the United States’ emphasis on the Indo-Pacific strategy to counterbalance China, they are unlikely to allow Pakistan’s military capabilities to rise too high. Allowing Pakistan to have significant strength would act as a counterbalance to India, undermining the purpose of India’s role in countering China. From this perspective, if the TF-X’s engine faces restrictions from the US. It is highly probable that the US will not approve Turkey’s export of the TF-X to Pakistan unless the engines are excluded. Therefore, efforts by Pakistan to purchase TF-X fighter jets could result in a challenging situation, requiring them not only to buy the TF-X but also to become an outsourcing partner, engaging in joint production and establishing delivery centres, which might ultimately turn out to be elusive.
On the other hand, the recent statement by the Pakistan Air Force Chief may also be a bargaining tactic—a way of negotiating with Turkey. It could signal that Pakistan might turn to China’s aerospace industry for fifth-generation fighter jets unless Turkey provides favourable terms. However, overall, it is believed that the collaboration between Pakistan and Turkey on the TF-X project has inherent difficulties. Despite the potential allure of the TF-X as a heavyweight fighter jet with attractive specifications on paper, these challenges could lead the Pakistan Air Force to invest several years in the project, only to end up with little tangible outcome.
Looking at the situation from China’s perspective, the FC-31 fighter jet, originally designed as a technology demonstrator, has been around for over a decade, undergoing several design iterations. It has undergone extensive testing, even showcasing flight demonstrations at the Zhuhai Airshow. This aircraft can be considered a mature product, suitable for domestic use, deployment in the Pakistan Air Force, or even for export to other countries as an export model—pending seamless production line integration. Therefore, from China’s standpoint, there shouldn’t be any significant obstacles if Pakistan expresses interest.
Considering that the TF-X might not be a reliable option for Pakistan and the FC-31 presents no technical issues for China, aligning interests might make this a feasible scenario.
From China’s perspective, it is beneficial if the overall strength of the Pakistan Air Force maintains a certain equilibrium with the Indian Air Force. An excessively strong or weak Pakistani Air Force is not in China’s strategic interest in establishing military balance in the South Asian subcontinent. Currently, the Indian Air Force lacks a fifth-generation fighter jet, the most advanced being the Rafale. Pakistan’s former Interior Minister thinks that the J-10CP fighter jets in the Pakistan Air Force are more than capable of dealing with the Rafale aircraft.