Why PAF did not detect US helicopters in Abbottabad?

 The 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.



by 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 these 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.

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17 replies to “Why PAF did not detect US helicopters in Abbottabad?

  1. Above system of detecting enemy’s planes cannot compete with the ultra modern satellite based techniques which are perfectly instrumentalized to camouflage the intruding aero-machines through various technological advances made in the satellite sensing and damping/camouflaging tactics. As such conventional radars can be rendered action less. India has made such advances in the field and is already exporting the technology to the US and Israel.

  2. Sir, Today I was watching the movie SealTeam Six, made by USA on Abbottabad Operation. In that movie they have mentioned that there were two F-16’s, which were there, while operation was on. So, why they didn’t take any action after coming to know of this ???

    1. @Inam Abbasi, Irrespective of what the writer has expressed in his opinion piece, a friend of mine based on a highly authentic ssource, [and this he told me just after the operation] that the defence establishment had all the operations ready to intercept the Geronimo, but when asked for permission, the civilian leadership (the government in power) ordered the establishment to remain inoperative.

      1. In such cases there is no need to seek permission from any civilian set up. They just need to do some action same like we faced some similar thing in Kargil, when the then COAS (as the PM was near to overcome the year’s long bitter relations between India and Pakistan) overstepped the civvies, and we were to bear loss of many things…

        Why not then add this thing in the constitution that when condition created like this in future, then armed forces can defend and reply without any permission!!!


  3. i want u people to watch movie ”Skyfighter”…..in that movie when the pilot was in the air in contact with enemy aircraft….and he was asking to seek the permission to open fire from authorities….but he didn’t get it.why???because the game was at the level of political authorities.the pilot was having some restrictions on him.so same was the case here with Pakistan Air Force.so please stop balmming ur forces.they r really sacrificing their today for ur tommorow.think over it

  4. As a responsible editor, I was
    not expecting such a base less explanation for the lost sovereignity of the nation from dr nayyar . It is due to collaboration with international force against terrorism Pakistan was bound to remain calm on the issue . The air space of Pakistan can be easily penetrated by a country having geostationary setellite in the orbit . It can nutralise the radar installed at the ground for detecting the intruders . It is due to understanding between different nation participating in Afghan war Drones are not visible to any one and it can hit any terrorist any where in Pakistan .

    1. @ US offers help for next generation aircraft carrier –

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      On Fri, Nov 7, 2014 at 8:18 AM, Wonders of Pakistan wrote:

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