One of the noticeable features of IDEAS 2004 was the commonality of defence arms and equipment in the Turkish Armed Forces as displayed by Turkish manufacturers. As a member of NATO Turkey has access to wide range of US and European defence material on grants and easy credit besides offset purchases, etc. However it was really heartening to see indigenously manufactured tactical trucks, armoured vehicles, communication equipment, etc having pride of place in the Turkish inventory. This speaks volumes for Turkish commitment to indigenisation, at least “commission agents” have not overwhelmed their integrity. Pakistan has progressed in many areas in indigenisation particularly in the past four years, the discrepancy in certain areas is too glaring to ignore. There is no real coordination in national planning to ensure commonality within the Armed Forces and outside in the civilian field, we could have easily get economy of scale in manufacturing as well as standardization because of the vast numbers involved. Nowhere is this more apparent than in transportation where a virtual plethora of vehicles are in the military’s inventory. As for the civilian side, the liberal import regime has allowed vehicles of all types onto the roads of Pakistan, with spares and maintenance thereof problems galore.
Such lack of planning and standardization not only negates economy of effort but has a negative effect on the national exchequer as well. Even though it does not directly concern them, there are inter-related issues because of purchases, manufacturing, offsets, exports, etc because of which we could use the ambit of Defence Export Promotion Organization (DEPO) to study and analyze the areas where we could economically achieve a modicum of commonality in equipment manufacturing indigenously. While this is important in all cases of equipment purchase, it is of vital importance when the equipment is of high cost and one has to pay for it in foreign exchange. There must be careful analysis of the benefits of standardization to the country. One has to measure operational costs against the overall national interest and come to a sound decision thereof.
Nowhere is this fact more glaring than in the purchase of a replacement of PIA Fokker-27 fleet, it was shocking to hear that PIA has chosen the De Havilland Dash 8-300 in preference to the SAAB 2000. There is no question that the Dash 8-300 is an excellent aircraft, well suited to be a replacement of Fokker-27. For that matter so are the ATR 42-300 and SAAB 2000. PIA’s decision was made on the fact of the operating cost over the life of the aircraft and even though the initial cost per aircraft is high the Dash 8-300 clearly came ahead of its competitors because of its more economical performance. PIA is a commercial venture and given that it will have to suffer losses to subsidize Northern area operations (which PIA has been requesting the government to do) it was to be expected that Dash 8-300 would end up as the best aircraft in the “fly-out”.
Certain considerations that been overlooked, these are different to aircraft capability, passenger facilities, operating costs etc. Firstly, PIA should not be looking only for a replacement of the Fokker-27, it should target for acquisition an aircraft that can carry out not only the presently allocated tasks of the F-27 but should be able to do much more as additionality to PIA’s bigger aircraft fleet, much more than being a simple replacement. Secondly, in the Northern area operations, Fokker-27s could not operate over a certain height and because of our high mountains, it had to follow the valleys. With personal experience as an Alouette-3 helicopter pilot operating in the Northern Areas as far back as 1970, flying operations following the high mountain valleys was always hazardous because of the uncertain weather, you could go around a bend in the river and find the valley choked with low clouds. With a helicopter one could still manage a turn, for a fixed wing aircraft flying passengers it was much more dicey, the only aircraft capable of circumventing this major deficiency in our high mountains is the SAAB 2000, which has a maximum operating height of 31000 ft and can clear the terrain even on single-engine because it has twice the power of the other two contenders. At least 3-4 mountains in the Korakarams, K-2 and Nanga Parbat among them, are in the 25000-26000 ft range. Moreover since SAAB 2000 is more than 100 knots faster per hour, not only is the turnaround time faster but it’s range is far more than the ATR 42-300 or Dash 8-300. Conceivably the SAAB 2000 can be used for flights directly from Islamabad and Lahore to Gwadar directly and back without refueling, very important because presently Karachi is the only gateway to Gwadar, and if Gwadar has to be developed seriously as a port it has to be accessed directly from the other main cities. When cities of Afghanistan (and other regional countries) open up directly, this will be a great advantage. Given the passenger load factor likely, Airbus-300 or Boeing 737 operations would be uneconomical. The flying speed of the SAAB 2000 makes it the fastest turbo-prop in the world, closely approximating the speed of our present commercial passenger jets. The SAAB 2000 has one more major advantage over the other contenders, there is a 30 years long-standing collaboration in Pakistan between SAAB and the PAF Aircraft Manufacturing Factory at Kamra. Obviously this relationship must count for something.
SAAB 2000 is extremely important for Pakistan because it is no secret that the PAF is recommending it as the aircraft to carry the Swedish Ericsson Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) operations. For us the early warning radar system is a life and death national security issue because of India’s proposed acquisition of the Phalcon Radar System from Israel. Commonality, economy and the national interest require that both PIA and PAF should have the same aircraft, it is that much simpler for spares and maintenance. Whereas comparing passenger comforts and operating costs is important there would be minimal differences in this, national security has no cost comparison. While PIA has every right to ensure that the operating cost remains commercially feasible, PIA should look at SAAB 2000 as a force-multiplier rather than simply as a replacement for Fokker-27. Moreover the Dash 8-300 is almost double the initial cost of the SAAB 2000. With the almost 35% reduction over the original cost for brand new SAAB 2000 aircraft now offered by Swiss Air Lines, the price is not only drastically reduced it will positively revise the operating cost drastically downwards. This is something PIA’s Board of Directors should not ignore, or at least the Ministry of Defence must take note of it. It could be interesting for the PM (who is also the Federal Minister for Finance) to evaluate this issue independently and reconcile financial and national security conclusions, whatever is best for the country.
This on-going purchase example simply illustrates how coordinated element in planning can be of great benefit to the country. Purchase costs are increasing all the time and this has major security implications for developing countries which have to come up with additional resources to meet increasing security obligations. One must not think of DEPO and IDEAS 2004 as simply an export force-multiplier, we must look at them as major structural entities capable of coordinating expensive defence-related purchases in a cost-effective manner.