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Pakistan’s Arms Exports Soar in 2021, Surpassing India

Driven by the JF-17 fighter jet, 2021 was a good year for Pakistani defense exports. But can it sustain the momentum?

Pakistan defense arms JF-17 exports
In 2021, Pakistan delivered three JF-17 fighter aircraft to Nigeria, driving a rise in its arms exports. (Image courtesy of Rob Schleiffert, under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

Pakistan exported $53 million in arms in 2021, reaching a level the country has not seen in over 15 years.

In 2021, Pakistan’s defense exports exceeded those of neighbor and archrival India, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global arms transfers. SIPRI reports that India exported $33 million in arms last year.

Neither India nor Pakistan ranks among the world’s largest arms exporters. Given the low base, the defense exports of both countries fluctuate widely year by year. And this high variability is likely to persist in the immediate future.

JF-17 Fighter Aircraft Drives Pakistani Defense Exports

The upswing in Pakistani arms exports is being driven by the JF-17 aircraft, which is jointly developed by the Pakistan Aeronautics Complex and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation.

Last year, Pakistan delivered three JF-17 aircraft to Nigeria, which intends to use the single-engine, lightweight fighter jet for counterinsurgency operations targeting Boko Haram.

Future buyers of the JF-17, shown here, could include Azerbaijan and Iraq. (Image courtesy of Shimin Gu, under a CC BA-SA 4.0 license)

At least seven JF-17 variants have been purchased by Myanmar in recent years, though the transactions are likely recorded as transfers from China in the SIPRI database. Pakistan has been in talks with numerous countries, including Azerbaijan and Iraq, over the sale of the latest JF-17 Block-3 variant, which features a number of upgrades, including to its sensors and radar system.

India and Pakistan Are Net Arms Importers But They’ve Scored Some Recent Export Wins

Pakistan’s arms exports in 2021 were its best since 2005, when it exported a total of $24 million in aircraft and armored vehicles to Bangladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. If Pakistan can sustain exports of the JF-17 — and that’s a big “if” — then it can grab a share of the lower end of the fighter jet market and improve the economies of scale.

While Indian exports declined in 2021, the previous year was a good one for New Delhi. In 2021, India exported $148 million in ships and missiles to Myanmar. India’s historical defense export markets have been smaller regional states, including Mauritius and Myanmar, though, in 2020, it exported $32 million in sensors to Armenia — a rival to Pakistan’s allies Azerbaijan and Turkey.

This year began with a big win for New Delhi. In January, the Phillippines signed a contract to purchase the BrahMos missile system jointly manufactured by India and Russia. The $375 million deal could be complicated by the ongoing war in Ukraine and Western-led efforts to punish Russian for its invasion.

India is a net weapons importer and has consistently ranked as one of the world’s top two arms importers for well over a decade, according to SIPRI. Meanwhile, Pakistani arms imports rose from $760 million in 2020 to $884 million in 2021, with $753 million of that — or 85 percent — coming from China.

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