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The Significance of China's J-11 Deployment Over Pakistan

How Chinese Aircraft Deployed During the Shaheen VI Exercises Complement the Existing Capabilities of the Pakistani Air Force

September 26th - 2017

During China and Pakistan's recent Shaheen IV joint military exercises China's choice of combat aircraft deployed alongside their Pakistani partners had significant implications regarding future cooperation between the two countries' air forces. With Pakistan's Air Force predominantly comprised of light multirole platforms such as the F-16 and JF-17, and with no plans for the acquisition of more specialised high performance platforms, the Chinese aircraft were highly complementary to Pakistan's own force composition. Rather than send their own J-10 multirole fighter, roughy analogous to those comprising Pakistan's own fleet, China deployed its highly specialised JH-7 strike fighter alongside the high performance J-11 air superiority fighter. These combat aircraft both represented highly potent specialised capabilities which Pakistan's own Air Force lacks entirely.

With tensions between Pakistan and India simmering, it is worthy of note that the Indian Air Force maintains a far more specialised body of fighters than its Pakistani counterpart. In particular India's large fleet of advanced Su-30MKI air superiority fighters present an air to air combat capability which the Pakistani Air Force would find extremely difficult to match. All previous engagements between light multirole and high performance air superiority platforms have in the past ended similarly - with an overwhelming victory for the air superiority platform. This colossal Indian advantage, combined with Pakistan's lack of advanced air defence systems to deny Indian Sukhois access to its airspace, leaves Pakistan at the very real risk of losing control of its airspace - something which would give Indian forces a significant advantage in a future war. China's growing security ties with Pakistan however may well lead to a shift towards a less one sided balance of forces in the air.

The J-11 is roughly analogous in its capabilities to India's Su-30MKI - both having been developed from the advanced Soviet Su-27 air superiority fighter. The J-11 provides a capability which Pakistan sorely lacks, and when deployed above Islamabad largely nullifies India's primary advantage in the air. China's deployment of the JH-7 also gives a much needed boost to Pakistan's otherwise negligible strike capabilities. What the Chinese deployment signifies is that the country seeks parity and stability in South Asia - and ultimately for neither party to be capable of waging an aggressive war on the other. J-11s are among China's most potent fighters, fielded in their hundreds, and their appearance on India's Western borders sends a strong signal that should China provide Pakistan with even minimal support, India would not enjoy such a one sided advantage in an air war with Pakistan as it otherwise would against its fleet of light F-16 and JF-17 fighters. By deploying the J-11 rather than more advanced platforms such as the J-20 however, a fifth generation platform currently unmatched by anything in the Indian Air Force, China has indicated that it does not seek an arms race or destabilisation in South Asia - only strategic balance between the two regional powers. The J-11 symbolises an attempt to match but not to suppress Indian capabilities - as this is the most effective means to prevent war.

Ultimately maintaining peace in the region remains the Chinese strategic priority, not only because it already faces far more serious security threats on its eastern borders, but also because the future of its One Belt Road initiative depends on such peace. The presence of advanced air superiority fighters over Pakistani airspace remains a critical development towards negating India's otherwise formidable advantage in the air and giving Pakistan some form of parity with its larger neighbour.

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