Pakistani officials have reportedly begun talks with their Chinese counterparts to buy the FC-31 stealth fighter jet, according to a news report. Pakistani Defence Production Minister Rana Tanveer Hussain confirmed the discussions were underway, according to an article published by Asia News International, a Delhi-based news agency. The Pakistani Air Force (PAF) is reportedly considering buying between 30 and 40 of the Chinese stealth combat aircraft to replace the F-16 fighter jets produced by Lockheed Martin Corporation of the US. The FC-31 is designed to fly close air support, air interdiction and other missions. However, the PAF is more likely to employ conventional tactical aircraft rather than stealth aircraft in actual missions to support Pakistani ground forces.
The FC-31 stealth Fighter that PAF is planning to procure from China is the export version of the Shenyang J-31 and is under development at Shenyang Aircraft Corporation. It is a twin-engine, 18-tonne multi-role combat aircraft of the fourthgeneration and is of stealth design. It is somewhat similar to the F-35, a fifth-generation combat aircraft from Lockheed Martin Corporation of the US. It is also similar to the Russian Su-35. The FC-31 is powered by Russian engines and has been in the test flight phase having undertaken its maiden flight in 2012.
Some analysts are of the view that China is developing the FC-31 as both the land and carrier versions primarily for the international market. They believe that for foreign customers, this aircraft could be a low-cost alternative to the exorbitantly priced F-35. Not only would the FC-31 thus confront the US aerospace industry with a serious challenge, it will also add a new dimension to the US-China strategic rivalry.
Pakistan became a staunch ally of the US when it was born over six decades ago. In the initial years, the US provided Pakistan with frontline fighters such as the F-86 Sabre and the F-104 Starfighter, both playing a major role in the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971. Later, commencing in the 1980s, the PAF received 63 of the potent F-16A/B model and more recently in 2010, the US supplied 18 of the F-16 C/D Block 52+ version.
However, over the last decade, there appears to be a degree of chill in the relationship between the two nations particularly on account of differing perceptions in the global war on terror launched by the US. Pakistan has often found itself in dichotomous situation vis-à-vis the US especially on account of her relations with the Afghan Taliban post-9/11 and support for terrorist activities against India. In fact, at one stage, the then President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf, possibly in response to some cold shouldering by the US, said that Pakistan need not worry about the weakening ties with the US as she had support from their good friend China. Even though the US has lately not been very forthcoming in providing advanced military equipment to Pakistan as was the practice in the past, she cannot afford to dump Pakistan altogether. The greatest apprehension the US has is that Pakistan which is already doddering on the verge of being a failed state, could well collapse. With over 200 nuclear weapons in Pakistan’s arsenal, this would not be a development that the US would look forward to. Hence economic aid, though relatively modest as compared with that in the past, does and in all likelihood, will continue primarily to prevent its collapse.
Pakistan’s relations with China have been growing over the years much to the discomfiture of both India and the US. Pakistan has had considerable support from China in her nuclear weapons programme. For long, Pakistan has been acquiring combat aircraft from China alongside those from the US and France. In 1965, PAF received the Shenyang F-6, a copy of the Russian MiG-19 which are no longer in service. In 1988, Pakistan began inducting a fleet of 186 of the Chinese Chengdu-7 or the F-7P single-engine jet fighter, a clone of the MiG-21. In the last eight years, Pakistan has not only acquired 50 of the JF-17 Thunder but has joined hands with the Chinese aerospace industry to co-produce the aircraft. The PAF has plans to acquire 200 JF-17 fighters to replace the ageing fleets of the F-7P and the Mirage III/V aircraft. The recent move by Pakistan to acquire the FC-31 from China is clearly aimed at moving into next generation technology to upgrade the combat capability of the PAF in order to match the fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) that the IAF is to acquire from Russia.
The proposed acquisition of the FC-31 by Pakistan ought to generate concerns in the Indian establishment. Not only is it an indication of the ever strengthening nexus between China and Pakistan which would have been further accentuated after the visit to India of the US President in January this year, it comes at a time when the combat fleet of the IAF is clouded with complete uncertainty about the induction of the Rafale and the FGFA to replace the ageing fleets. As Pakistan is not burdened with the procedural hurdles that the Indian defence procurement is afflicted with, in all probability, in the years ahead, the IAF may well find itself lagging far behind the adversaries in respect capability in the regime of air power.