In his first-ever interview to any media outlet, Air Chief Sohail Aman shares his thoughts and vision about the external and internal challenges faced by the country, the PAF’s modernisation plans and its efforts to acquire state-of-the-art technology. He also gives us a glimpse of how he copes with the demands of his high-pressure job.
Gone are the days when the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) focused only on external threats faced by the country – particularly on its eastern frontiers. In the wake of the protracted war against terrorism, the PAF’s responsibilities and scope of operations have increased enormously.
Now it remains as driven in combating internal enemies of Pakistan, as staying alert to external threats.
Perhaps, it remains a little-known or celebrated fact that the PAF is responsible for more than 90 percent of the killing of terrorists and the destruction of their hide-outs, ammunition dumps, training centres and safe havens during Operation Zarb-e-Azb – launched on June 15, 2014.
The PAF’s air campaign – carried out in close coordination with the Pakistan Army – helped clear all those difficult mountainous regions, which once were considered safe havens for terrorists. And in doing this, the PAF has emerged as the world’s only air force, having successful counter-terrorism aerial campaign capabilities and experience.
Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, the PAF’s 21st Chief of Air Staff, is not only the architect of this counter-terrorism campaign, but he also leads from the front, flying operational missions against terrorists even today.
Born in 1959, Aman joined the PAF in 1980 after completing fighter and operational conversion courses. He assumed the charge of the PAF as its chief on March 19, 2015 – less than three months before the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
He flies various types of aircraft, including the F-16s. As a distinguished combat commander, he also evaluated 5th generation fighters including the Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon. During his illustrious career, he commanded a fighter squadron, the Combat Commander’s School, a fighter base and the PAF’s Central Air Command.
With more than 3,000 fighter hours flying experience to his credit, the Air Chief also has a rich staff experience.
Known as a ‘transformational leader,’ he has played a key role in the modernisation of the PAF and devising its current deployment strategy. In recognition of his services, he has been decorated with the awards of Nishan-i-Imtiaz (Military), Hilal-i-Imtiaz (Military) and Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Military).
‘Wars can’t be won through drones’
Narratives: Pakistan exists in a hostile neighbourhood. On the east, there is our traditional rival, India, and on the west a volatile, unfriendly Afghanistan. How does the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) view these challenges?
Air Chief Marshal (ACM): The armed forces’ role is integrated with the nation’s overall security paradigm. Diplomacy, political environment, economy… all these are important components. Generally speaking, a less hostile environment and de-escalation of tensions suit a country.
The PAF remains focused on its core responsibilities. Ours is an expensive business. We are making the best use of our resources and also focusing on developing indigenous technologies. Our task is to use these in the best possible way. We don’t bother about India. It’s the attitude and how you fight a war, which counts.
There are financial challenges as the PAF is a technology-intensive force. Plus not every type of technology that we want is available because of the cost and every kind of constraint that has been imposed upon us.
Narratives: Indian defence spending is among the highest in the world. India plans to overhaul its Air Force by 2020. The PAF doesn’t have such funding. How do you maintain a balance?
ACM: Overall Indian defence spending is seven to eight times more than ours, as they keep their defence-related research and development funds under a separate head.
They have signed a deal to buy the French Rafale, which is absolutely a four-plus generation aircraft. They have the Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs. It is a potent aircraft.
I, myself, have flown the Su-30 two or three times and found it very capable. But we have developed the JF-17 Thunder. We cannot call it parity, but we have a core structure, which doesn’t prevent us from launching an air campaign. It is all about your asset deployment.
However, in future – in the next 10 years down the line – if we don’t induct fifth-generation aircraft, then the disparity will increase. Indians are working on a fifth-generation aircraft.
Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.
Narratives: India is inducting US technology, which is now difficult for Pakistan to acquire. What are the options?
ACM: That’s a difficulty, but one has to adjust according to the international environment. The advantage we have is that the JF-17 production has given a major impetus to our engineers and technicians.
We are integrating our technology with friendly countries, including Turkey. We are thinking of producing the next-generation aircraft by pooling resources with them. For this, the basic framework and agreements have been made.
The baseline is that we have to develop high-end technology ourselves. Of course, the American and Western technologies are better, but if it is unavailable, then we have to make the best use of our own capabilities and our friends.
Narratives: So should we call restrictions on technology transfer by the West a blessing in disguise for Pakistan?
ACM: In a way yes, but even when there were no restrictions and our relations with the United States were good, we worked very hard on the JF-17 project.
And I am proud to say that it is comparable to any fourth generation aircraft. We have been steadily focusing on developing indigenous capabilities. It is not when we face sanctions alone that we think of developing indigenous technology.
Narratives: Are you looking for other options after Washington refused to fund its promised eight F-16s?
ACM: These F-16s had to be purchased on shared funding. Operation Zarb-e-Azb remains our war, but the Americans had been asking for a North Waziristan operation for years.
I consider it a breach of promise on their part because the United States promised to co-fund this operation (as part of its foreign military assistance). They didn’t adhere to this promise, which is very sad. As a responsible nation, you don’t do this. American funding for F-16s would have been a win-win situation for both.
While that happened, we kept looking at other options. I think we have some of the leading options both in China and Russia. We are also collaborating with Turkey for developing a next generation aircraft.
Having said this, we still desire a very good relationship with the United States at the national level. The challenges are too big in this region (for both the countries). We have to fight terrorism together and it is a shared objective.
It’s the question of giving Pakistan the capacity and capability to fight this threat. A myopic approach and restrictions won’t be helpful.
Narratives: Is the PAF still interested in F-16s?
ACM: Why not? The point is that we are already operating this aircraft. As we remain engaged with the United States, I hope we get this opportunity again. Even now, the PAF is talking to them on these issues.
Narratives: What’s the PAF’s main punch, the vanguard of attack?
ACM: It is equally shared by the F-16s and the JF-17s. The F-16 has an edge in some domains, and at others the JF-17s are better.
Narratives: What’s the status regarding export of the JF-17 to other countries?
ACM: Some countries have shown interest and we are at a fairly advanced stage of negotiations. Technically, the JF-17 is a very good aircraft, but buyers are prone to political influences and consider other issues as well, including, finances. These deals take time to materialise.
Narratives: What’s your assessment of the challenges on the Western frontier?
ACM: The operation is going on and we as a nation should be satisfied with the results. The valleys once infested with terrorists have all been cleared. Now the major challenge is how to secure our porous border with Afghanistan. For this, the Air Force and the Army are working in tandem to block the movement of terrorists.
Overall Indian defence spending is seven to eight times more than ours, as they keep their defence-related research and development funds under a separate head
Narratives: Do you think Afghanistan or the foreign troops stationed there pose any security challenge?
ACM: We should have a relationship of trust with Afghanistan and engage the international players politically and diplomatically for this. I don’t consider it to be a military threat, but our overall relationship needs to improve.
Narratives: What about the safety of our nuclear assets?
ACM: The safety of our nuclear assets is a question of our survival. For that we have an integrated and a robust system. Everyone has a role in it, including the Air Force.
Narratives: But the way US troops struck deep inside Pakistan to target Osama bin Laden and we remained unaware…shouldn’t that be a cause of concern?
ACM: The environment was different. At that time, it was such a friendly relationship… but for any air force, it’s not possible to create an impregnable air defence, especially with our kind of resource constraints.
You deploy your assets according to the threat perception. I am not saying that it is not our responsibility, but we have to handle this both diplomatically as well as by ensuring that deterrence remains in place. After the bin Laden incident, nothing happened despite a deterioration in relations. Because as a nation, we kept a deterrent value.
Our deterrence is that we won’t hesitate from using any of our resources if needed. They understand this and we understand this.
Narratives: The PAF is considered among the world’s best. How do you maintain the quality in our deeply flawed system where nepotism is rife?
ACM: My son got rejected in the ISSB (Inter-Services Selection Board) test. That’s just an example for your understanding. He remained jobless for a year and people wondered why I didn’t call anyone?
The good thing is not that I didn’t call. The good thing is that my son never asked me to do it. This is an example of the PAF’s merit system.
Second, we are a very forward-thinking Air Force. At this time, we are developing a big university town close to Kamra, modelled exactly as Boston, a city in the United States, where many top universities, like Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are located. This will be a small town where the first Aerospace Center for higher education is being established.
In April, we are starting Master’s and PhD programmes there in various fields, including flight control, radars… all those things, which we require for manufacturing aircraft ten years down the road. Until we lay the foundation of good education, this can’t be achieved. We are doing this within our limited resources.
Narratives: Will civilians be able to study there?
ACM: Of course! It is designed on the Boston style, with campuses, faculty and students hostels and labs all at the same place. The Air University and Fazaia Medical University are both located there. Only ten seats have been reserved for the children of our martyrs in each of these universities, while the rest are on merit.
In this day and age, the education of aviation is important and we are focusing on that. Our aim is to create a relationship between the factory and education centres because both are located there.
Students doing their PhDs can be officers in some factory there. If they work in the morning, they can teach in the evening. The next day, their students can be brought to the factory and shown the practical application of what they have studied.
These F-16s had to be purchased on shared funding. Operation Zarb-e-Azb remains our war, but the Americans had been asking for a North Waziristan operation for years. I consider it a breach of promise on their part because the United States promised to co-fund this operation (as part of its foreign military assistance). They didn’t adhere to this promise, which is very sad. As a responsible nation, you don’t do this
We plan to correlate the industry and the academia. In other parts of the world, the industry drives the curriculum, but this is being done for the first time in Pakistan. The industry people are teachers there. We have an advantage that many of our boys are PhDs and they will help strengthen our base.
Narratives: What’s the PAF’s role in the war on terrorism?
ACM: The sacrifices of the Pakistan Army – of its officers and soldiers – in this war are matchless. They are on the ground and face the enemy. But the Army says that more than 90 percent of the terrorist infrastructure and ammunition dumps have been destroyed by the Air Force. Similarly, more than 90 percent of the killing has been done by us.
It’s not that we don’t face any threat, but by the grace of Almighty Allah, none of our aircraft has been damaged or lost.
We did all the work professionally and with immaculate precision. The centre of gravity of terrorists has been neutralised.
It wasn’t easy and required a lot of surveillance and diligent work. The biggest grace of Allah remains that there has been no collateral damage – the PAF never committed the mistake of killing our own soldiers or civilians.
In Afghanistan, the American and coalition forces killed their own soldiers and civilians a number of times.
They even bombed hospitals by mistake. The challenge for us is to kill terrorists and keep safe our soldiers, who are stationed nearby. The kind of coordinated operations we have carried out have no parallel in history.
On the basis of this experience, we are establishing an Air Power Centre of Excellence (ACE) in Sargodha.
This is being done keeping in mind that those, who are involved in the war against terrorism, will eventually retire. Therefore, it is necessary to keep an institutional memory and pass on our experience to others.
There is a similar kind of terrorism challenge in the Middle East and Africa. We see them operating and believe this is not the way to fight this war. The ACE will be conducting an international exercise in October in which a host of other friendly countries will participate.
It is the world’s first counter-terrorism air institute, which will explain counter/anti-terror air campaigns. Even the coalition forces don’t have an institute like this. We plan to train our pilots, and those belonging to friendly countries, about targeting and surveillance. We have the experience of doing this.
Narratives: How is Radd-ul-Fasaad different from Zarb-e-Azb?
ACM: There is some commonality, but also a lot of difference. We have already cleared, to a large extent, the border regions, which were once infested with terrorists. Now the challenge is to control our border so that they don’t return.
Under Radd-ul-Fasaad, the focus is more internal, including the urban areas where terrorists and their facilitators are embedded. A lot of other departments would have to come forward and contribute to make Radd-ul-Fasaad a success.
This new operation is more complex than Zarb-e-Azb and the work and responsibility of the Army, PAF and LEAs have increased. We have to protect borders and ensure that terrorists don’t create safe havens there. We have to keep one eye on our frontiers and the other on the elimination of terrorist remnants in Pakistan.
Narratives: What’s the biggest challenge for Pakistan?
ACM: Honestly, we have to concentrate on education. I am not talking about normal education, but holistic education. Our 200 million people are an asset if they are educated. The biggest challenge for us is how to harness the youth. The PAF is contributing its bit to nation building.
The PAF runs more than 15 vocational training institutes in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The Badhber base, which came under terrorist attack, has been transformed into a civilian vocational training institute – the Asfandyar Vocational Institute – and 500 students are now enrolled there.
We have also established medical and engineering universities and, as I said, an Aerospace Centre in Kamra. The government is also doing a lot in this regard.
Internal and external threats will remain, but they can be tackled more effectively if we overcome the challenge of streamlining Pakistan’s education system.
Narratives: What’s PAF next-generation war philosophy?
ACM: Fight it so aggressively that you dislodge the enemy air force in an early timeframe. I don’t want to tell them any more than this. But they should know that when it gets down to it, we will not hold back, we will unleash everything.
Narratives: Any plans for armed Pakistani drones?
ACM: We have achieved success in some development programmes. We have unarmed drones and are now working on the armed ones. But I would like to say that wars can’t be won through drones. The terrorists live deep inside caves, they maintain their ammunition dumps there.
The homes they live in have walls which are more than three feet thick. You cannot drop heavy bombs – needed to destroy those hideouts – through small drones.
Yes, you can target terrorists on the move, but can’t destroy their hideouts. If you want to carry out a campaign, which is an inclusive word, then bigger firepower is needed.
That’s why what we achieved, in less than one-and-a-half-years, what the others have not been able to. They can continue their drone war for the next 20 years.
The safety of our nuclear assets is a question of our survival. For that we have an integrated and a robust system. Everyone has a role in it, including the Air Force
Narratives: In this high-pressure job, how do you relax?
ACM: Relaxation is important. I start my day after prayers with a good walk and a jog. I can’t do it every day, but at least twice a week in our campus, I go out to a jogging track.
I don’t take security with me as I am in my home. I jog there and play cricket or volleyball with the boys – officers and their children. A few days back, I pulled a muscle while chasing a target of 28 runs in the last two overs while playing cricket.
In one over, I scored 18 runs, but as I was running very fast, I strained a muscle. I also play golf on weekends. You have to take the pressure off your mind otherwise it gets on your nerves.
Narratives: Your favourite pastime?
ACM: Honestly, the work is so extensive that it rarely gets done before 1.00 am. But my preferred past-time is reading on international relations, war and air forces. I usually do it on weekends.
And yes, I cannot keep myself from flying for more than ten days. I go out and fly.
I fly all the jets of the PAF, but I generally fly old planes to give confidence to my team. You have to be a leader for everybody. You can’t be the leader only for the best guys.
I can ignore flying F-16s but not the Mirage and F-7s, which are old.
Narratives: Your favourite book?
ACM: ‘Speeches that changed the world’. It has over 100 of the most influential speeches by some of the world’s greatest leaders. I love reading it again and again.
Narratives: Your role model?
ACM: Can’t be anyone but the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). Look at his statesmanship, his conduct during war and peace; when he faced difficulties and hardships; look at his conduct at Fatah-e-Makkah.
Look at his humility, patience and courage. His heart would melt for the poor, the destitute and orphans. There cannot be any better leader and role model, but him.
Narratives: Your message?
ACM: It’s all about Pakistan… just one line. Whatever we do, we should do it to perfection in every field. Let’s not waste even a second.
- A new-generation multi-role, light combat aircraft, co-developed by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and China Aero-Technology Import & Export Cooperation.
- Co-produced at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Kamra and Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corporation.
- First prototype was rolled out in May 2003, which made its first flight in August 2003.
- Basic flight testing completed in 2007.
- 2007 also marked the arrival of the JF-17 in Pakistan, where it was formally presented to the nation as a Pakistan Day gift on March 23.
- The first PAC-produced aircraft handed over to the PAF in November 2009.
- Inducted into the PAF in 2010.
- Showcased for the first time at the Farnborough Air Show, United Kingdom in 2010.
- PAC holds the exclusive rights of 58 percent of the JF-17 airframe co-production work.
- Designed to perform exceptionally well; with a completely integrated avionic suite, state-of-the-art, pilot-friendly cockpit and advanced weapons.
- Excellent capability-to-cost ratio.
- Advanced aerodynamics design; high performance profile, diverter-less supersonic inlet and full-span automatic leading edge flaps make it a winning performer.
- Carefree handling characteristics with Digital Flight Control System.
- Reliable, proven turbo fan engine with afterburner.
- Excellent man-machine interface.
- Low life-cycle cost.
- Employs a large variety of airborne weapons, including short and medium range air-to-air, air-to-surface and maritime support anti-ship missiles, along with precision guided weapons and general purpose glide bombs.
- A highly-accurate, twin barrel 23-mm gun with integrated solutions adds to the lethal capability of its weapons system.