27 th February Revives Airpower

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February 27 is a day of great significance for Pakistan as the country’s ‘Second to None’, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) displayed its power and capabilities by delivering a befitting response to Indian incursion following the Balakot strikes. Around 44 Indian troops were killed in a suicide attack on 14 February 2019, in Pulwama Jammu and Kashmir. India accused Pakistan of the attack and carried out air strikes in Balakot on 26th February. The PAF launched a swift and effective counter-strike the next day and in the aerial encounter that followed, PAF pilots shot down two Indian fighter aircraft. The incident not only demonstrated Pakistan’s capacity to effectively counter any threat from the outside but also emphasised the role of air power in contemporary warfare and how it can be used as a powerful tool to deter aggression, defend territorial integrity and protect national sovereignty.

The US Air Force Doctrine defines air power as ‘the ability to project military power through control and exploitation in, from and through the air.’ Air power has become a critical component of modern warfare and has significantly changed the way wars are fought. It provides rapid mobility and flexibility to other military forces, hence enabling them to deploy troops and supply logistics to any place no matter how difficult the terrain. Similarly, air power has extended the strategic reach of military forces, enabling them to strike deep into enemy territory and attack targets that are beyond the reach of ground-based forces. This has made it easier for militaries to carry out Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

Advances in technology have provided a force multiplier effect to air power. Today, air operations are preferred due to minimum civilian casualties and collateral damage due to precision strikes. This has significantly reduced the risks of unintended consequences and helped militaries achieve their objectives more effectively. Another important characteristic is the element of surprise which entails attacking the enemy at a time and place in an unexpected manner. The PAF used the same during Operation Swift Retort on 27th February, hence gaining the desired outcome and superiority over India.

In the case of Pakistan, in addition to its significance, we also need to consider the challenges the country faces in making efficient use of its air power. For instance, it is challenging to make technological procurements to modernise air power assets due to limited financial resources. Pakistan has made some strides towards building up its indigenous capabilities, however, for advanced aircraft and defence equipment, it still relies on imported technology. In 2022, Pakistan acquired J-10C, a multi-role fighter aircraft from China. The acquisition of the J-10C would enhance Pakistan’s air power capabilities vis-à-vis India, particularly after the Indian acquisition of Rafale, a French aircraft acquired in 2020 after facing humiliation during Balakot strikes.

Dependency on foreign technology can limit Pakistan’s ability to keep pace with technological advancements. In this respect, the National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP) has a vital role to play. NASTP is a brainchild of PAF, and the main purpose is to carry out Research and Development of new technologies in aerospace and to engage academia and industry for the effective utilisation of resources. For air power to be successful, human resource must maintain a high level of readiness and training. Pakistan needs to invest in its human resource and training to prepare its Air Force to face rapid technological advancements. 

Another challenge is India’s growing  military modernisation programme.  According to a study published in 2022, India is one of the largest importers of defence equipment in the world. Some of the key areas of focus of its military modernisation programme includes enhancing its air power capabilities, like acquisition of new fighter aircraft such as Rafale as mentioned earlier, helicopters, missiles, aircraft carriers, and other advanced military equipment. This growing military modernisation poses a number of challenges not only for Pakistan but for the region as well. One, it has opened the door to an arms race in the region. Second, Indian procurements subsequently compel Pakistan to take measures and keep pace with her which leads to action-reaction dynamics. Third, it increases the probability of armed conflict in the region that could escalate rapidly due to the presence of advanced technologies.

The events of 27th February 2019 revived the significance of air power for Pakistan. The swift and decisive response by the PAF serves as a reminder that it can protect national interests and deter any potential aggressors. However, there are challenges, and to address them, Pakistan will need to adopt a balanced approach, keeping in view its financial limitations, maintaining a strong defence posture by investing wisely in airpower assets, training its human resource on modern lines as well as supporting the country’s socioeconomic development.

Etfa Khurshid Mirza is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@casstt.com

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