PAF after a highly successful campaign had to face a major blow when its top pilots were eliminated in a series of accidents. The first loss was of Air Commodore A. Hameed Qadri, who had earlier shot down two Soviet Su-22 fighters in a single sortie on 17 May 1986. He attained shahadat on his last operational flight on 19 July 2002 when an F-7MP fighter he was flying crashed soon after take off from Kamra.
The second loss was a big blow to the whole PAF, when on February 20, 2003, the Pakistani Air Chief Mushaf Ali Mir died along with other 15 high officers, when their Fokker F-27 crashed during a routine flight to PAF Base Kohat. Nearly, all of the PAF’s top brass, accompanying the Air Chief was eliminated in this accident.
Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat assumed the post of Chief of Air Staff of the PAF. Soon after, his first step was to put the JF-17 Thunder project in full throttle. The result was that the first prototype took to the air in 2003.
JF-17 Thunder unveiled
PAF achieved its best Flight Safety record of its history when in 2004; it had the lowest major aircraft accident rate. In 2004, PAF also sent its F-16 fighters to Turkey to participate in a multinational exercise Anatolian Eagle 2004. The participants fought simulated air battle scenarios in demanding operational environments. PAF pilots performed at their best alongside their F-16s in the exercise with PAF F-16s simulated amongst the Blue side. PAF pilots emerged winner in 90% of the aerial engagements which took place. Their tactics were amongst the best on paper while in a notable mission two PAF F-16s emerged victor as they penetrated the enemy air space, struck their targets and returned back to their base. The fortnight-long exercise helped train Pakistan Air Force officers and men and served as "a milestone in strengthening ties between countries participating".
PAF F-16s participating in Anatolian Eagle 2004
This offer may seem odd, with US offering PAF a frontline high tech weapon. But the reality is that Lockheed Martin felt short of orders and was compelled to shut down its plant. If that happened its new fighter JSF-35 which was in development stage would never materialize as the front line US fighter of the next generation. Thus Lockheed Martin which needed orders desperately urged the US government to seek orders for their products. Both Pakistan and India were approached. While India showed some reluctance to purchase an aircraft of US origin, PAF was happy to place an order for 50+ Block-52 Advanced Vipers as well as 28 refurbished Block-15 Vipers which were originally built for PAF but were rushed to service in USAF and USN as aggressor aircraft.
The offer was followed by a visit of a three-member delegation from Lockheed Martin, comprising General (R) Lloyd Newton, Executive Vice President, Gen (R) William J Begert, Vice President and Warren Boley, Vice President, of Pratt & Whitney Company at Pakistan Air Headquarters. General (Retd) Lloyd Newton presented a plaque to the Chief of the Air Staff in recognition of flying F-16, for over 100,000 accident-free flight hours. They also commended the maintenance, quality control and flight safety standards of PAF, which made this achievement possible.
In September 2005 PAF held the largest ever flying operations exercise ‘High Mark 2005’ after ten years' gap. 350 PAF combat aircraft, along with the units of Pakistan Army and Navy took part in this exercise. All the planes of PAF, pilots, airbases, engineers, air defence and management crew participated in this exercise. Focus was placed on employment concepts of air power during this four weeks long exercise. The exercise afforded the chance for best training to fighter and their assisting elements of three forces. High Mark 05 involved all major bases including FOBs and the focus of the exercise was on to sharply develop strategies to operate and conduct air operations in the hilly areas of North and Kashmir. This theme appears to be emanating from the fact that Indian Air Force has increased air operations in Kashmir particularly in and around Kargil range.
PAF had developed and inducted some new air defence systems including some early warning radar systems, High Mark 05 offered an excellent opportunity to the Pakistani pilots to test these systems especially if the intruder is much stronger in numbers and enjoys the deeper penetration capabilities with Mirage 2000-5 and Su-30MKI. High Mark 05 was expected to go a long way in the history of PAF as the force for the first time tested its strategic capabilities.
PAF Mirages in action during High Mark 2005
PAF F-16A in action during High Mark 2005
PAF A-5Cs ready for action during High Mark 2005
In short, the ‘High Mark 2005’ was undertaken to test PAF's defensive capabilities within their limited capabilities. Also the strength and capabilities of Indian Airforce and air defence were kept in mind. During ‘High Mark 2005’, PAF had put up 8000+ sorties in all missions, which suggests that PAF pilots can fly more than two sorties per day depending on the situation. The attrition rate was minimal despite extensive flying and inclement weather conditions. PAF lost only one Mirage-IIIEP due to CFIT in heavy inclement.
PAF F-7PGs in action during High Mark 2005
Two refurbished F-16 Block-15s were supplied by the
PAF received its first two refurbished F-16 Block-15s in late 2005. It was when on 8th October, a deadly earthquake struck North Pakistan. Due to the urgent relief needed in Kashmir after the earthquake forced the Pakistan Military to stall its modernization program; so it could divert its resources for fuel and operations during the rescue effort.
PAF C-130 dropping supplies over the Earthquake Zone at extremely low level
IAF EMERGING AS A MAJOR THREAT
After the military standoff in 2002, IAF realized that it cannot rely on its fleet of MiG-21s, MiG-23/27s, MiG-29s, Jaguars and Mirage-2000 to simply crush the PAF. It needed a force better equipped and better trained to gain a decisive edge over PAF.
The first thing which IAF did was to strengthen its relation with Israel. The Indians sent their MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 pilots to Israel to qualify on their F-15 and F-16 systems and gain as much experience as they can on these types. Israeli Airforce personnel were quick to train the Indian pilots and teach them new tactics. The Indians incorporated these new tactics in their training and were quick to grasp them. Considering F-16 as their main foe, the Indian pilots learnt about its strength and weakness and started to prepare to take on the F-16 utilizing the platforms they possessed. Israel Airforce on the other hand got an opportunity to train their pilots against MiG-21 Bison, MiG-29, Su-30MKI and Mirage-2000H aircraft.
The Indians also finalized the deals for sophisticated equipment which included state of the art radars, medium and short range advance air to air missiles, surface to air missiles, AWACS and UAVs. Israel also provided the avionics required to upgrade the Indian MiG-21 and Su-30 aircraft which resulted in the MiG-21 Bison and Su-30MKI.
IAF had slated 125 MiG-21Bis aircraft way back in the 90s to be upgraded. These MiGs were armed with the Phazotron Kopyo (Spear) airborne radar, which is capable of simultaneously tracking 8 targets and engaging 2 of them tracked with semi-active radar homing air-to-air missiles such as Vympel R-27. The radar also enable to fighter to deploy active radar homing air-to-air missiles such as the Vympel R-77 when an additional channel is incorporated. Russia claimed that this version is equivalent to the early F-16A. Israel provided some jammers which made it more lethal.
AA-12 Adder (R-77) mounted on the Bison
Similarly in the late 90s the Su-30MKI program was also underway. The development of the variant started after India signed a deal with Russia in 2000 to manufacture 140 Su-30 fighter jets. The first Russian-made Su-30MKI variant was integrated into the IAF late in 2002, while the first indigenous Su-30MKI (with Russian engine) entered service with the IAF in 2004. Capable of carrying nuclear weapons and tailor-made for Indian specifications, the fighter jet integrates Indian systems and avionics. It also contains French and Israeli subsystems. The two main features which make it a truly deadly aircraft are its powerful radar system and TVC (Thrust Vector Control). The forward facing NIIP NO11M Bars (Panther) is a powerful integrated passive electronically scanned array radar is a digital multi-mode dual frequency band radar. The N011M can function in air-to-air and air-to-land/sea mode simultaneously while being tied into a high-precision laser-inertial or GPS navigation system. It is equipped with a modern digital weapons control system as well as anti-jamming features. N011M has a 350 km search range and a maximum 200 km tracking range, and 60 km in the rear hemisphere. The radar can track 15 air targets and engage 4 simultaneously. These targets can even include cruise missiles and motionless helicopters. The Su-30MKI can function as a mini-AWACS as a director or command post for other aircraft. The target co-ordinates can be transferred automatically to at least four other aircraft. The radar can detect ground targets such as tanks at 40–50 km.
Su-30MKI joins IAF in 2004
The Indians were been working on the Phased Array Radar (PAR) technology since 1975, which can track over 100 targets simultaneously. Akash Surface to Air Missile developed by India uses the PAR system called ‘Rajendra’ India claimed that it possessed the same capability as that of US Patriot. Akash was apparently geared to use a conventional warhead whose tremendous power would incapacitate the hostile missile/aircraft. This missile was being inducted into all the three services. In the same quest, India was negotiating with Russia to purchase S-300V all weather anti missile system which Moscow has claimed as being superior to the US Patriot. This mobile theatre defence system aimed at protecting Indian cities and presumably significant economic assets against missile attack. On the nuclear side IAF could mount nuclear, warheads, including Agni and Prithvi on modern aircraft like Jaguars. Mirage-2000, MiG-23, MiG-27, MiG-29 and Su-30MKI. Its Sea King helicopters could be used for the delivery of nuclear depth charges and in artillery, the 155mm Bofors Guns could be employed to fire tactical nuclear weapons
Like PAF fighters, IAF also decided to participate in international exercises, gain valuable experience and in future host multinational exercises. Main objectives of these excercises were to expose Indian fighter pilots to Fighter Tactics of international air powers as well as understanding basic concepts of each countries fighter operations.
In February 2004, French Mirage-2000B/C visited India for Exercise Garuda-I, in which IAF Mirage-2000H, MiG-21 Bison and MiG-27s were pitted against AdA Mirage-2000B/Cs. This exercise was significant for the IAF which polished their BVR and aerial refuelling skills.
Exercise Garuda-I in which French Mirage-2000s visited
In June 2004, IAF aircraft for the first time left India for an international air exercise. Six IAF Jaguar deep-penetration strike aircraft flew to the United States to take part in multi-national exercises in Alaska. The Jaguars, took part in exercise 'Cope Thunder 2004', crossed the Atlantic helped by mid-air refuelling by the IAF's recently acquired IL-78 giant tankers. Two IL-76 transport aircraft carrying ground crew and spares also formed the IAF team for the multi-national exercises.
The most anticipated exercise of the year was Cope India 2004, in which USAF F-15Cs engaged IAF Su-30Ks, MiG-29s, MiG-21 Bisons, MiG-27s and Mirage-2000H aircraft. The results of this exercise were widely published with Indian Airforce emerging as winners in 90% of the aerial engagements. Surprize package was the MiG-21 Bison which repeatedly shot down USAF F-15Cs in mock air combat.
Cope India 2004 featuring USAF F-15Cs alongside IAF Su-30K and Mirage-2000Hs
After Cope India 2004, the confidence level of the Indian pilots went sky high and was not the old IAF which PAF used to know. Trained by French and Israel, and extensive training with US improved IAF training method and boosted their confidence which was shattered by the PAF during the first 55 years of its existence.
Bolstered with confidence as well as new high tech equipment, IAF transformed itself as a major threat. It was this confidence which let IAF dominate in the Garuda-II exercise held in France, Cope India 2006 exercise in which USAF F-16Cs were pitted against the IAF, and their exercise with the RSAF F-16C/Ds.
IAF trained extensively against the F-16s to gain an edge over the ‘Pride of PAF’