Pakistan’s Interior Minister Who Announced J-10C Purchase Says J-20 Stealth Fighter Deal Likely: Is it Possible?

In December 2021, following over a decade of speculation regarding a possible Pakistani purchase of Chinese J-10 fighter jets, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed stated that the country was set to acquire the latest variant of the aircraft the J-10C and would field them by mid-March 2022.

 Although dismissed by some analysts at the time, images of J-10C fighters in Pakistani Air Force colours began to appear in the following weeks and the first fighters landed in the country on March 3, 2022. 

A J-10C acquisition was previously doubted on the basis that Pakistan was already acquiring JF-17 Block III fighters, of which it had ordered 50 with over 100 reportedly planned. Although lighter, the new JF-17 had similarly advanced avionics and armaments making diversification with the J-10C alongside it questionable in terms of cost effectiveness. 

With Minister Ahmed having proven entirely correct regarding the J-10C, a subsequent statement from this seemingly reliable source on March 7 has potentially groundbreaking implications for Pakistani air power, with the minister stating that acquisitions of Chinese J-20 stealth fighters was a possibility in future. 

Confirming that the first J-10C fighters had arrived in Pakistan, Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed stated: “We have the J-10C... God willing, a time will come... I am not sure when, the J-20C will also come to Pakistan, which will be the most modern aircraft in the world." The J-20 is one of just two fifth generation fighters fielded at squadron level strength and in serial production anywhere in the world today, alongside the American F-35, and is considered a top contended for the position of the world’s top fighter in terms of its capabilities in air to air combat. 

The fighter is prized for its advanced sensors, network centric warfare capabilities, and stealth profile, and is a high performance heavyweight fighter develop as a successor to the J-11 series that China previously relied on. The fighter is one of just two fifth generation heavyweights in production anywhere in the world today, alongside the Russian Su-57 which is being manufactured in very small numbers and of which only five are currently thought to be in service. 

With India repeatedly showing an interest in the Su-57, despite reportedly withdrawing from partnership in the program in favour of either license manufacturing or off the shelf purchases, the Pakistani Air Force may well see the J-20 as an eventual necessity should it seek to avoid a major qualitative disadvantage in the air. 

A number of factors bring the likelihood of a J-20 sale to Pakistan into question. The J-20 has not been offered for export at Chinese arms exhibitions, and appears to be conserved for domestic use only with the lighter medium weight FC-31 being offered abroad. 

While Pakistan, as a key Chinese strategic partner, may well gain special permission to purchase hardware not usually offered for export, its ability to operate the J-20 remains seriously in question. With the J-10C, the lightest fighter in production for China’s armed forces, already having operational costs which will be among the highest in the Pakistani fleet, the operational costs of the J-20 which is among the heaviest fighters in the world estimated at over double the weight of the J-10, would likely be unaffordable. 

The technical skills needed to operate and maintain a heavy fifth generation fighter are also currently thought to be beyond Pakistan’s capabilities. While these skills can be built up potentially with the goal of acquisition after 2030, the issue of operational costs and cost effectiveness remains a key impediment. 

Should Pakistan purchase the J-20, it would likely need to reduce the size of its fighter fleet considerably to avoid an unaffordable spike in operational costs, potentially retiring 2-3 units of older fighters such as the J-7, F-16A/B and JF-17 Block 1 to be able to accommodate the operational costs of a single J-20 squadron. 

While this possibility cannot be ruled out, and there may well be much to be said for prioritising quality over quantity in fleet modernisation, a more likely possibility would be that Pakistan would acquire a lightweight single engine fifth generation fighter at least one of which is currently thought to be under development in China aimed primarily at export markets. Should the J-20 be offered for export, which would be China’s first heavyweight fighter to be marketed abroad, the fighter’s export potential would be considerable particularly considering its headstart over the Su-57, the lack of comparable Western aircraft, and the very rapid improvements being seen in the fighter’s capabilities. 

The integration of the WS-15 engines onto the fighter, which began flight testing in January 2022, are expected to lower operational costs and maintenance needs considerably, while China’s development of more advanced sixth generation fighters could make it more amenable to eventually exporting the J-20.

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