Pakistan’s FC-31 acquisition and India’s response: a snapshot of South Asia’s air power dynamics

Pakistan’s intended purchase of the FC-31 Gyrfalcon underscores the deepening military and defence collaboration between Pakistan and China in South Asia, particularly in response to their perceived common adversary, India.

Pakistan’s attempt to procure stealth warplanes from China could potentially compel India to expedite the modernization of its air force by acquiring American F-35 aircraft. Analysts suggest that India may feel the need to enhance its tactical air superiority along its borders to counter the potential threat posed by Pakistan’s acquisition of the Chinese fifth-generation FC-31 Gyrfalcon stealth fighter aircraft. A

Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmed Baber of the Pakistan Air Force announced on January 2 that the groundwork has been laid for the acquisition, indicating a move towards advanced stealth capabilities in the near future.

IMPLICATIONS

Pakistan’s intended purchase of the FC-31 Gyrfalcon underscores the deepening military and defence collaboration between Pakistan and China in South Asia, particularly in response to their perceived common adversary, India.

This development is anticipated to increase the pressure on India to expedite its acquisition of F-35s. Pakistan strengthens its military ties with China, and India may be prompted to accelerate its Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft program. This program aims to develop and deploy a stealth combat aircraft by 2032, positioning India strategically in response to regional dynamics and potential security challenges.

India has engaged in multiple conflicts with both China and Pakistan since the 1960s, primarily centred on their extensive and disputed borders spanning over 6,800 kilometres. The historical tensions, coupled with the possession of formidable nuclear arsenals by all three nations, raise concerns about the potential for South Asia to become a focal point in a future world war.

The introduction of a fifth-generation stealth fighter, such as the FC-31 Gyrfalcon that Pakistan is considering, could provide the country with a significant tactical advantage, particularly in air-to-air combat. Pakistan’s possession of a fighter with no equivalent in the current Indian Air Force could potentially shift the balance in favour of Pakistan, especially in crucial aspects of aerial warfare. This development adds a layer of complexity to the regional security dynamics and the ongoing military competition between the three nations.

Despite the acquisition of 36 Rafale 4.5-generation warplanes from France’s Dassault Aviation in the past two years, the modernization efforts of the Indian Air Force (IAF) have not kept pace with the ageing of its existing fleet. Currently, the IAF operates with approximately 30 to 32 squadrons, falling short of its intended squadron strength of 42.

To address this gap and bolster its air capabilities, India is anticipated to announce the acquisition of an additional 26 Rafale planes. These aircraft are expected to be deployed on India’s aircraft carrier, enhancing its naval aviation capabilities.

Advancements in this area necessitate a decisive political commitment from India to streamline its defence acquisition process and eliminate bureaucratic impediments. So far, such commitment has not been demonstrated.

The existing shortfall in the number of Indian warplanes, deemed essential to effectively counter the dual threats posed by China and its ally Pakistan, amounts to approximately 200 aircraft. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has expressed that, at the current pace, this gap may only be reduced by half by the mid-2030s. Addressing this shortfall requires a concerted effort to expedite and streamline defence procurement processes, ensuring a more rapid modernization of the Air Force to maintain a credible defence posture.

While Pakistan’s primary motive for acquiring these sophisticated Chinese aircraft is to enhance its defence capabilities against India, analysts suggest that China sees this move as an opportunity to counter India’s growing political and defence partnerships with the United States. Notably, these partnerships have strengthened under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Japan and Australia. The geopolitical dynamics in the region are influenced not only by the longstanding rivalry between India and Pakistan but also by broader strategic considerations involving major global players.

The Pakistan-China Institute highlights that India, having shifted from its traditional non-aligned foreign policy, has received financial and military support to serve as a counterweight to China in Asia. According to the institute, there is a growing recognition of an axis forming between China and Pakistan, aimed at defending their security interests and sovereignty. This alliance is positioned to resist what is perceived as Indian hegemony in the region. The institute suggests that this alignment is becoming more tangible and effective in shaping the geopolitical dynamics of South Asia.

India seems relatively unperturbed by Pakistan’s impending acquisition of Chinese stealth warplanes, particularly the FC-31, as it is still in the developmental stage. The assessment is that the FC-31 lags in its development, and the deal may potentially be more beneficial to China in the long term than to Pakistan.

The decision for Pakistan to seek advanced Chinese fighter aircraft, such as the FC-31, is attributed to the necessity of replacing its ageing fleet of 75 American F-16 combat aircraft. One key consideration in this decision is the realization in Pakistan that its long-term relationship with the United States poses challenges. This choice reflects a strategic shift in Pakistan’s defence procurement, opting for Chinese aircraft over continued reliance on American-made platforms.

Washington is likely to be “largely unsurprised” by Pakistan’s planned acquisition of the J-31, considering the previous significant inductions of Chinese military hardware by Pakistan. The collaboration between Pakistan and China has included the joint production of around 150 JF-17 “Thunder” lightweight fighters for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), serving as replacements for ageing French Mirage aircraft. The latest version, JF-17 Mk III, is equipped with 4.5-generation capabilities.

In addition to fighter jets, Pakistan has acquired Chinese Type-054 guided-missile frigates and Type-041 diesel-electric submarines. The acquisition of the submarines is seen as a potential component of Pakistan’s future naval nuclear force. United States is likely to view the potential J-31 deal as another indicator of the deepening and long-term nature of the military relationship between China and Pakistan

COMPARISION BETWEEN FC-31 AND F-35

The Shenyang FC-31, or J-31, stands as a notable fifth-generation stealth fighter developed by China, often drawing comparisons to the United States’ F-35, another advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter. Despite sharing the same generational classification, these aircraft hail from different nations and showcase distinct features and capabilities tailored to their respective military doctrines.

Both the FC-31 and the F-35 are versatile platforms designed to execute a variety of mission profiles, reflecting the modern trend in military aviation toward multirole capabilities. One key commonality between the two is the integration of stealth technology, a critical aspect aimed at minimizing radar cross-sections and enhancing survivability in contested environments.

The F-35, produced by the United States, is renowned for its sophisticated and highly integrated stealth design. This design is a result of extensive research and development, encompassing a broad range of technologies aimed at providing an advanced level of stealth. The F-35’s stealth capabilities are intended to offer a higher degree of invisibility to enemy radar systems, contributing to its survivability in complex and hostile operational scenarios.

In contrast, the FC-31, developed by China, is a distinct interpretation of fifth-generation stealth technology. While it shares the fundamental goal of reducing radar cross-section, the specific design choices and technological implementations may differ from its U.S. counterpart.

In essence, both the Shenyang FC-31 and the F-35 represent significant advancements in stealth technology and fifth-generation fighter capabilities. The comparison between the two underscores the global competition in developing cutting-edge military aviation capabilities and the strategic significance of stealth features in contemporary aerial warfare.

ENGINE

The J-31, also known as the FC-31, is a twin-engine, single-seat stealth fighter designed for multirole capabilities. In contrast, the F-35 family, comprised of the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C variants, showcases the United States’ commitment to a diverse range of operational needs, including conventional takeoff and landing, short takeoff and vertical landing, and carrier-based operations. Both aircraft incorporate advanced stealth features, yet nuances in their design and intended applications underscore the unique approaches taken by China and the United States in the pursuit of air superiority and the fulfilment of varied military mission profiles.

PERFORMANCE

In terms of performance metrics, the J-31 and F-35, emblematic of China’s and the United States’ respective advancements in military aviation, demonstrate key distinctions. The J-31, developed by China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, boasts a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 at high altitudes, coupled with a combat range of approximately 1,200 kilometres on internal fuel and a service ceiling of 16,000 meters (52,000 feet). On the other hand, the F-35 Lightning II, crafted by Lockheed Martin in the United States, achieves a maximum speed of Mach 1.6 at altitude, with a combat range of around 669 nautical miles in interdiction missions on internal fuel and an impressive service ceiling of 50,000 feet. These figures underscore the nuanced engineering approaches taken by each nation, reflecting their distinct strategies in balancing speed, range, and operational altitude to meet the diverse demands of modern aerial warfare.

ARMAMENT AND HARDPOINTS

When it comes to armament and payload capabilities, the J-31 and the F-35 exemplify the varied strategies employed by China and the United States in the design of their fifth-generation stealth fighters. The J-31, developed by China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, features a robust armament capacity with 6 external and internal hardpoints capable of accommodating up to 8,000 kilograms (18,000 pounds) of weaponry, including 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) internally. This flexibility enables the J-31 to carry a diverse array of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, as well as bombs, enhancing its versatility for a wide range of mission profiles.

In contrast, the F-35 Lightning II, manufactured by Lockheed Martin in the United States, exhibits a different approach to weaponry integration. With 4 internal stations and 6 external stations on its wings, the F-35 can handle a total weapons payload of up to 18,000 pounds (8,200 kilograms), striking a balance between internal and external storage. This configuration allows the F-35 to carry an extensive array of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, along with precision-guided bombs.

STEALTH AND AVIONICS

In the realm of stealth and avionics, the J-31 and F-35 showcase distinct approaches to achieving a technological edge in fifth-generation fighter aircraft. The J-31, developed by China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, incorporates stealth characteristics, although it may not match the level of stealth exhibited by the F-35. It is equipped with the KLJ-7A Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, demonstrating its commitment to modern avionics systems. While specific details about its stealth capabilities are not as extensively disclosed as the F-35, the J-31 showcases advancements in radar and electronic systems.

Conversely, the F-35 Lightning II, designed and produced by Lockheed Martin in the United States, stands as a paragon of advanced stealth capabilities, engineered for a reduced radar cross-section. Its cutting-edge features include the AN/APG-81 AESA radar, renowned for its precision and range. Moreover, the F-35 incorporates the AN/AAQ-40 Electro-Optical Targeting System and the AN/AAQ-37 Electro-Optical Distributed Aperture System, further enhancing its situational awareness and targeting capabilities. These sophisticated avionics systems contribute to the F-35’s reputation as a top-tier fifth-generation fighter, excelling not only in stealth but also in sensor fusion and overall combat effectiveness.

Both the F-35 and J-31 programs are dynamic and are anticipated to undergo further evolution in the years to come. The F-35 program, with its diverse variants such as the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C, is characterized by an ongoing commitment to continuous upgrades and improvements. The versatility of these variants allows for specialization in conventional takeoff and landing, short takeoff and vertical landing, and carrier-based operations, respectively. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35, is actively involved in refining and enhancing the aircraft’s capabilities, incorporating advancements in technology and addressing emerging threats to ensure its sustained effectiveness in a rapidly evolving security landscape.

Similarly, the J-31 program, being a product of China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, is also expected to see updates and potential development of export variants in the future. As China continues to invest in its aerospace industry, advancements in technology and operational requirements may drive the evolution of the J-31, allowing it to remain competitive and adaptable to changing defence needs. Potential export variants could open avenues for international collaboration and partnerships, showcasing China’s aspirations to position the J-31 as a viable option for allied nations seeking advanced fifth-generation fighter capabilities.