Air Marshal (Retd) Shahid Lateef Former Vice Chief of Air Staff
Air Marshal (retd) Shahid Lateef, former vice chief of air staff, is an iconic pilot of PAF. He graduated from PAF Academy, Risalpur with top honours winning the coveted Sword of Honour for his overall best performance and a gold medal for attaining the first position in academics. Subsequently, he earned distinctions throughout his career. He was among the first batch of PAF’s pilots who went to America for training and flew the first F-16 from US to Pakistan in 1983. In 2001, he was handed over the JF-17 project, which had failed to take off in the previous seven years. As the chief project director, he and his team performed a miracle by developing the first prototype of JF-17 (Thunder) in less than three years, which is unprecedented in the modern day history of aviation industry. Soon after the successful completion of this onerous task, he was elevated to the rank of Air Marshal and assigned the prestigious post of deputy chief of air staff (Operations) where he served till the appointment of vice chief of air staff in preparation to take over as the PAF chief at the time of the next change-over. However, his candidature for the air chief was disapproved by an influential Western country that was averse to the JF-17 development programme and the future sales and marketing of the aircraft in the region through its co-production in Pakistan. This incident shows the gravity of foreign involvement in our national affairs and decision-making process at the higher level. Nowadays, he is spending his retirement life by participating in different TV programmes on defence and national issues and is also writing opinion columns in ‘The News’ as a freelance contributor. He is always candid in his views and displays ‘matter of fact’ attitude in discussions, which is also reflected in his interview to JWT.
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): You were among the first batch of PAF’s pilots who flew F-16 so, please share with us why Americans were reluctant to give F-16s although Pakistan paid for the consignment?
Shahid Lateef (SL): Well after achieving her interests in Afghanistan the US went away and if you recall the Pressler Amendment was passed by the US Senate so, under this Amendment they stopped the supply of F-16s to Pakistan, during that period they were kept on saying that they would provide the remaining F-16s to Pakistan but not only did they stop the supply of F-16s, we also had to pay the parking charges of these aircraft which were made for Pakistan but they were never delivered. Instead we have been provided soyabeans against the cash money which we paid for F-16s. Later on, Pakistan was provided with soybeans for a huge amount of over $650 million which had been paid for the F-16s.
JWT: You had been the project director of JF-17 (Thunder) so, please share with us the distinguished features of this aircraft and what it added to the strength of PAF?
SL: As I earlier said that in 1990s the US left us in the lurch so at that time our command understood that Americans can become nasty whenever they accomplish their missions. Thus, JF-17 is an outcome of this thought process which was initiated by the American’s attitude and the Pressler Amendment. The reason behind this was because we always inducted American technology in PAF. So our command realised that if this is the way of Americans then it will create huge problem for PAF because we have old jets in our fleet. e.g. we have the oldest Mirages in the world which we have to replace. And by flying these old machines we are taking huge safety and security risks. We had two options left’ one was the purchase of fighter jets from the European countries but there were two major impediments i.e. firstly the European fighter jets were too expensive; secondly, they were not willing to give us front-line aircraft. That is why, this option was dropped. While the second option front of us was to build an indigenous capability in order to meet our needs so, we went for this option and this formed the background of JF-17 development programme. During the period of sanctions imposed by the Presseler Amendment the Chinese offered us a joint venture programme as a partner so at that time it was called Super 7 and later on we changed its name to JF-17. The foundation of this project was laid in the ’90s but it was handed over to me in 2001. Unfortunately, the memorandum of understanding was signed in 1995 but during five or six years till 2001 very little work was done; I would say these years were not very well utilised by both sides. When I got the charge of this project I realised that in PAF many aircraft are going to retire in the next five to ten years so if we will not replace them then there will be a serious gap in our operational capability. Because of this situation we started working in an emergency mode and the readers would be pleased to know that in less than three years we flew the first prototype of JF-17 which is a record time for the development of a modern fighter aircraft in the contemporary history of aviation industry. Secondly, unique thing is that there is not any air force in the world which has ever got into designing and development of the aircraft. Usually, air forces are provided aircraft they are never mend to make aircraft and no air force has done it yet in the whole world. So, it was a unique challenge which PAF accepted and also fulfilled it successfully. Thirdly, from Pakistan PAF is involved in the project and from China a commercial organisation CATIC was involved in it therefore it was a strange combination. Whereas the aircraft was designed and developed at CAC (Chengdu Aircraft Corporation). We pushed so much speed in this project and took risks in deviating from some of the established procedures but we did it in a good faith. Following the usual procedures, it would have taken us 10 to 15 years for the development and qualification of this aircraft as seen even in the advanced countries. However, by moving fast we did not compromise on quality. The JF-17 if I call it as F-16 of Pakistan then I would not be wrong. Because we strictly followed the American standards. The reason we are use to of American technology the reason by following these standards the product becomes universal and we also agreed Chinese for this. I told the Chinese that our product should be able to compete in the international market but if we made it on Chinese standards then it can be sold in this region and it would not earn the international recognition. Moreover, the avionics of JF-17 are also designed around a universal architecture which means if you fit any European or American equipment on JF-17 then it will start communicating. There would not be any problem of mismatch. Another interesting fact is that JF-17 is the only fighter jet that China has made from the design board up to its final completion all aircraft before this were the copies of Russians made by China. JF-17 is our brain ware we utilised the manufacturing experience of China. Now JF-17 is going to replace all the old generation aircraft in the PAF. It will enhance the strength of PAF on both counts’ qualitative as well as quantitative, respectively.
JWT: How do you compare JF-17 with Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) of Indian Air Force?
SL: Well Indians started the LCA in 1980s. They kept on working the whole 1990s but still even today they are unable to accomplish this project successfully. The aircraft is thus counted in the ’80s technology and it has lost relevance with time. On the other hand, we not only completed the project in a record time. Two squadrons of JF-17 have already been inducted into PAF. The Indians are keeping the LCA alive only for face saving and having failed in their struggle to develop an indigenous capability; they are now going for huge aircraft purchases from the west in order to meet their actual operational requirements. We are far ahead of them as far as LCA vs. JF-17 is concerned.
SL: Let me share that when I was heading this project I made a five-years road map, i.e. within the five years this aircraft would be fully operational along with all its equipment and weapons. Unfortunately, when I handed over this project the pace of work slowed down on each and every aspect. In fact, the basic spirit behind the coproduction of this aircraft in Pakistan was to reduce dependence on others and to sell it in the international market to earn huge amounts of foreign exchange for Pakistan. The amount of foreign exchange which we will get from this would be so higher than the total amount of foreign exchange which we are getting by all of our exports. So, coming to the point due to slow pace we did not look after our targets therefore today we are not there where we should have been. In fact, we have to overcome our weaknesses in order to induct this state-of-the-art fighter into PAF in big numbers because it is quite capable to full-fil our operational requirements. Actually, it is made to meet the challenges which PAF is likely to face in future in the region. In addition, I would like to share with the readers that due to our smart negotiations we have ensured 58% co-production share for ourselves in this project. We must focus on this aspect wholeheartedly in order to accrue huge financial benefits through third party sales as well as large saving during its massive induction in the PAF as it will form the backbone of our air power for years to come.
JWT: What would you say on the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine of India? Is it a viable strategy?
SL: Well this doctrine has three main components one is Infantry, second is Armour and third is Air Force. In this doctrine they have some packages in which these three components or forces have to react in combination rapidly. The main aim of this strategy is to occupy some places in the enemy’s territory in order to have a bargaining chip for the post war or conflict negotiations. In my opinion it is not a viable strategy because after negotiation they have to give back the occupied territories then where shall go the operational cost which includes the movement of troops, heavy weapons and loss of human life due to the retaliation from other side. In fact, this ‘Cold Start’ doctrine is made for the rapid mobilization and deployment of troops which India could not do after the attack on Indian parliament.