Pakistan Eyes Acquisition of Chinese L-15 Supersonic Jet Trainer

Pakistan may acquire the Chinese L-15 supersonic jet trainer aircraft to equip a unit to transition pilots to advanced fighters, eventually reducing the types of trainers in its fleet from four to two.

The need for the aircraft has arisen despite the operation of the Air Force's current basic/advanced jet trainer, the Sino-Pakistani K-8 Karakorum, which is a highly capable aircraft that has won numerous export orders. Experts dispute whether the L-15, manufactured by Hongdu, is a good fit for Pakistan's needs.

Kaiser Tufail, Pakistani defense analyst and former Air Force air commodore, said, "the L-15 makes sense only if K-8 is used solely for basic flying training and L-15 for fighter conversion. In such a case, the [older] T-37 [trainer] would be redundant.

"Considering the extensive [and expensive] structural life enhancement program that theT-37s have undergone, their useful life has been extended by at least 10 more years. The only solution to the dilemma would be to look for a buyer for the T-37s and recover some much-needed foreign exchange."

Tufail added, "Other than this training stream, the L-15 doesn't quite fit if the K-8 is to perform the role of fighter conversion."

However, defense analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium believes the interest in the L-15 is understandable.

The K-8 had been examined by the Air Force as a possible replacement for the current FT-5, a Chinese-made twin-seat MiG-17 Fresco, in the fighter conversion role when it first entered service in the early 1990s, he said. Pakistan also uses a small number of FT-6 trainers, a Chinese-made two-seat Mig-19 Farmer.

However, the Air Force "most likely felt that a dedicated aircraft purpose-built would be a better option," he said. The 1990s were also a time of considerable financial hardship for Pakistan, so the FT-5 therefore continued in service.

Shabbir further stated, "Now that the availability of an affordable and dedicated aircraft from China is assured, it probably led to the decision to go for the type in preparation for the future high-tech jets such as FC-20 andF-16C/D training requirements."

No official word from the Air Force, or the China Aviation Technology Import-Export Corp., was forthcoming. Officials' refusal to confirm the deal may stem from the fact that negotiations have not reached the final stages.

However, the Air Force has conducted detailed examinations of the aircraft, which included a visit of a single L-15 to Pakistan in December as it transited on its way to the Dubai Airshow. Negotiations are now being undertaken on technical aspects and pricing. The time frame for the conclusion of a deal is unknown.


Like the K-8, the L-15 is also useful in the counterinsurgency role as it can carry a light warload of rockets and bombs, plus air-to-air missiles. There is no indication the aircraft is expected to be tasked with this role, but the capability is a point of interest for Pakistan.

The L-15 competed for orders from the People's Liberation Army Air Force and Naval Air Force against the cheaper and less capable JL-9. The JL-9 is heavily based on the F-7 series of fighters and looks set to be the final evolutionary stage of the MiG-21 Fishbed design.

The F-7 also makes up the backbone of Pakistan's Air Force and therefore the JL-9 could bring cost savings due to commonality, but that advantage appears to have been discounted.

This selling point for the JL-9 may have counted against it in the minds of the service's planners, Shabbir said. The L-15 was probably chosen "precisely because it is the more advanced design," and the "JL-9 most likely is not considered a good enough platform due to its F-7 lineage and airframe design, with its associated future growth limitations."

With the Pakistani F-7 variants expected to be retired this decade, the added cost savings associated with selecting the JL-9 would be unlikely to materialize. Also, the L-15 would allow Pakistan to reap economies of scale because of China's extensive modernization program.

Pakistan's interest in the L-15 may therefore have wider implications. Officially, at least, the L-15 has not fully entered service with the Chinese Air Force, but Pakistan's interest may indicate the Chinese are looking at the L-15 in a more favorable light.


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