Science and Technology: Why PAF Did Not Detect US Helicopters in Abbottabad?

Posted on May 27, 2011
Filed Under >Imran H. Khan, Economy & Development, Education, Science and Technology
33 Comments
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Imran H. Khan

The recent US mission to get Osama Bin Laden without the knowledge of Pakistan Air Force was a success because of PAF’s lack of investment in sensors that can detect low flying aircraft in undulating and hilly terrain. People are thinking hard about the political and military lessons in this, but they should also be thinking hard about what this means for technology and science development and education in Pakistan.

This is not the first time that PAF has been caught in this embarrassing situation. Indian Air Force was able to penetrate deep into Pakistani territory in 1971, knowing that PAF did not have low level radar coverage in many areas.  At that time PAF depended on mobile observer units (MOUs) for human visual and aural detection of planes.  This human-intensive brute force effort only worked in limited areas and only during war. Despite investing in limited low altitude radars and airborne radars it is obvious that there are gaping holes in the air defense system as exemplified by the unscathed operation of multiple large rotor helicopters for hours in Pakistani airspace deep into its territory.

This story is specially poignant to me because way back in 1977 when I graduated from College of Aeronautical Engineering in Korangi, Karachi, I had won the best project award for designing a device for acoustic detection of low to medium altitude flying aircraft. The Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan was the chief guest at the graduation and, knowing the vulnerabilities that PAF had experienced during the 1971 war, instructed that PAF should productize and widely deploy and advanced version of the device that I had designed. I was posted to a squadron that was dedicated to developing electronic warfare equipment with this goal in mind. Unfortunately ACM Zulfiqar retired and ACM Anwar Shamin became the new Chief of PAF. He and some of his coterie of senior officers were unfortunately more interested in getting commissions from buying radars and other equipment from foreign countries. Not only was my project canceled but I was also not allowed to design or develop other electronic warfare equipment locally.

PAF has bought radars for the detection of low flying aircraft called MPDR as well as airborne radar planes called AWACs. The MPDR radars have limited ranges of a maximum of 90 km. So a large number of them have to be deployed to cover any reasonable area. They tend to get deployed to cover critical areas during wartime. PAF also has three Swedish made and one Chinese made AWAC. They are relatively slow propeller driven planes that are expensive to maintain in the air at all times. The number of AWACs is also limited so they are used with care.

Since no PAF spokesman or anyone else has tried to explain the failure to detect to Pakistanis, I will try to shed some light in simplified terms.

Pakistani media has further confused the issue by focusing on the wrong aspects that PAF was trying to conserve the life of its long range radars. First of all there is not much money to be saved by keeping these long range radars off and secondly even if they had been on and they most probably were, they would not have been able to detect low flying helicopters in the northern hills as they cannot provide that kind of coverage. No matter how much stealth technology you apply to a helicopter the large rotor makes it highly detectable to radars. It has recently been disclosed that large non stealth twin rotor Chinook helicopters had also been used.

Had the AWACS been in the air and on location they would have easily detected the helicopters. But this is not being considered war time, they were not flying. The slow speed of propeller driven AWACs meant that they could not have been sent over the area in response to the scramble after hearing the news from Abbottabad. MPDRs could have detected the copters, but Pakistan has only a limited numbers and are deployed on the eastern fronts or close to high value areas like airfields.  This leaves vast areas in the northern mountains essentially uncovered by any sensor. This is actually quite tragic given that it is quite easy to deploy the kinds of sensor that I had developed way back in 1977.  Cheap solar powered version of those sensors can easily be linked using low power communications to instrument the whole northern areas.

The two F-16s that were scrambled in response were essentially flying blind at night trying to figure out where to look in a very wide area. PAF Chief recently made a statement that with the induction of three more Chinese AWACS PAF will be able to provide radar coverage for all of Pakistan.  If you take into account war time attrition, jamming, turn around time etc. the effective force of AWACs that can be relied upon to be available at any one time is at the most two to three at any one time. With a radius of only couple of hundred miles, this would only protect Sargodha and Karachi vicinities at best. They will also need to be effectively protected with fighters which would make the cost of operations quite high and not easily sustainable over a long time. What PAF really needs are more AWACs on a jet driven fast platform that can accompany the fighters to provide cost effective deterrence. The PAF chief needs to get realistic and ask for what is needed for the effective protection rather than making tall claims.

The pilots in PAF occupy such a glorified position that their leadership results in the acquisition of sexy fighters like F-16s at the cost of smart combination of tools that deliver cost effective and efficient defense solutions. PAF is still buying expensive US made fighter planes when there are multiple opportunities of partnering with other friendly countries to produce planes for her needs.  The much touted JF-17 was nearly cancelled as many pilots thought it would be a threat to more F-16 procurement. Again a change in leadership saved it.

PAF is the only air force in the world that runs an aircraft manufacturing institution.  The reason no other country’s air force does that is because they leave it to the efficiency of the civil sector to deliver planes and focus on their primary and constitutionally approved task of the air defense of the country.

In 1965 USA gifted the nation of Pakistan with one of greatest gifts that can be given to a nation. America helped create College of Aeronautical Engineering at Korangi that was modeled along the lines of US Air Force Institute of Technology. A wide variety of advanced tools ranging from super sonic and subsonic tunnels along with expensive electronics equipment was provided to PAF.

The academic standard was maintained by sending American instructors and some inducted from the civilian sector. Despite these investments Pakistan has not designed a single locally designed aircraft as the engineers coming out of this institutions were primarily used for maintenance duties that does not even scratch the education imparted at this college. The graduates actually do very well when they go to the civil sectors and are found to be leading most of the companies and academia in engineering.  The PAF further eroded quality teachers when the college got moved to Risalpur for the sake of being close to pilot training institute. This is a lesson for US policy planners to learn before they give sophisticated assistance to the military sector. Had the college been given to the civil sector with the understanding that it would also allow limited military cadets to also participate, chances are that real aerospace engineering might have occurred and  the quality of education might have been maintained.

Pakistan has many companies that produce UAVs but PAF still buys Italian UAVs and Pakistani President still looks to the US to providing them. These recent events should be a wake up call to Pakistan and its leadership to start making the right choices for protecting the Pakistani citizens from external and internal threats. The shape and scope of Pakistan’s needs must be reviewed and appropriate changes made correctly engage the civil sector to fulfill them. The most important security investments that need to be made may be needed not in the military but in the civil sector, and especially in science and technology.

Imran H. Khan blogs at ‘Planet Earth’, where this was first posted.

33 responses to “Science and Technology: Why PAF Did Not Detect US Helicopters in Abbottabad?”

  1. Bangash says:

    PAF is like PA and PN, a bloated and incompetent organization which escapes accountability due to cuddling by public and cowardice of politicians. Most of these folks in Pakistan Armed Forces simply follow the same routines that British put in them 100 years ago, their equipment and training is inadequate and outdated.

    I also laugh at the wackos who demand that US-supplied F16’s be used to shoot down US-drones!

  2. Khuram Khan says:

    Thank you Imran Khan. I believe no country has the technology to match terrain configuration.It is purely confined to human detection as you mention. Surviellance below a certain level through technology especially in hilly terrain would be a major breakthrough if ever achieved.

  3. Azra says:

    We keep cursing our leaders for having wrong priorities, but just look at the comments. People are fixated on the juicy details of the Osama operation and USA and not focusing on what is the main point, the importance of developing an education ad science base for national interest. Every Pakistani is a Hamid Mir!!!!!

  4. Imran Khan says:

    I appreciate your insightful comments. I will try to answer some of the comments that requested an answer.
    Shez asked if JF-17s are as good as F-16s. The simple answer is no. But it depends what it is being used for. For air supremacy F-16 is better. For ground attack Jf-17 is adequate for Pk needs. Equipped with Beyond Visual Range Missiles it is a superior air superiority fighter. F-16 costs $80 Million while JF-17 is $15M. So I would bet on 5 JF-17s with BVR missiles taking on one F-16 any time of the day for any role. You can see more of my case for JF-17 at Pakistaniat at

    http://pakistaniat.com/2009/10/16/pakistan-f-16-pa f/

    Khaqan says that P3 carries an AWAC. P-3s carry maritime surveillance radars with a much shorter range than AWACS. The Mehran incident is in a totally different category than the Abbottabad raid. There is a term in business called “death by a million cuts” in which a large organization is fails not through a one big incident but through a large number of small wrong decisions. Pakistan is tragically experiencing millions of cuts because of the decision of our leaders. I have high-lighted a couple in this post. The only concerted attack by state actor on Pakistan is the drone attacks. PAF hides behind the civil government when it comes to fulfilling their constitutional role. PAF should actually be demanding that the government should explain to the people of Pakistan as to why it is stopping it from fulfilling its duty . You can see my thoughts about drone attacks at
    http://imranhkhan.com/2010/03/07/pakistanis-are-dy ing-for-what-for-whom-why/.
    Pakistan is very much under attack by primarily home grown non state actors.
    Akbar asked if the helicopters had been detected, what then. As a poor country Pakistan has historically responded to airborne intrusions with a pair of interceptors. But when it is a ground attack that is being reported with choppers , PAF should have war-gamed a response with a couple of squadrons and AWACs to support. Had the F-16 attempted to shoot down the choppers they would have been engaged with fighters and AWACs flying to protect the choppers. Chances are that PAF fighters and AWACs would have suffered severe losses, increasing the pressure to go after the bases that launched them. So in that sense Obama’s decision to doing it alone was an Extremely RECKLESS one. For the sake of the world I am glad that they got Osama, and the F-16 pilots did not have to make the decision to shoot the choppers down.
    Khurram Khan asked which country in the region has technology for the detection of low flying aircraft. Each country has unique threats, unique terrain and unique set of resources. Pakistan is a country of extreme terrain variations ranging from one of the highest mountain ranges in the world to one of the largest deltas. Countries do not disclose all the tools that they deploy for this purpose so it is difficult to know for sure what all sensors are being deployed. Richer countries that can afford AWACs, UAV and space based radars tend to go the radar route. Poorer countries tend to deploy mobile observers or resort to acoustic detectors.

  5. Nazia says:

    It is not matter of science and technology to trace the US Flights.
    These flights are common practice and allowed by Pak army long time ago.They are living and roaming all our bases and airports.Every body can see it whenever any high US officials come to visit these planes and air services are provided to them without giving second thought.
    These are are lame excuses as more than one hour operation was carried out without any interpretation from any base like Punjab and baloch regiment or from kalabagh base.Simple impulsive radars can record such kind of movement which was seen by hundreds of residents and all saw that Pakistanis come as police comes in our films to give a happy ending.
    By the way for last 5 years high class jammers/sensors have been installed in critical areas/building of Pakistan and they are quite expert of changing its range , frequency and direction as per demand of secret flights.Unlucky air blue flight was become victim of this military experiments.
    As one can see that not a single suicidal attack was made in Abbotabad so it is obvious that the area was highly monitored or guided by these jammers and sensors which were surely be switched off that day of” operation of Insult”
    The conclusion is simple Pakistani establishment wanted live Osama for becoming attention of war on terror financiers and US wanted dead body of osama,They both had it in their way. So all enjoyed the name of Osama and people like you and me are going to find technical reason of our failure.These are foxy political games and Pakistanis role is like foot ball all are kicking her to play.

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