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VIEW: PAF - Both Sides of the COIN

Published In HILAL (Military Mag) Jan 2010

As gleaming multi-role fighters taxi down the runway, their occupants are ready for the looming battle yet, the war they are now about to embark on is unlike anything their predecessors have experienced. If taking on an enemy with a (non-existent) airpower capability and a pervasive hold over Pakistani territory is PAF’s latest mission; seamlessly transitioning from defenders of the skies to defenders of the soil – is its biggest challenge. As a conventionally armed air force adds another dimension of counterinsurgency (COIN) to its formidable list of specialities, the reshuffled priorities have revealed zero collateral damage as a guiding principal, and an intensive inter-services planning with PAK Army high command as a mandatory element of its COIN operations.

While an impressive armada of conventional weaponry is on standby for the long term threat, a more immediate danger puts PAF’s COIN capability to the test. And as the PAF carries on a limited, albeit pivotal role in close support of the army, it must do so without compromising its conventional forces reserved for the Eastern front, without collateral damage and without a COIN doctrine - an interesting dilemma, and a heavy responsibility.

By now PAF is engaged in a full fledged COIN campaign and it is more complex than eliminating a few ragtag Afghan marauders. A ‘65 war veteran reminiscing about the few scattered missions undertaken as part of his border patrol duties sees a mini Vietnam/VietCong in present day COIN operations : Rah-e-Raast (Swat) and Operation Rah-e-Nijaat (S. Waziristan). While these three could not be more different in terms of terrain, the targeting difficulties are the same. Pakistan Air Force and Army have carried out joint operations where the PAK Army Cobra Helicopters go for soft (moving) targets and the PAF concentrates on precision targeting using laser guided bombs (LGB) in ‘collateral damage rich environments’ and for taking out reputed safe houses/meeting places. Mavericks with TV guided heads are prone to errors but LGB’s with their higher penetration capability are suitable alternates. PAF acknowledges that such joint operations have been successful in reducing reaction time, providing heightened accuracy with absolute minimum collateral damage.

Air power puts a premium on accurate ground intelligence for precision targeting in this kind of warfare. COIN operations within ones own territories are not without some advantages. In cases where ‘shrubbery’ would be the pilots first guess upon catching sight of a flash of green in a sparsely populated area; ‘crude camouflage’ would be the assessment of a HUMNIT (human intelligence) familiar with the lay of the land.

The Flip Side of the PAF COIN

In order to judge PAF’s COIN capability one must consider the following. In the absence of a ground-to-air threat virtually any type of combat aircraft can do the job. But manned fighters are costly to operate. Of the four variables in COIN equation (surveillance, reconnaissance, air attacks and air mobility), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)’s or drones as they are affectionately referred to, have been deemed perfect for surveillance, their armed counterparts Predators/Reapers are ideal for their rapid response to emergent threats. But first PAF’s sorority sisters, (in this case – the USAF) need to be convinced that handing over such an advanced technology is in our joint interest. It would give the PAF 24/7 surveillance capability for one. It would provide the lightning quick ability to react as soon as the target or his hidey hole is identified. And more importantly, it would take the heat off the sovereignty issue.

Analysts agree that dedicated slow speed ground attack aircraft (A-10 Warthog, Marine Harrier), gunship (AC130), would give the much needed loiter time. The Warthog is a rugged COIN bird, cheap to operate, easy to fly, with longer loiter time; and it can take off/land anywhere; the complete opposite of the magnificent F-16, in fact. While preference has been shown for the AC-130 gunship - a potent COIN weapon with accurate direct fire weapons which minimize risk of collateral damage, it is the more powerful gunship helicopter that one defence expert would put at the top of the wish list.

The protracted nature of COIN warfare puts a heavy demand on resources. The continuity of these operations is inextricably tied to a guaranteed logistical support. Heavy reliance on Western assistance can be a double edged sword. PAF Mirages and F-7’s already serve as makeshift COIN aircraft. And if the PAF were to completely rely on its own resources, some even believe that an old faithful (A-5) can take over; and if they cannot be equipped with LGB’s, they do not need to be for not every target requires an 18,000$ SMART bomb. Sometimes, kinetic weaponry (dud bombs) make just as effective missiles.

Is the PAF COIN capable? According to one PAF personnel, PAF is as COIN capable as the next fella. The F-16 from our current inventory with its dedicated air-to-ground capability comes in handy when the quarry is a fleeting target of opportunity. Lockheed Martin has reportedly been contracted with the upgrade of 34 F-16A/B Block 15 fighters with modern weapons and sensors . The fleet of F-16 Block 52’s has been scheduled for delivery. An advanced weapons package has been requested and an indigenously produced, cheaper version of F-16, the JF-17 proudly waits in the wings. Ultimately, the JF-17’s will be integrated as the main workhorse.

While the PAF may not be waging a textbook COIN campaign, its presently evolving doctrine is customized around the peculiar operating environment. By making COIN an integral part of its recently held annual war games ‘Saffron Bandit 2009-10’, PAF joins in to wrest the initiative away from an enemy that has a clear head start. High Mark 2010 – a joint exercise scheduled for next year will take the PAK Army-Air force partnership up a notch. The battle for Pakistan has begun in earnest. And it is a fight to the finish.

Acknowledgement: Air/Cdre (R) Sajad Haider & Air/Cdre(R) Kaiser Tufail

Images courtesy:


  1. Good article, for PAF this was a very different operation then its routine training & was definitely a new addition to PAF's doctrine. F-16s mostly used LGBs, which have produced great results for the ground forces operating in the area. Specially modified C-130s were also used to lase and relay the target to the F-16s. Using high-range digital cameras modified C-130s also took part in reconnaissance role.Newly arrived DB-110 pod were also used with F-16A/B models to capture pictures of enemy hideouts.

    The most intense days of combat were seen from late 2008 to mid 2009. For PAF, these COIN missions give them more opportunity to assess their operational readiness...adding more experience under their belt too.

    As of now, PAF has taken delivery of Block52M aircraft, along with lots of goodies including JDAM,GBU-10/12/24 LGBs, Sniper targeting pod and DB-110 reconnaissance pod for such COIN missions. Pictures here(

  2. Thanks Najam Khan ...Someone should document the Army PAF COIN op in a book..


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