The JF-17 Thunder is a third generation plus fighter aircraft jointly developed by Pakistan and China. It can be considered a show-case of Sino-Pak defence cooperation. Pakistan continues to be China’s strongest ally. Their relationship became very close after Sino-Indian war of 1962. Pakistan ceded to China, 5,180 Sq. Km of land in Karakoram region of north Kashmir in 1963. In return, China began providing economic and military assistance. After dismembered of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan forged a formal strategic alliance in 1972. In 1978 Chinese operationalised the Karakorum highway linking northern Pakistan with western China. China later became Pakistan’s largest arms supplier and third largest trading partner. In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, China-Pakistan trade volume totaled US$13.2 billion, accounting for 16.4% of Pakistan’s total trade volume albeit heavily skewed in China’s favour at US $11.49 billion vs. US$ 1.74 billion.
While China supports Pakistan on Kashmir, Pakistan in turn supports China on Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. Pakistan also acts as a link between China and the Muslim world. China’s national strategic interest to get port facilities and a highway close to the oil rich middle-east made it commit US$ 46 Billion in the Gwadar deep-water port and the road and rail corridor leading to it, called the China Pakistan economic Corridor (CPEC). Long term plan is to lay an oil/gas pipeline from Gwadar to central China. CPEC remains the ‘crown-jewel’ of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Pakistan continues to be a key element of China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy to create sphere of influence around India. The relations between Pakistan and China have been described as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey, and so on. For Pakistan, China is a low-cost-high-value deterrent against India. China is Pakistan’s “time-tested all-weather friend”. China has for long helped Pakistan build its military-industrial complex, and according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar, are the biggest purchasers of Chinese weapons. In the 10 years period (2008-18), China has supplied weapons worth over $6.4 billion to Pakistan, with the US coming a distant second at $2.5 billion. Aerospace cooperation has been the lynch-pin of Sino-Pak relationship.
Sino-Pak Military Production Relationship Evolves
In the early 1980s China started making huge investments in its military industrial complex. It was looking for partners and markets to buy its still low end products and platforms. Pakistan also need an ally to balance strong dominance of USA in their relationship. China initially helped Pakistan set up munitions factories and upgrading the ordnance factory at Wah near Rawalpindi. China also allowed license production of MBT-2000 (Al-Khalid) tank which was essentially a Chinese variant of Russian T-90. It also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi. China is building the most advanced naval warships for Pakistan. China has also committed to supply Pakistan With 8 new stealth attack submarines by 2028, four of which will be constructed in China and the remaining four in Pakistan. Significantly, all these involve transfer of technology to Pakistan. China reportedly supplied Pakistan with nuclear technology including perhaps the blueprint for Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. After India signed the 123 civil nuclear-agreement with USA, China agreed to set up two nuclear power stations in Pakistan.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the 7th largest Air Force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world with 400 combat and over 200 other support aircraft. China started supplying PAF F-6 aircraft (air defence version of MiG-19) in 1965. 253 F-6 aircraft were finally supplied. A squadron of Harbin H-5, a Chinese version of Russian Illyshin IL-28 was formed in early 70s. China helped establish Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra in 1973. In mid 1980s PAF received 55 A-5Cs (Chinese MiG-19 ground attack variants) and 186 Chengdu F-7s (Chinese MiG-21). USA froze F-16 deliveries and stoppage of spares for many years as a result of Pressler amendment, 1990, which banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan after nuclear tests. Hereafter, Pakistan went whole hog to China for all its aerospace needs. In 2007, as a part of a joint-venture project, China rolled-out a ‘designed for Pakistan’ Fighter JF-17 ‘Thunder’. Currently PAF has 150 aircraft, and numbers will increase to 300 later. 36 Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ fighters (PAF designation FC-20) are under supply. This tail-less delta wing with canards is being compared by the Chinese with JAS 39 and Dassault Rafale. J-10 B will one day have the AESA radar, and be equipped with the improved version of the failed Chinese WS-10A engine which is a copy of AL-31FN. Short range Air-to-air missiles PL-8 and PL-9, medium-range radar-guided air-to-air missiles PL-11 and PL-12, precision guided munitions including laser-guided bombs, anti-ship missiles YJ-9K and anti-radiation missiles PJ-9 are part of the package. 6 ZDK-03 Chinese AWACS have been inducted. 60 Chinese designed K-8 Karakorum intermediate jet trainers are currently in service and more are on order. PAF has also received four CH-4 Recce-cum-strike drones which can carry up to 4 PGMs and reportedly have endurance of 30 hours. PAF has bought Chinese SD-10 (ShanDian-10) radar-guided, mid-range homing air-to-air missiles to equip the JF-17 fighters. China has transferred 34 M-11, road-mobile, short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) with related technology, and manufacturing capability to Pakistan. Despite Chinese pledges to the contrary, it has continued to provide Pakistan with specialty steels, guidance systems and technical expertise in the latter’s effort to develop long-range ballistic missiles. Hatf, Shaheen and Anza series of missiles have been built using Chinese assistance. China helped Pakistan develop nuclear warheads that directly contributed to Pakistan having nearly 150 nuclear warheads as on date.
JF-17 ‘Thunder’ – a Joint Success Story
The JF-17 Thunder or CAC FC-1 Xiaolong is a light-weight single-engine, third-generation-plus multirole combat aircraft jointly developed by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China. The JF-17 can be used for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack, and air interception. Its designation “JF-17” by Pakistan is short for “Joint Fighter-17”. This fly-by-wire, 1.8 Mach fighter is powered by Russian Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine. Russia has cleared up to 400 engines to be supplied to Pakistan. It could later be powered by the Chinese indigenous Guizhou WS-13 engine. Aircraft has wide-angle Head Up Display, aerial refuelling, a data-link, and KLJ-7 Doppler radar which is far more powerful than the Thales RC-400 multi-mode radar earlier planned. Aircraft has an electronic warfare suite. The JF-17 can deploy diverse ordnance including air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, and the 23 mm GSh-23-2 twin barrel cannon. JF-17 is designed to employ Chinese weapons on its seven hard-points which can carry external load of 6,700 lb (3100 Kg). Weapons include the PL-5 short-range air-to-air missile, LS-6 ‘Thunderstone’ GPS-guided glide bombs, and YJ-12 supersonic and YJ-83 subsonic anti-shipping missiles. PAF maintains one squadron in the maritime strike role. PAF had ordered 600 Chinese PL-12 radar-guided beyond-visual range (BVR) missile with a range of around 80 km. Chinese claim that missile is comparable to the American AIM-120 AMRAAM and the Russian R-77.
Thunder is claimed to be highly manoeuvrable. The costs were kept low by borrowing technologies developed for Chinese J-10 fighter. The JF-17 is to become the backbone of the PAF complementing the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. The PAF inducted its first JF-17 squadron in February 2010. In 2015 Pakistan produced 16 JF-17s. As of 2016, Pakistan is believed to have the capacity to produce 25 JF-17 per year. Work share wise, 58% of the airframe is Pakistani and 42% Chinese/Russian-origin. As of 2019 Pakistan operates around 100 JF-17s in five operational squadrons, plus a testing and training unit. Nearly 70 jets are of Block 1 Type, and remaining are Block Type II. The aerial refuelling got introduced in Block II. In May 2019, China has delivered the first overhauled multi-role JF-17 fighter jet back to PAF. The last three JF-17 Block II aircraft were delivered to the PAF in June 2019.
A Block III variant of the JF-17 is under development. Production of the Block III aircraft has reportedly started, according to the fighter jet’s chief designer Yang Wei, who is also developer of the J-20. It will have the Chinese KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, digital fly-by-wire flight control system, a new helmet mounted display, network-centric warfare capability, an infra red search and track system, new electronic warfare systems, weapons upgraded and a radar cross-section reducing ‘pseudo-stealthy’ airframe. KLJ-7A, can track 15 targets and engage 4 targets simultaneously. The weapons include new longer range and more sophisticated air to air missile, the PL-15 (150 km). The Block III is being called a 4th generation-plus fighter by some. The Block III with AESA and PL-15 combination with a 150km range could outrange analogous systems with IAF. It was expected to make maiden flight by the end of 2019. The PAF plans to operationally deploy the latest variant of the JF-17 fighter jet in 2020. PAF plans to procure fifty more JF-17, Block III standard by 2024 and 26 two-seat JF-17Bs with additional fuel stored in a dorsal fin and enhanced application to training and possibly strike missions. Older JF-17s may also be upgraded to the Block III variant later. The initial JF-17 aircraft were priced quite cheap at $15-28 million. The new Block III, which will supposedly cost around $32 million each. Since its induction in 2011, the JF-17 Thunder has accumulated over 25,000 hours of operational flying. JF-17B is the two-seater combat variant which is also used for training. It serves as a more effective electronic warfare platform in which the second seat can accommodate a weapons systems officer (WSO). Three JF-17’s have been sold to Nigerian Air Force in 2018, and have delivered at least six out of an order of eighteen JF-17Ms to Myanmar. China and Pakistan are aggressively trying to find possible export customers. Targeted countries are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. The reasonable price makes it attractive.
Tejas LCA Vs JF-17
Comparisons are being drawn between the JF-17 and India’s Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ LCA MkI. The Tejas uses many new technologies including large amounts of composite materials, advanced avionics and a unique aerodynamic configuration, and has a good potential to be expanded into variants. JF-17 is the aircraft of today and the Tejas the aircraft of tomorrow. The JF-17 costs close to US$ 25 million. The LCA Mk 1 costs around US$ 28 million. LCA and JF-17 are competing for the Malaysian contract. LCA Tejas has been manufactured by a single country, and is claimed to be the world’s lightest supersonic fighter. Currently only one squadron with 16 aircraft has been formed. Aircraft production is still to be ramped up to 16 aircraft a year. The more comparable LCA Mk 1A will have its first flight only in 2021. The JF-17 is joint project between China and Pakistan. More than 100 are already flying. The aircraft production is now stable at nearly 24 aircraft a year. The Block III variant with a modern AESA radar is likely to fly in 2019. There are already two foreign customers flying the JF-17. JF-17 has been operational for the past 12 years and serves in six squadrons at full operational capability, whereas the Tejas has only one squadron. The contenders have “fairly similar” performance. JF-17’s Russian engine has maintenance and serviceability issues well known to Malaysia from their MiG-29 experience. LCA’s General Electric F404 engine is much more reliable.
Pakistan chose the Chinese Chengdu J-10B fighter for orders over the Lockheed Martin F-16C Block 52/60, the most advanced F-16, currently in PAF inventory. It was claimed that the J-10 B had more advanced technology such as its radar and OLS targeting system, and its new generation stealthy features, such as its DSI intake giving it an edge over the F-16. Beyond the JF-17, China and Pakistan are involved in several projects to enhance military and weaponry systems. K-8 Karakorum advance training aircraft, tailor made for PAF based on the Chinese domestic Hongdu L-15. China supports Pakistan in space technology, and AWACS systems, Pakistan Army has imported Chinese-built Low to Medium Altitude Air Defence System (LOMADS) LY-80.
Sino-Pak Air Exercises
PAF and Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) have participated in a series of exercises called Shaheen since 2011 to improve inter-operability to respond to ‘mutual threats’. The missions have included simulated air combat, surface attack missions, air-refuelling and logistic support missions. Shaheen-I was held in Pakistan. Shaheen-II was held in September 2013 in Hotan in Western China. PAF had then sent Mirage III EA and F-7G (MiG-21 class) aircraft. PLAAF fielded J-10 multi-role fighters and J-7C. The more manoeuvrable J-10s acted as the aggressors. The three week-long Shaheen-III exercise was held in May 2014 at PAF Rafiqi airbase near Shorkot in Western Punjab. The exercises gave both the Air Forces opportunity to improve specific skills and to practice Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT). It also allowed to train under different threat environment and training philosophies. PLAAF was reportedly impressed by PAF’s aggressive combat style and by the streamlined efficient training approach. These exercises were of special importance to PAF as it gave them exposure to fly against Chinese Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30MKK aircraft which are similar to the IAF frontline SU-30 MKI aircraft and to help them validate their tactics.
The most recent Shaheen VIII (Eagle VIII) was also held at Hotan in south-western Xinjiang in August 2019, primarily to develop a mechanism for interoperability of both air forces. This was the first war-game after the Abrogation of Article 370. PAF participated with JF-17s while China fielded J-10 and J-11 fighters which are PLAAF’s backbone. The J-10 is more or less a version” of the abandoned IAI Lavi fighter program. The J-11 is a copied variant of the Russian Su-27 air superiority fighter.
Aerospace Implications for India
Close ties between PLAAF and PAF force IAF to cater for a two front war and to acquire advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. PLAAF with nearly 1700 aircraft (600 4th Gen plus) and aggressively modernizing, and nearly 450 aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and the soon to be inducted state-of-the art aircraft carriers, makes a great air power. PAF has 22 fighter squadrons and has target of 28. Current IAF: PAF ratio of 1.5:1 is a far cry from the once 3:1 dominance. The Force ratio edge of IAF over PAF is thus at an all-time low. With eight Chinese airbases in the Tibet Autonomous Region and many more in Chengdu Military region east of Myanmar, any collusion with PAF would encircle India and create significant air threat to counter. India thus needs to re-look at the force structure. IAF is currently down to 30 squadrons. Many Indian defence analysts believe that to cater for two-fronts, there was a need to eventually increase combat squadrons from hitherto targeted 42, to around 50 squadrons. IAF immediately requires advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. The Defence R&D and Indian aircraft industry too would have to get their act right. IAF’s long list of acquisitions of 114 medium multi-role fighters, the hastening of development and production of the LCA and AMCA, and the various other force multipliers need to unfold quickly. All this would require significant funding over the next three decades and defence budget increased to at least 2.5 percent of GDP from current 1.41 percent. IAF needs to deploy more Surface-to-Air missiles on China border. There is a need for IAF to build up force levels quickly lest IAF gets left too far behind PLAAF and PAF bridges the gap.
The changed South Asian dynamic (with China rapidly expanding its footprint) necessitates action options for India to be considered on an urgent basis. For a lasting solution it is essential to break up the Pakistan-China nexus. India’s muscle flexing, and the military response for terrorist provocations – air and land strikes – have driven Islamabad deeper into China’s camp. Pakistan is strong enough to be a spoiler and, in cahoots with China, pose a substantial problem. Simultaneously, India needs prioritizing strategic and expeditionary military capabilities against China and for distant operations jointly with friendly states in the Indian Ocean Region and in Southeast Asia will secure India’s extended security perimeter.
This Article was written for Center for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)