SAFE GUARDING THE AERIAL
FRONTIER FOR 50 GOLDEN YEARS
Air force is the dominant strategic force that enables a country to respond quickly and influence the course of events in times of conflict. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) boasts a fleet of aircraft that can deliver a full complement of air-to-air, air-to-surface precision weapons, and enable the pilots to return home safely.
In that, the distinguished PAF fleet includes one such influencer – of rugged nature and max performance, built for the rigours of war. The Mirage III and V multi-role fighter jet and all of its 16 modified variants are a pilot’s aircraft. It can fly at more than twice the speed of sound, one very distinguishing performance feature. As formidable as it is at high speeds, it is just as deadly at 330 knots.
Every fighter pilot in the PAF would fantasize flying the Mirage in its heyday, between 1969 and 1983, until the F-16s came and claimed this dream. However, it continues to enjoy the advantage of a higher Mach number over the F-16 even today. But unlike other fighter planes that aviators not so much as fly but wear when they put the power, manoeuvrability and endurance to the test, Mirage is a challenging airplane to handle. Pilots must respect its performance envelop and the typical flight characteristics emanating from its wing design, especially during take-offs and be equally mindful of its limits when landing. Lift the nose too much and its delta wings will create so much drag that the plane will never get off the ground; come in at higher angles when landing, and the drag significantly disrupts its high-speed approach. Nonetheless, designed around a single engine, its sleek aerodynamic design, firepower and an ability to manipulate speed that will put your stomach at the back of the airplane, makes this beast a lethal adversary.
As strong as a power-lifter and as nimble as a gymnast, the Mirage really does anything a pilot wants. And it has done so for the past 50 years it has been serving the PAF. Aviation artist for the PAF, Group Captain Syed Masood Akhtar Hussaini, beautifully preserves the day of 8th March, 1968 on canvas when Wing Commander MM Alam led the first batch of six Mirage aircraft into Pakistan’s airspace. Flying at his wings were Sqn Ldr Hakimullah (served as Chief of the Air Staff from March 1988 to March 1991), Sqn Ldr Farooq F Khan (served as Chief of the Air Staff, from March 1991 to November 1994), Sqn Ldr Farooq Umar (retired as an Air Vice Marshal), Flt Lt Arif Manzoor( embraced Shahadat in Syria in a flying accident), and Flt Lt Akhtar Rao (retired as Wing Commander). Even today, the nostalgic painting triggers vivid memories in veteran officers.
The French built the Mirage as an all-weather multi-role aircraft with a heavy emphasis on ground attack capability. It is a very stable platform for accurate air-to-ground weapon delivery, carrying a very reasonable load. The very first batch of the PAF Mirages came fitted with air-to-air interceptor radars along with the first generation beyond visual range (BVR) missiles. From an original 24 fighters initially acquired by PAF, the fleet of these hunter killers bloomed to almost 300 over the next four decades.
Serving as linchpin of the PAF’s tactical attack capabilities, the Mirage has served with eleven different squadrons of PAF over the years. At present, there are seven Mirage attack squadrons, the No 15 Squadron ‘Cobras’ being the largest, comprising some older variants such as the Mirage IIIEP. Whereas the No 7 Squadron ‘Bandits’ has its Retrofit of Strike Element (ROSE). Based in south are the ‘Haiders’ of No 8 Sqn which operates Mirage V PA2/3 and are also known by the name of ‘Guardians of Pakistani Seas’. The No 25 ‘Night Strike Eagles’ Squadron has the ROSE II upgraded Mirages. The most modern and sophisticated Mirages, capable of using the PAF’s H2 and H4 stand-off weapons (SOW) are the ROSE III, which make up the PAF’s newest fighter squadron, ‘The Zarrars’, from the No 27 Squadron. Former Editor of Air Forces Monthly and prolific aviation photographer, Alan Warnes, described the Mirage airplanes of the PAF as, “The great workhorse. Owing to the ingenuity of expertly trained crew of PAF engineers, it has continued to evolve with the needs of modern air warfare.”
How It All Started
Up until the 1960s, the PAF consisted largely of US-built planes, such as the F-104 Starfighters, B-57 Bombers, F-86 Sabres, T-33 Shooting Star, C-130 Hercules and T-37 Tweety Birds. Like the advent of many other aircraft in the PAF, the Mirage was an effect of US sanctions imposed upon Pakistan when it went to war in 1965. Air Marshal Nur Khan, who led the air force through the 1965 war with India, found the entire US fighter aircraft grounded due to a lack of spares. These were precarious times and with no combat aircraft available, Nur Khan set about finding a solution. The PAF needed a ‘bomb truck’ that could carry several tons of weapons and strike deep into enemy territory, besides an effective air defence capability. The acquisition of the trailblazing Dassault Mirage III nailed the brief.
It was around the time that the leading aircraft of the PAF, the F-104 Starfighter was fading out that the Mirage effectively replaced. The Mirage arrived in the nick of time – with a definite purpose. Pakistan was on the brink of another war. In 1971, the aircraft did well in its strike and air defence roles, given that it was the only night interceptor besides the few Starfighters. Come the end of the Afghan war in 1989, the Americans placed more embargoes and stopped shipment of the F-16s. In 1992, the PAF decided that it had to live with the inventory it had and focus more on aircraft that were easily available.
The air force took a crucial decision to acquire additional Mirages from the Australian, Belgian, Spanish, Libyan, Lebanese, and French air forces that were either not using them anymore or had little use of them. While many of the acquired planes were made airworthy, some were reduced to spares. Since the Indian air force was modernizing and re-equipping, the PAF had to frame and pursue its own strategy to develop a matching operational capability. That was when Pakistan started to upgrade its Mirage fleet and thus became one of the largest operators of Mirage III and Mirage V aircraft in the world.
Upgradation of Mirage Fleet
With the upgradation of PAF’s air defence network in the late 70s, Mirage aircraft also received secure radios and Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) equipment. Also added in some Mirages was Infra-Red (IR) based night intercept capability. However, in the early 90s, the constant hazard of US embargoes and the increasing threat of the adversary prompted the PAF to embark upon the programme called the Retrofit of Strike Elements (ROSE). The ROSE programme was primarily an advanced avionics-based capability on Mirage aircraft. The upgrade set the pilot free from distractions and unnecessary workload. While the heads-up display (HUD) projected information in front of the pilot, with the hands-on-throttle and stick (HOTAS) system the pilot did not have to look down to select and operate essential switches, something crucial in the heat of the battle.
In the ROSE I programme, besides a Nav-attack system and HUD, the Mirages, fitted with the Grifo M3 radar, were at an advantage as autonomous interceptors with contemporary capabilities. The upgrade programme in ROSE II, transformed it into a precision attack aircraft with multi-function displays (MFD). The forward-looking infrared (FLIR) under the more advanced ROSE III project, put the fear of God into the enemy – the Mirage could pulverize targets by delivering weapons accurately even in the darkest of nights. Several Mirages were later equipped with air-to-air refuelling capability as well. All these enhanced features not only made the Mirages more lethal but also made the pilot more efficient in the cockpit.
The reconnaissance variant of the Mirage was also outfitted with a capability to carry the Long Range Aerial Photography Pod (LORAP). This included a real time data-link that could transmit the pictures to the headquarters immediately after landing.The Mirage 5PA3 was another variant, which came fitted with the capability to carry and fire the anti-ship Exocet missile to defend our coastline naval fleet against enemy’s surface ships; which was a crucial requirement after the 1971 war.The ROSE programme was a massive activity of upgrading and integrating avionics and weapons, which came handy subsequently in the JF-17 Thunder programme. This extremely valuable and exclusive experience added to the expertise and confidence of PAF’s engineering personnel.
Mirages- Notable Instances of Service in PAF
With acquisitions of 16 different variants in subsequent years, Mirage became a popular choice of the PAF for operational employment. Apart from carrying out bombing and air defence missions during the 1971 war, Mirage went on to perform reconnaissance operations against the enemy. These jets also played an important role in the air operations during Soviets Afghan occupation and for the defence of our nuclear programme in the 80s.
Besides regularly flying reconnaissance missions along the Eastern and Western borders, in the mid-80s, the Reconnaissance Mirages were used to discover and confirm the position of Indian troops that had moved into Siachen.The reconnaissance Mirages made another significant contribution soon after the Ojhri camp tragedy in 1988. The ground teams used the data from the infrared cameras on the aircraft to identify hotspots after the inferno to complete their fire-fighting operation in a safe and efficient manner.
During the Kargil crisis in 1999, most of the Mirage squadrons were deployed to various forward operating bases (FOBs). Subsequently, following the Parliament bombings in Delhi, like all PAF squadrons, the Mirage units were put on full alert in response to the aggressive posturing by the Indian government. Operation ‘Sentinel’ lasted from December 2001 until October 2002, and during these testing times Mirages played a key role in defending the aerial frontiers of Pakistan. Thereafter, in the tension created after the Mumbai bombings, Mirages again provided the vital air defence to thwart any Indian threat.
The 27th February, 2019 face-off against enemy aggression once again proved the jet’s combat capability, when a few Mirage 5PA aircraft armed with stand-off bombs demonstrated the country’s resolve and capability to defend its sovereignty.
In joint exercises with other air forces, the inclusion of Mirage aircraft, demonstrated the trust and confidence that PAF leadership had in this aircraft, its aircrew and technical crew to operate it successfully in different environments. Even today, these veterans actively participate in Shaheen series of exercises with PLA air force of China.
The Mirage Rebuild Factory: Enhancements
Though primarily for hunting, this thoroughbred has proven flexible and shown availability for ease of maintenance and repairs. These qualities make this aircraft first responder for those needing assistance.
Key to sustained performance is routine maintenance by teams of trained PAF specialists that service this tangible piece of flying history. In the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF), trained crew of engineers strip the aircraft down to its smallest elements and then rebuild, with the efficiency of a race car pit crew. Last year the AFP described the techniques developed at the colossal MRF, Kamra, reminiscent of — but far more high-tech and lethal than — the improvised methods used to keep classic American cars running on the streets of Havana. The planes take seven weeks to be overhauled and repainted. The MRF has the capacity to overhaul more than a dozen planes a year.
It has been 22 years since I flew the Mirage, I still believe that when it comes to making an impression, the Mirage is head and shoulders above the rest.
In 1967, Mirage was state-of-the-art in military aviation. When Pakistan Air Force first acquired the Mirage, its collective features were a quantum leap above what existed in its inventory. It could come at low altitudes, defy radar detection at 250 feet, and deliver ordinance at high speeds such as the anti-runway bomb, another exclusive domain of the Delta wing jet.
Looking back at the 50 plus years of the Mirage being such an integral part of the PAF, the majority of veteran Mirage pilots of PAF think that the Mirage would be dearly missed as 70 to 80 percent of our pilots have served and protected the nation with this potent weapon system. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the Mirage will remain a part of the DNA of the PAF, long after the aircraft has been phased out.