Thrifty at 50: Pakistan keeps aging Mirages flying

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A Mirage aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) prepares for a first test run at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex after an overhaul at the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) in Kamra, west of the capital Islamabad. (AFP)
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In this file photo, technicians work on a Mirage aircraft during a full overhaul by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) in Kamra, west of the capital Islamabad on Dec.27, 2017. (AFP)
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In this file photo, technicians work on a Mirage aircraft during a full overhaul by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) in Kamra, west of the capital Islamabad on Dec.27, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 29 April 2018

Thrifty at 50: Pakistan keeps aging Mirages flying

KAMRA, Pakistan: The sprawling complex at Kamra, west of Islamabad, reverberates at the thundering take-off of a Mirage Rose-1, the latest aging fighter jet to have been gutted and reassembled by the Pakistani Air Force.
Fifty years after Pakistan bought its first Mirages, many planes in the venerable fleet are still being patched up, overhauled and upgraded for use in combat, years after conventional wisdom dictates they should be grounded.
That includes one of the first two planes originally purchased from France’s Dassault in 1967, which was in a hangar at Kamra after its record fifth overhaul when AFP visited recently.
The techniques they have developed are 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.
“We have achieved such a capability that our experts can integrate any latest system with the aging Mirages,” says Air Commodore Salman M. Farooqi, deputy managing director of the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) at the Kamra complex.
Pakistan bought its first Mirages to diversify its fleet, which in the late 1960s largely consisted of US-built planes: F-104 Starfighters, T-37 Tweety Birds and F-86 Sabres.
The Mirage became a popular choice, with the Air Force buying 17 different variants in later years, eventually owning the second-highest number of the fighter jets after France.
They performed bombing missions during Pakistan’s war with India in 1971 — one of the shortest conflicts in history, lasting just 13 days and leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
But Mirages flew on, also carrying out reconnaissance missions in India, and intercepting and shooting down Soviet and Afghan planes that violated Pakistani airspace during the Soviet war.
Usually, the jet has two or three life cycles, each spanning around 12 years. But overhauling them abroad was expensive for Pakistan, a developing country whose budget is already disproportionately tilted toward its military and which has historically received billions in military assistance from countries such as the US.
So, with the help of experts from Dassault, the air force decided if you want something done for the right price, you’ve got to do it yourself.
The Mirage Rebuild Factory was established at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in 1978, and in the years since has saved “billions” of dollars for Pakistan, according to Group Captain Muhammad Farooq, in charge of one of the maintenance hangars — though he said the exact figure was difficult to pin down.
The planes take some seven weeks to be overhauled and repainted, he said, adding that usually the MRF has the capacity for more than a dozen planes a year. Its calendar for the next decade or so is already booked up.
At least eight different Mirage variants, including the Mirage 5-EF, Mirage III-DP and Mirage-III Rose-I, were in one of the maintenance hangers when AFP visited.
Engineers and technicians were dismantling cockpit instrument panels and landing gear while undertaking a “non-destructive inspection,” essentially an X-ray to detect faults in the wings and airframe.
Dozens of engines awaiting overhaul were piled in one hangar. Even planes that had suffered accidents such as fires breaking out have been patched back together at the facility.
Pakistan has also been buying up discarded Mirages from other countries to bring through the facility, said retired Air Marshal Shahid Lateef.
The most important technological improvement, developed with the help of South Africa, is the ability to integrate air-to-air refueling, Farooqi said.
The “identification of friend and foe” (IFF) system, which detects when a Mirage has been locked on to by the system of another plane, was also a key development, he said.
But even with the improvements and cost-saving measures, the aging planes are becoming more difficult to maintain.
“They have outlived their lives... after their overhauls (they) have become highly unreliable, we even met with lots of accidents,” Lateef said.
The best option to replace them would be the Rafale, as neighbor and arch-rival India — which has also flown and maintained Mirages for decades — is doing, signing a deal with Dassault in 2016.
The price tag is too much for Pakistan, however, retired Air Commodore Tariq Yazdani said.
Instead Pakistan plans to replace them with the JF-17 Thunder aircraft that it co-developed and co-produced with China, the original manufacturer.
Even as it becomes more urgent to phase them out, Mirages’ status as the grand dames of Pakistani military aviation cannot be dismissed, Yazdani, who has logged 1,500 hours flying them, told AFP.
It is a “very agile aircraft capable of penetrating deep into the enemy’s territory without being detected by radar, which makes its sole mission -– to drop bombs on the enemy’s position -– quite easy,” he said.
“It is an old aircraft,” said aviation writer Alan Warnes, author of two books on the Pakistani air force. “But Pakistani pilots have been flying this plane with the utmost accuracy and expertise.”


Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

Updated 13 October 2019

Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

  • EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson played down hopes Sunday of a breakthrough in his last-ditch bid to strike an amicable divorce deal with the European Union.
Negotiators went behind closed doors for intensive talks in Brussels after Johnson outlined a new set of proposals to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday.
They have very little time left to succeed.
EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline just two weeks away.
The 27 would ideally like to have a full proposal to vote on by then.
But the sides are trying to achieve in a few days what they had failed to in the more than three years since Britons first voted to leave the European Union after nearly 50 years.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier called the weekend negotiations “constructive” enough to keep going for another day.
“A lot of work remains to be done,” Barnier stressed in a statement to EU ambassadors.
“Discussions at technical level will continue (Monday).”
Downing Street said Johnson also told his cabinet to brace for a cliff-hanger finish.
He reiterated “that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Johnson rose to power in July on a promise not to extend Brexit for a third time this year — even for a few weeks.
Breaking that pledge could come back to haunt him in an early general election that most predict for the coming months.
Johnson is under parliamentary orders to seek a extension until January 31 of next year if no deal emerges by Saturday.
He has promised to both follow the law and get Britain out by October 31 — a contradiction that might end up being settled in court.
Outgoing EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker said British politics were getting more difficult to decipher than the riddle of an “Egyptian sphinx.”
“If the British ask for more time, which they probably will not, it would in my view be a historical nonsense to refuse them,” Juncker told Austria’s Kurier newspaper.
Ireland’s Varadkar hinted on Thursday that he could support the talks running on up to the October 31 deadline if a deal seemed within reach.
The few details that have leaked out suggest a compromise around the contentious Irish border issue Britain’s Northern Ireland partially aligned with EU customs rules.
Whether such a fudge suits both Brussels and the more ardent Brexit backers in parliament who must still approve a deal should become clearer by the end of the week.
Britain will only avoid a chaotic breakup with its closest trading partners if the agreement is also passed by the UK parliament — something it has failed to do three times.
Johnson heads a minority government and must rely on the full backing of not only his own fractured Conservatives but also Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party.
DUP’s parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds warned Johnson that “Northern Ireland must remain entirely in the customs union of the United Kingdom” and not the EU.
“And Boris Johnson knows it very well,” Dodds told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.
The comments do not necessarily rule out DUP support.
UK media are presenting Johnson’s mooted compromise as a “double customs” plan that could be interpreted to mean that Northern Ireland is leaving EU rules.
Yet details are still under discussion and the prime minister’s allies are urging lawmakers to give the British leader a chance.
Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn signalled Sunday that he would wait for the outcome of the EU summit before trying to force an early election.
But he added that there was “a strong possibility” that those polls would come before the Christmas break.