In 326 B.C., when Alexander the Great reached the furthest edge of the Karakorum Mountains of what is now Pakistan, he remarked that this was surely where Zeus, as a punishment for bringing fire to humanity, chained Prometheus so that eagles could feed on his liver for eternity.
These mythical Greek eagles had mastered the highest peaks in the world long before Alexander’s army marched south along the Indus River. The founding father of modern Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had the foresight to see that for his young nation to survive it must have an air force able to punch far above its weight. Jinnah had always been fascinated by the eagles that soared above the Karakorum mountains and told his young aviators that they had to command those peaks if Pakistan was to survive against long odds. In 1947, Pakistan lacked even 10% of the heavy industry its rival India had. Yet its air force emerged as one of the world’s leaders, both in its operations and in its indigenous aeronautical program. Pakistan’s contemporary history, as it struggles against terrorism and economic collapse, can be viewed rather uniquely through its Air Force.
The last three years have seen a fundamental change in combat around the world, primarily in the air wars over Libya, Syria and the Ukraine. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be described as land wars or multiple small wars. The skies over both Iraq and Afghanistan posed no threat to the Allied invasions of both countries. As a result very little can be said about the quality of the pilots and the machines in terms of what they were up against. However the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Ukraine have shown that command of the skies still matters and the pilots that man the “iron eagles” set the tone for the fighting below.
The air force diplomacy of Pakistan contributed significantly to the normalization of Sino-American relations in the Nixon era and before that in America’s quest to spy on the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. The Pakistan Air Force played a unique role in its fight over Syrian airspace when it shot down several Israeli jets in the 1970s. The Pakistan Air Force chief, Nur Khan also transformed Pakistan International Airlines into not just one of the world’s best but also helped found and train the world’s leading airline, Emirates.
Over the last two years, Pakistani fighter jets became the first foreign fighters to be allowed into Chinese airspace for joint military maneuvers. It is no secret that Pakistan helped China develop its first civilian airline, Civil Aviation Administration of China in the 1950s and 1960s and also helped with its pilot training when most of the world did not interact with China, let alone talk to their military and aerospace industry. Now, as China tries to become the world’s military giant and unleashes its latest stealth fighter, as it did at the Zhuhai Air Show last month, it has not forgotten its ally, the Pakistan Air Force. Pakistan has been in the best position in terms of its operational engagements with both the Americans and the Russians.
Although firmly in the U.S. camp during the Cold War, Pakistani pilots shot to fame in the Arab-Israeli air wars by flying Soviet jets against European and U.S.-made Israeli jets. Similarly, in the 1965 air war against India, the roles were reversed when Pakistan, with American F-86s and Star Fighters, significantly outdid their Indian opponents. In the 1980s, Pakistani pilots shot down several Russian planes, including famously the plane of Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoy. Chris Donnelly, the former Director of Russian Affairs at NATO, remarked that according to General Dynamics engineers the best pilots they saw in testing through the 1970s and 1980s were from the Pakistan Air Force.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. slapped heavy sanctions on Pakistan, and as a result Pakistan had to look inward for maintenance and production. The Aeronautical Complex at Kamra took on a unique mission by working with the Chinese in research and development. While some would argue that China is the senior partner given its massive resources and funding, a closer and more technical glance reveals it was the experience of Pakistan’s pilots and engineers that the Chinese learned, mastered and took to the next level, so that the pupils became the instructors.
This balanced relationship resulted in the JF-17 jet fighter, produced in Pakistan since 2008, as well as advanced avionics, which will be seen in the coming decades. In August this year, a Chinese SU-27 famously pulled a “Top-Gun” maneuver, intercepting a U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane and doing a barrel roll over it. Again, there are echoes of the Pakistan air force in this, according to AirForces Monthly magazine, as the Combat Commanders School in Pakistan, perhaps more than any other elite pilots school, still focuses on dogfights and air-to-air combat.
The Pakistan air force has particularly excelled in the training and command of various African, Arab and Asian air forces. No other country outside of NATO has trained and partnered with so many countries. Pakistani pilots and trainers have been the most sought-after for the last four decades. Under the current Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt, the air force has carried on its legacy of “air diplomacy.” In August 2012, Rafique became the first-ever Pakistani air chief to visit Russia. Russian Air Chief General Viktor Nikolayevich Bondarev visited Islamabad in 2013.
This landmark visit marked a strategic shift for Pakistan. After years of animosity, a new chapter has begun. This includes pilot exchanges, Russian officers attending the prestigious Air War College in Karachi, and talks of military procurement. The Pakistan air force paved the way for a recent deal to buy Mi-35 attack helicopters, and the tectonic shift in Pakistan’s defense engagement with the Russians. Although some in the West have been astonished about this Russian-Pakistan defense engagement, foreign observers are not surprised, as the Pakistan air force, since 1947 under Jinnah and through to Nur Khan and Asghar Khan, have been extremely flexible, not just in its operational excellence but also in its handling of international affairs.
Similarly, the Pakistan air force carefully brought the Turkish and Saudi air forces closer to each other after years of political and strategic tension. The current Chief, Tahir Rafique Buttplayed the role of neutral friend by proposing trilateral air exercises, which were successfully completed last year. The Turkish air force has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s air diplomacy. Again Pakistan’s historical help to Turkey paid rich dividends when the Turks delivered and continue to upgrade Pakistan’s current fleet of F-16s. The air force is also at the forefront of a potential helicopter deal between the two countries.
As 2014 draws to a close, negative headlines about Pakistan are once again grabbing the world’s attention. However just as Alexander the Great and Mohammed Ali Jinnah envisioned the mastery of the peaks of the Karakorum range as a strategic pivot, so does the Pakistan air force lead in its operational and diplomatic maneuvering, guarding the skies and the nation’s foreign affairs from the Karakorum down to the Arabian Sea. Jinnah’s Pakistan is secure, thanks to its aviators.