News on Monday June 2 that Russia will ease its informal restrictions on selling Pakistan defence equipment is to be welcomed, as is the news that this may mean acquisition of the Mi-35 Hind. It is perhaps a result of the Russian reaction to the crises in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, where it has responded by adopting a more pragmatic foreign policy in which it appears Pakistan cannot be ignored.
It is uncertain if this will mean a totally balanced Russian relationship with India (its erstwhile South Asian strategic partner) and Pakistan. That is probably not the case, but it likely means an end to the days when India was able to blackmail Russia into not supplying defence equipment to Pakistan. India is actively seeking to diversify away from a reliance on Russian arms, and though this may or may not be successful, a string of Indian defence deals with Western and Israeli companies at the expense of Russian ones means Moscow is less inclined to be swayed by Indian pressure. This is despite Indo-Russian defence collaboration projects such as PAKFA for which India is still the main financer. Indo-Russian defence collaboration is therefore likely to remain reasonably strong regardless of developments with Pakistan.
It is important to clarify that there was no formal embargo as such on the sale of Russian defence equipment to Pakistan, as direct sales of Mi-17 Hip helicopters, and indirect sales of Klimov RD-93 engines were previously made. However, there was reluctance to sell certain types of weaponry, so enquiries made by former COAS Gen Pervez Kayani for the sale of Mi-35s was neither accepted nor declined. At the time Pakistan was looking replace or supplement its aging Cobra fleet, and aimed to acquire the Turkish T129 (if onward supply of the US engines was cleared), or the AH-1Z (depending on Congressional approval). Sale of a more advanced Russian helicopter such as the Mi-28 Havoc may not have been forthcoming therefore, but the Mi-35 in the support role and especially for COIN and support of the special forces in COIN operations may have been less controversial for the Russians to have agreed to. With the change in policy, this deal may now go through. In this context whether the small number of grounded Mi-35s in Pakistan will be returned to service is unknown, but it has been an option that has been previously explored even if nothing resulted from it to date.
Russian defence equipment may not be as capable as some western equivalents, but it is robust, simple enough to operate, and more affordable, both to acquire and to support. Russian approval for defence sales may also help with Sino-Pakistani defence co-operation particularly in clearing the supply of Russian origin sub-systems in Chinese weapon systems. Therefore Pakistan may hope to directly purchase defence equipment such the Pantsir-S1 air defence system, RPG-29 anti-tank weapons (that could possibly be produced under license), and perhaps more Mi-17s. Indirect sales could namely be of the Saturn Al-31F turbofan that powers the FC-20 variant of the Chengdu J-10B that Pakistan may or may not acquire from China.
It is probable therefore that despite the very favourable Sino-Pakistani defence co-operation, Pakistan may look to Russia to acquire defence systems that China is not yet capable or ready of supplying even if the deals may not be very lucrative for Moscow.
The sale of 20 MFI-17 Super Mushak basic trainers to Iraq is a welcome development and a reflection of the high quality of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) products and services. That Pakistan also signed a training and development assistance programme for the Iraqi Air force to give basic training to Iraqi pilots, and will also evaluate and survey other areas of the Iraq’s air power and air defence capability for improvement, lays the foundation for possible future deals.
The Super Mushak is a superb aircraft and well-suited to Iraq’s requirements. However, in monetary terms the deals signed during the visit of the nine-strong Iraqi defence delegation (which included commander of Iraq’s Air Force, Gen. Anwer Hamad Amen Ahmed, and commander of Iraqi air defense, Gen. Jabbar Ubaid Kedhum) is not very much. The aircraft (plus spares, support, and training) will apparently cost US$94 million. The sale is nevertheless welcome, and considering Iraq could have procured nearly any other aircraft in the same class as the Super Mushak it will hopefully strengthen the case for the aircraft to also be selected by Turkey for its basic trainer/screener programme.
The delegation also visited a range of training and defence systems production facilities, and they were offered the full range of training aircraft up to intermediate/advanced jet trainers, namely the Karakorum K-8. In terms of training aircraft the Iraqis have already acquired the Lasta-95 intermediate trainer, Hawker Beechcraft Texan II turboprop trainer, and the KAI T-50IQ Golden Eagle advanced jet trainer. It is unlikely therefore they could require further training aircraft unless it is a follow on order for more Super Mushaks.
The training deal is reportedly worth some US$90 million, and is probably of more importance even though Iraqi personnel are already undergoing training by Jordan, South Korea, and the US. The PAF has however helped train Iraqi pilots in the past and hopefully the new arrangement will be no less fruitful. Until Iraq establishes a wholesale training programme of its own it will be reliant to a degree on other parties to help it in this regard. Training deals with other parties are either equipment/procurement-related or otherwise for a limited duration. If Pakistan can therefore aid Iraq over the long term the training deal will be more lucrative than the Super Mushak sale.
Coupled with development assistance for Iraq’s air force and air defence system, there is potential for further sales such as a C4I system (as sold to Bangladesh), UAVs, and perhaps even air defence systems. Seeing as Pakistan only produces AAA and MANPAD SHORAD systems and not larger SAMs, these will probably be limited in financial value, but will be vital in helping Iraq regenerate its air defence capabilities.
The big question for Pakistan however would be if a sale of the JF-17 Thunder was possible. The Iraqi purchase of the T-50IQs could lead the way to the purchase of the FA-50 attack/light fighter variant, which is roughly comparable in some ways to the JF-17. Though it would be a good option to make up a high/low mix in support of the F-6IQs on order, it is apparently however more expensive than the JF-17, and not as capable. A JF-17 sale to Iraq therefore cannot be ruled out especially if the price of oil declines further and drains Iraq’s purchasing power, but it is perhaps more realistic to expect further sales to be in areas besides aircraft for the time being.
Recent reports of Saudi interest into a JF-17 purchase appear to be wide of the mark. Though such a sale is certainly not impossible (and there is strong pressure on Pakistan to secure an export order), it is likely improbable.
The Saudi air force is currently retiring or has already retired a large number of aircraft as part of its modernisation efforts. The F-5E/F and Tornado ADV fleet have been retired or have been relegated to the training role, and more F-15s and Typhoons ordered in their place as the well funded RSAF can afford such high tech aircraft. Though the JF-17 was designed to replace aircraft such the F-5, of which over a hundred at one time flew in Saudi service, the purchase of advanced western aircraft points to efforts by the Saudis to make a wholesale improvement in their airpower by phasing out lightweight fighters. Even in the training role further Hawk trainers as LIFT and light strike aircraft could easily fill in the second line fighter requirement if there was one. Coupled with upgrades being made to existing F-15S and Tornado IDS strike aircraft, the chances of there being a role for the JF-17 to fill are reduced.
The purchase of advanced western weaponry also buys the Saudis a degree of influence as its multi-billion dollar deals have been instrumental in ensuring the profitability of western arms firms during periods of uncertainty. As was seen with the ending of the British investigations surrounding the Anglo-Saudi Al-Yamamah arms deal in 2006, Saudi influence can be substantial.
A possible JF-17 sale however, could eventuate if negotiations for further Typhoon aircraft for example are not fruitful. With 72 Typhoons on order the negotiations for a further batch of 72 are ongoing. However, the Saudis could at least explore the option of a JF-17 purchase if only to pressure the British into accepting more favourable terms. Considering the strategic logic the Saudis operate by in which they effectively buy influence a possible purchase may also rest on how they view the growing power of China. China has made some progress in penetrating the Saudi market with its commercial goods and has even built a public transit system in Mecca. China was also the country the Saudis turned to when it decided to purchase ballistic missiles in the 1980s. The Chinese could therefore pick up a sale as a vendor of last resort, or as a country that the Saudis believe is now important enough to view as a potentially strong influence in the region. This could be linked to the Saudi view of needing to contain Iran. Therefore purchasing the Sino-Pakistani FC-1/JF-17 could be part of such thinking. However, this is purely speculation and a Saudi purchase is, for the best part, unlikely.
The reports may be yet another example of Pakistani officials feeding such speculation to the local media, which has then reported them as fact. Unnamed US journal that has been quoted in recent reports aside, the likelihood remains slim. This is especially when considering past examples of large scale arms sales to Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia was reportedly interested in purchasing the HIT Saad APC there was considerable speculation a sale would also include the Al-Khalid MBT. Though a Saad sale was a reasonable enough belief, the Al-Khalid sale was unrealistic as the Saudis have the ability to purchase better armoured and armed tanks than the Al-Khalid even in that class of medium MBT.
A Saudi JF-17 purchase therefore is most likely unrealistic.
Pakistani transfer of nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia unfeasible
The November 6 BBC report by Mark Urban, the diplomatic and defense editor, for its ‘Newsnight’ program outlining a possible Pak-Saudi agreement to transfer nuclear weapons in some capacity and/or to supply ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia, in the event of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon capability is a rehash of a very old story that holds no merit. The timing of these claims appears to be governed by events elsewhere in the Middle East, namely Saudi-US tensions, and they are made with malicious intent, though probably not on the part of Urban.
As the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs countered, “Pakistan’s nuclear program is purely for its own legitimate self defence.” It also drew attention to confidence expressed by US President Barack Obama in October in “Pakistan’s commitment and dedication to nuclear security” and also that “Pakistan is fully engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues.”
As a state Pakistan has a faultless proliferation record and would not want to change this, (only private proliferation by the A Q Khan network has tarnished its reputation). As Saudi Arabia is a Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory state it would also be forbidden for Pakistan to provide any such assistance.
Some Saudi officials may believe past aid rendered to Pakistan (Saudis did provide oil payment relief by agreeing to Pakistani requests for deferred payments on oil supplies.), would allow it to ask for the transfer of nuclear weapons in some capacity, at short notice.
However, Pakistan knows it would be hit with very harsh sanctions from the US, other western nations, the UN, and that this would even damage its close relationship with China, which is also no doubt opposed to Pakistan proliferating such technology. The report also mentioned the possible transfer of Pakistani Shaheen solid fueled ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia. However, though it stated these were without nuclear warheads, even this would be a step too far for the international community, including China.
Even if any transfers could not be prevented therefore, the aftermath would be severe for Pakistan and it is unlikely it could withstand the pressure of such sanctions. Pakistan would also not want to take sides in the Iranian-Saudi/Sunni-Shiite stand-off, due to its shared border and large Shiite minority.
Other reasons to discount these claims are more obvious. Saudi Arabia is a NPT signatory state, therefore it is illegal for it to obtain or develop nuclear weapons. It also lacks the ability to build its own weapons because it lacks the technology, infrastructure, and skilled personnel. Though it will continue to fear Iranian intentions, Saudi Arabia is limited by the NPT. Any effort to develop nuclear weapons would be laborious, and members of the Nuclear Supplier Group would only supply a reactor and associated fuel, not fuel cycle technology that would allow it to enrich weapon grade uranium or manufacture plutonium. It is also debatable that even the Saudis would be able to withstand international pressure from overtly obtaining a nuclear weapon capability for which it would have to opt out of the NPT, inviting fierce international reaction. Therefore, its only real option is to seek protection under a US nuclear umbrella, not help from Pakistan.