Imran H. Khan

The recent US mission to get Osama 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. 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 man power 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 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 highly corrupt 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 were 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.

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22 Responses to “Remote Acoustic Detection of Aircraft”

  1. Izaz Haque on May 9th, 2011 10:55 am

    Very nicely explained, Imran. This puts to rest the conspiracy theories that rest on the case that the Pakistani Government HAD to know of the raid in advance, or how could the American’s fly 150 miles into Pakistan without detection.

    Regards, Izaz

    Imran Khan Reply:

    I am glad that you saw through this that the chances of complicity are next to zero given the technical capabilities and choices made by PAF.

  2. Sohail Rabbani on May 9th, 2011 9:32 pm

    Great piece, Imran. Very informative.

    Reading between the lines I gather what you are saying is the same as I theorize (regarding the Abbotabad affair), that they — the (na)Pak Fauj, that is — were not complicit, they were simply flat-footed and incompetent.

    Imran Khan Reply:

    What exactly happened only time will tell. What I am implying is that it is also perfectly explainable because of simply the surprise factor, series of wrong choices over a long period of time by PAF and the simple rules of physics. The fact that the current minister of science and technology is a lawyer and the head of Aeronautical complex is a pilot are indications of systemic issues. I do not believe that they are uncorrectable and would not use generic labels as I think that they are not only not true but counter productive.

  3. sajad haider on May 12th, 2011 11:54 am

    Hi, Imran,

    You have crystallized the torment of professionals who wanted to keep PAF on the trajectory where AM Asghar Khan had shot it up to and was accelerated by AMs Nur Khan and Rahim Khan. Then there was a complete S turn to remain below the progress power curve. These professionals like yourself and several I know were denigrated, demoralized and sent home in case they were obdurate about their convictions. I am in full knowledge of the debased and corrupt officers who formed the net around Shamim who himself was a nice chap but mediocre and allegedly his family was complicit in the corrupt activities of M.Ali, Sibtain (Most corrupt but never hauled up)and radar head honcho in the MPDR and Siemens and Hughes networking programmes with extractors and the Westinghouse radar programme. I had even brought their activities to the attention of ACM Zulfiqar but I was censored instead. By the time Shamim took over, this network was in full swing. Rest is odious history.
    The problem is rightly pointed out by you. As Hakimullah once said to me that the strategy of these people is that more you spend the more you make. That is why Sibtain and co would never allow indigenous and ingenious development. The case of Electronica of Italy ECM-ECCM- Jamming and Falcons as the most unfit platforms were all part of that eon and kick-backs when the PAF could have developed a formidable Air defense network if real hard core professionals had survived the conspiracies and moved up to optimize the resource allocation.
    I have mentioned much of this in my book Flight of the Falcon, if you have happened to read it. I am also aware of the Acoustic Detection effort made but did not know it was you. That was an ideal detection system against Drones, RPVs of the time. Great pity it was stifled in its embryo.

    As a post script remember that the acronyms GD is for general duties and there is no problem having a GD officer in charge of Kamra or Korangi as long as he is professionally sound and above all, man of moral and financial integrity. Saeed was a supper engineer but grossly deficit on other inexorable intangibles. Just think about the character and qualifications of your Prez, PM and the quislings surrounding them! Such luck. Allah is indeed punishing us in his way.

    So then these are my views and you asked for them. I do wish you had succeeded and the useless MOUs were replaced with effective state of electronics you had invented. It may be pertinent to mention that in 1965 war,on 7th Sept, out of 33 IAF raids 90% were not picked up or reported by MOUs. In 71 there was a different scenario.The defecting Bengali officers from Air defense and other elements had given the Indians complete information about gaps in our air defense coverage. IAF had complete intel on our weaknesses and strengths, yet they came out worse by loosing more aircraft in 71 than in 65. A fact little known to public and professionals but available on the Indian web Bharat-Rahshak.Indo-Pak

    imranhkhan Reply:

    Dear Sir:
    It is interesting that you mention Sibtain. I did not mention him in the post but it was he who told me that I am going to send you to Germany to learn how to develop electronic jamming devices at Siemens. To which I said that I hope that I will be allowed to use that knowledge in developing it further when I return; and that it would not be like what happened to my acoustic sensor project. To which he categorically said that there would be no development. That statement changed the trajectory of my life. Even though I had wanted very much to live in Pakistan, as it turns out I have ended living more than half of my life abroad. I disclosed all that happened in my letter of resignation, and I should have been hauled up in a court martial, for what I had written was quite scathing. But no action was taken as it would have embarrassed a lot of people including ACM Shamim. The reason a lot of these kinds of things happen is that up-right people do not take a stand and they do not support those that are taking it.

    ps: Air Adre. Sajad Haider is a highly decorated PAF fighter ace and has written about his PAF experience in a book called Flight of the Falcon.

    Aamir Reply:

    Very interested in finding out how many aircraft he shot down. I have a copmletely different story of the man. If he is Nozy Haider. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  4. captainjohann on May 28th, 2011 5:48 am

    A very pertinent and interesting observation from a Patriotic Pakistani. As an Indian I feel the system of imports is similar with import lobby thriving in the Uniform, Foreign Ministry and Bureaucratic jungles of India. But we have a honest Defence Minister and he could ensure the american lobby was ousted during the recent MMRCA import deal with help from patriotic Air chief. But still the import lobby is corrupted by Russians, Europeans and recently the Americans. The craze for foreign trip is slowly waning and honest low level people can open up a Pandoras box through RTI.Hope the mass produced local goods are able to win .

  5. asquared on May 28th, 2011 1:30 pm

    Enjoyed your post. The acoustic detection technology has been in use since WW-II for low flying and low speed air vehicles but was subject to atmospheric conditions… Several years ago Israel marketed an array of microphones to successfully demonstrate the method. I think with the new signal processing techniques it is easy to distinguish between noise and the target however I am not sure how good this method will be in hilly terrain…
    Your comments please..

    imranhkhan Reply:

    I think the acoustic method of detection would be even better in a hilly terrain as the hills restrict the sounds within the valley. Generally valleys are relatively quiet places and sound tends to travel a long distance. During the night the sensitivity of an acoustic device can be cranked up even further, making them effective over even longer range. Since they are passive devices, their power consumption is minimal and they can easily be powered by solar cells.

  6. Usman Malik on May 29th, 2011 2:39 pm

    A very informative read, thank you for sharing this.

  7. Liaquat Khan on May 29th, 2011 4:15 pm

    Imran, Very well written great piece of information, Thank you

  8. Shehzad Nawab on May 30th, 2011 6:20 am

    Sir ,

    I have heard about the technology for a long time – some people cast doubts about its efficiency – cant comment much because I don’t have in depth knowledge on it – but yes even if 1% useful – would have been great to use it as it was indigenous.

    I was forced to reply on this forum because of Mr Sohail Rabbani who very politely said ” the (na)Pak Fauj, that is — were not complicit, they were simply flat-footed and incompetent ”

    Just want to say few words to this guy – Please stop calling yourself Pakistani – you don’t deserve it – If you think Pak Fauj is Na-Pak then don’t be Na-Pak. Leave !

    Imran Khan Reply:

    I found the naPak comment unwarranted in the points being made. I also commented that labels like these are not only incorrect but also counter productive.
    Despite all that I wrote I think Pakistani military has performed a lot better than other institutions. But in the process they have spread themselves into areas that are not only not their forte but also dilute their efforts from their primary and constitutional responsibilities.

  9. Naeem Baig on June 1st, 2011 5:22 am

    One is vulnerable to loose balance in extreme joy or anger and can commit irreparable loss to himself and the organization by talking or writing under either of the influences. I wish the author had read his article thrice with an interval one day before it show the light of the day.

    Imran Khan Reply:

    There was no feelings of anger while writing this article. It was written primarily as a way of explaining that PAF was not complicit in the attack. It was also written to highlight the need to move some of the defense encroachments into the civil space back to civil. If any thing the feelings were that of sadness, because given the incredible opportunities offered to PAF, it is still blind as a bat in the Northern areas. The hope is that by highlighting it, someone in the PAF just might start making the right sort of decisions.

  10. Kashif on June 3rd, 2011 8:14 am

    Well its a pity how engineers are treated in Pakistan due to import lobby and kick backs. I have another example of our class- mate from uet in 1994 Nadeem with best project award which never saw the light. His project was based on microprocessor controlled traffic signal lights based on sensors. He developed a clever algorithm which will take input from traffic sensors and time the traffic signals accordingly. Although this is very common in USA, he realized that even the most busy roads in Lahore at the time were using just time base algorithm. He came on the tv with the chief of Lahore traffic police and all, but that was it. He was very upbeat that he can become entrepreneur and what not but at the end of the day import lobby and international companies with their bribes took precedence. These companies in 1990s were charging 28 lac rupees for simple 4 way crossings based on dumb timers, of course it included cost of trips to EU for our sarkari officers. The guy was offering his complete solution for less than 4 lacs but no foreign trips. The obvious happened in this case as well ;) nobody ever bought it and his project died in his garage.

  11. asquared on June 4th, 2011 8:13 pm

    Imran, you may find this interesting… I had a much larger collection of articles but cannot find them..

  12. Nayyar Hashmey on June 7th, 2011 12:03 pm

    Imran, I too, like many other Pakistanis have been baffled by the turn of events here in our dear homeland Pakistan, the land of the pure. There are so many queries, so many questions, questions that haunt us all in the dead of night, and the prime one is:
    What if a similar situation, a similar happening strikes us or a similar raid is either indirectly orchestrated or directly contemplated and conducted, as it was on the 2nd of May 2011? What will our civil leadership as well as our top brass do. Will they remain as helpless as they have been on the day the Navy Seals entered our sovereign land and did what they wanted to!
    Let me summarize a few scenarios here:
    1. If US once again does such similar act in Pakistan as their administration including president Obama himself have reputedly been saying [that they won’t hesitate in embarking upon such missions in future as well if they got credible information that if any or all of their declared enemy/ies like Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mullah Umar, Dr. Aiman al Zawahiri were hiding in Pakistan]. At the moment it is not the question why and how these people are in Pakistan or whether at all they are in Pakistan. Question is what if Americans do once again what they say they will, WHAT THEN?
    2. Indians or India-Americans-Israelis or Indians-Americans, Americans-Israelis or Israelis alone launch such mission???
    3. Situation appears so critical [in spite of full rhetoric by both our civilian leaders as well as the top brass that no such action will be tolerated any more]. But the question again is: What if any of these scenarios does happen, will our air force intercept such a mission when they don’t have any such thing to do i.e. the necessary detection system for low as well as high altitude air intrusion including those of the UAV’s!
    4. Would such rhetoric enable us intercept future intrusions in our territory?
    5. Isn’t it the time we do some soul searching and instead of making lofty statements, find some tangible solutions for such issues?
    Before I read your post, I had a lot of questions and it were these very questions that made me jot down my thoughts and put these up on my blog. Main theme of these assertions that appeared on the WoP site, has been the information that Martin Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel [manufactured by Martin Lockheed] stealth drone was the plane that was used to do the necessary reconnaissance on PAF’s capability to intercept such a mission and we saw on May 2 how meticulous and perfect the raid on a compound in Abbottabad has been.
    Then there is another aspect to this issue:
    Do we have the suitable equipment to hit the US drones? Our PAF chief is on record to affirm that if the government ordered the air force to hit the US drones, they would do it, when and wherever they will be. Which means the PAF does have such equipment. Contrary to this our defense minister Ch. Ahmad Mukhtar says that we don’t have the technology nor the equipment which could hit the planes like UAV’s flying at high altitudes and, therefore, we are unable to do anything in this regard. Since you seem to have had a career in the PAF, I would like your opinion in this regard as well.
    And thanks once again for such an insightful article.


  13. col khalid on July 8th, 2012 8:14 am

    dear imran asa
    i am really sad to know about the rolling back of your low flying ac detection project by the corrupted seniors for their small gains vis a vis national losses /self sufficiency by now in a big way.but i fail to under stand your acceptance of such a big mischief quietly ,where as from a person like you should have protested at all the forum avail intelligently with full voice.that effort of yours might have even blocked the roots of corrupted leader ship in each and every sphere of our society and leading us towards black hole i.e. complete collapse.

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    imranhkhan Reply:

    Sure go ahead.