By S. M. Hali
February 13, 2012 was a red letter day for Pakistan Air Force. PAF Shahbaz (Jacobabad), which has just received its final set of Flying Falcons, was hosting both the Army and Air Chiefs, who wanted a spin in the prestigious and lethal F-16 C/D Block 52s. PAF wanted the media to witness this historic event, when the two chiefs took to air in a formation, waving to members of the media who stood watching with awe at the ORP (operational readiness point) beside the runway. After a 45 minutes’ sortie, which included high altitude maneuvers and aerobatics, the duo landed back at Shahbaz. The Army Chief, who looked fighting fit in his flying coverall and G-suit, appeared unfazed by the rigours of high levels of acceleration forces and demanding flight. Directly alighting from the F-16 C/D Block-52s, both chiefs faced the media for a tête-à-tête. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has earlier been on board the F-16 B Block 15, was visibly impressed by the prowess of the new Block 52, but he left the technical details to his counterpart Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman to describe.
Both were candid in their interaction with the media, which continued over lunch too. Rao Qamar Suleman, whose tenure expires on March 18, portrayed a confident body language and did not permeate the demeanor of a lame duck air chief; with apparently less than four weeks in office. He did hedge direct questions regarding his extension, stating that he had neither asked nor applied for an extension in service. He took pains to highlight the combat capabilities of the new F-16 C/D Block 52s. The Air Chief Marshal explained that the selection of the F-16 C/D Block-52s was made after an evaluation of various frontline fighter aircraft like the Swedish Gripen, Dassault Rafale, French Mirage 2000 and Eurofighter.
The new F-16s were opted for because they have proved their mettle in various air operations and there would be continuity in Pakistan’s weapon system program. Earlier, Air Marshal Waseem-ud-din, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Operations) had briefed the media and fielded questions regarding the importance of developing PAF Shahbaz at Jacobabad and its strategic significance. The Air Marshal informed that after 9/11 the air base was also being used by the US Air Force for its operations in Afghanistan but since 2004, it was vacated by them. Some technical personnel and trainers from USA are being retained under the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) program which permits the continued technical support by the OEM to the end user till the system has been fully integrated by the end-user. He took pains to emphasize that contrary to a whispering campaign by vested interests, Shahbaz air base is not under the control of the US. A drive around the air base and its state-of-the-art technical facilities dispelled the disinformation since no Americans were visible anywhere. The newly upgraded air base, which has assumed the status of a Main Operating Base (MOB) was developed in a short span of two years only and gave a spic and span look.
The Air Chief briefly highlighted the improvements in the F-16 C/D Block 52 plus aircraft, which are equipped with improved GPS/INS, and are capable of carrying a further batch of advanced missiles: the AGM-88 HARM missile, JDAM, JSOW and WCMD. The Block 52 fighters are a pack of roaring power using the F100-PW-229 engines and enjoy the addition of support for conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), a dorsal spine compartment, the APG-68 (V9) radar, an On-Board Oxygen Generation (OBOGS) system and a JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) helmet with night-vision goggles (NVG) for targeting based on where the pilot's head faces, unrestricted by the HUD (Heads up Display), using high-off boresight missiles like the AIM-9X. The CFTs are mounted above the wing, on both sides of the fuselage and are easily removable. They provide an additional 440 US gallon or approximately 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg) of additional fuel, allowing increased range or time on station and frees up hardpoints for weapons instead of underwing fuel tanks. All two-seat "Plus" aircraft have the enlarged avionics dorsal spine compartment which is located behind the cockpit and extends to the tail. It adds 30 cu ft (850 L) to the airframe for more avionics with only small increases in weight and drag. A Weapon or Stores Management on board computer and advanced electronic warfare suite enhances the lethality of PAF’s new 18 F-16C/D Block 52+ which include 12 F-16C and 6 F-16D. The Air Chief also disclosed that PAF’s older fleet of F-16 A/B Block 15 fighter aircraft will be brought at par with the new Block 52s through a Mid-Life Update (MLU) package, which was designed to upgrade the cockpit and avionics to the equivalent of that on the F-16C/D Block 52 and add to the ability to employ radar-guided air-to-air missiles; and to generally enhance the operational performance and improve the reliability, supportability and maintainability of the aircraft. PAF’s F-16 A/B-15 MLU program is being conducted at the Turkish Aerospace Industrial Complex (TAI).
General Kayani avoided responding to questions of political nature posed by the media, stating that he did not want to take the limelight away from the event hosted by PAF. He did praise PAF’s role in the defence of Pakistan and told the media that the induction of the latest version of F-16 aircraft would further strengthen the defence of the country. “These are the most sophisticated aircraft and will certainly strengthen the country’s defence,” he said. Observing that the newly inducted aircraft were a huge asset for the country, General Kayani, when asked if the new Block-52 F-16s would be used in the in the tribal areas in anti-terrorism operations, responded that perhaps it would be a case of overkill since minimum force should be applied in operations within the country. Both chiefs emphasized that they operate under the directives of the civilian government of Pakistan. All in all it was an exciting day with the two chiefs.