J-10C Fighters: Why Is Pakistan Showing The Might Of ‘Unpurchased’ Chinese Jets At Its Annual Military Parade?

Islamabad’s decision to include a flypast of J-10C on the Pakistan Day parade on March 23 has led to an intense debate.

Since the news emerged from Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid’s statement, there has been a debate in Pakistani and Indian defense circles if Islamabad was buying these fighter jets or their participation in the parade is part of a new Pakistani strategy.

File:Chengdu 10.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Chengdu 10 (via Wikipedia Commons)

Pakistan has a long tradition of showing its military weaponry and equipment in its annual parade. According to defense analysts, the showcase is usually meant for the adversary, but it highlights Pakistan’s military capabilities.

A former Pakistan Air Force officer, speaking on condition of anonymity told BBC, “J-10 fighter jets have the potential to play a key role in defending maritime or water borders as well as enhancing overall presence.”

There have been speculations regarding the purchase of Chinese ‘Vigorous Dragons’ for a while now. Earlier, reports had indicated that Pakistan was set to purchase 36 J-10C semi-stealth 4.5 generation aircraft from China, but neither side had confirmed the news.

Subsequently, reports had emerged pegging the number at 25. However, a lot of back and forth has since followed, and the final status of the purchase, if any, has remained unknown.

The Interior Minister had sparked a debate by giving a statement that was indicative of the J-10C purchase as Pakistan’s alternative to India’s Rafale fighter jets.

Is It Just Propaganda?

Though the Pakistani government is keen on J-10 fighter jets in this year’s parade, it could also be a message to portray Islamabad’s “political success”. However, the presence of these aircraft in the parade does not imply that they will fly as Pakistani aircraft.

This does not appear to be conceivable, according to experts, because no formal agreement between the two countries over this aircraft has been reached. A government official said that “no deal or agreement has been reached so far regarding the purchase of this fighter aircraft”.

This argument might have some weight given the fact that every year, the Ministry of Defense publishes a ‘Yearbook’ on Defense Procurement. The J-10 fighter aircraft was, however, not mentioned in this ‘Yearbook,’ which was published in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Since the Pakistani government announced that Chinese fighter jets would be participating in the Pakistan Day parade, there has been a controversy in the regional and international media about whether the Rafale or the J-10 fighter jet is superior.

So, one reason for Pakistan neither confirming nor refuting the claims could be to present a narrative for the Indian military, its arch-foe in the region, to ponder over.

File image: Rafale Aircraft

Meanwhile, experts in India appear to be of the opinion that even though both aircraft are 4.5th generation fighters, the French-made Rafale jet of the Indian Air Force has a clear edge over the Chinese J-10C. Some experts have also been of the opinion that China would export the FC-20 fighter aircraft which is an exact copy of the J-10C to Pakistan, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times.

Pakistani analysts have themselves remarked that the J-10 making a fly-past in the Pakistani sky could be its message to the Indians. They argue the objective of the J-10 aircraft being featured in the parade is the answer to Indian Air Force as there has been a lot of discussion about the Rafale fighter aircraft in the media.

Experts in Pakistan believe that because Sheikh Rashid’s ministry is not involved in these decisions, nothing can be said with certainty about the accuracy of his assertion about the purchase of J-10 planes.

The aircraft might or might not fly as a Pakistani asset, but a deal followed by the flypast cannot be ruled out yet given the advancing military relationship between the two partners.

Not too long ago, Pakistan received China’s largest warship that it inducted and named PNS Tughril. China has been incessantly arming the Pakistan military with a clear objective of creating a ‘balance of power’ with India in the South Asian region.

J-10C For Pakistani Naval Ops?

The J-10 is a small multi-role fighter powered by one engine that can fly in all weather conditions. It was built to carry out strike and air-to-air combat operations for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. The Pakistani objective to buy these fighters could be divided into four main areas.

First, the J-10 aircraft, according to the experts, is extremely vital in terms of maritime security. There is no aircraft in Pakistan’s existing fighter fleet that is capable of completing any maritime security task.

India, on its part, has Mig-29K which it is soon going to replace with a modern fighter — a Rafale Marine or Boeing Super Hornet, being likely options.

File:Mikoyan MiG-29K of the Indian Navy.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Mig-29K of the Indian Navy (via Wikipedia Commons)

The Pakistan Navy, according to observers, has reorganized its “strategic thinking” in order to play a larger role in the Arabian Sea. An expert told that “J-10 is very efficient and effective in playing this role well”. J-10 planes, according to analysts, are armed with ship-destroying missiles and thus, could prove to be guardians of the seas, especially in the face of Pakistan expanding its presence in the Arabian Sea.

Second, since the reign of Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan Air Force has been aiming to replace its fleet of Mirage aircraft for which the J-10C fighters are considered a suitable alternative. In fact, Pakistan had earlier intended to buy 150 of these aircraft but had to shelve that program owing to economic constraints.

In 1967, Pakistan purchased Mirage fighter jets. Those aircraft served as a “strategic force” in the Pakistan Air Force’s capacity, but their time has now come to an end.

Dassault Mirage 2000 - Wikipedia
Dassault Mirage 2000 (via Wikipedia)

According to defense specialists, the Pakistan military’s plan to replace Mirage planes with Chinese J-10 fighter jets, which can not only carry out missions inside enemy territory but also become part of the Strategic Force, has been in the works for a long time.

So, if inducted, the J-10C could be used as an asset for the Air Force as well as the Navy in Pakistan.

Third, former PAF senior pilot Qaiser Tufail said: “It’s a welcome addition though, you better not put all your eggs in the American basket.”

Pakistan that already operates the American F-16s does not want to put all its eggs in the American basket. So, it could be apprehended that in order to strengthen its defenses and maintain deterrence with India, it could be buying from its closest ally and the biggest defense partner China. Pakistan’s hesitation about over-dependence on America could be attributed to the close relationship that it shares with India.

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon - Wikipedia
F-16 Fighting Falcon (via Wikipedia)

Fourth, Pakistan has one very significant reason to go for the J-10C fighter to fulfill its need for an attack aircraft. According to a Pakistan Air Force official, PAF engineers and pilots got themselves acquainted with J-10 fighter jets way back in 2010.

“This fighter plane is not new to the PAF, our pilots have flown it before and are familiar with it,” one veteran stated. This makes the prospect for these Chinese fighters look even brighter for Pakistan. This aircraft was earlier also seen in the joint air exercises conducted between the two allies, thus indicating that the PAF is somewhat familiar to them.

The ambiguity and suspicion regarding the J-10 contract in official circles could be the outcome of a squabble over who will declare the acquisition first.

Whatever the circumstances inside the corridors of power, one thing is certain: the contract, if concluded, could provide a boost to the Pakistan Air Force’s capability. There are still three months left before the fly-past takes place, an official announcement regarding the purchase could be made soon.