China Designed and Substantially Produced JF-17 Thunder Fighter – Crown Jewel of Sino-Pak Aviation Relations

anil chopra, air power asia, JF-17 aircrfat

The latest Block III variant of Chinese ‘designed for Pakistan’ multirole fighter aircraft JF-17 ‘Thunder’ reportedly flew its maiden flight on December 15, 2019 in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. The world has been closely watching China’s fast emerging military aircraft industry. JF-17 whose development began much later than India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ was inducted into Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in 2010, and is the ‘crown jewel’ of Sino-Pak aviation connect. The near 120 plus aircraft fleet has accumulated around 25,000 hours of operational flying. The aircraft also participated in PAF’s ‘Operation Swift Retort‘ on February 27, 2019. PAF has also used them to bomb militant positions in North Waziristan, delivering both unguided and precision guided munitions (PGM). The Block III brings in advancements in avionics, and an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar paired with an infrared search and track (IRST) system, among others. PAF describes it a ‘fourth generation plus’ fighter. Induction of Block III is expected to start later in 2020. Aviation analysts often critically compare the JF-17 and LCA programs.

First flight of the JF-17 Block 3. Picture Credit: theweek.in

Sino-Pak Aerospace Cooperation

          The PAF is the 7th largest Air Force in the world with around 410 combat, and 200 support aircraft. China started supplying PAF F-6 aircraft (air defence version of MiG-19) in 1965. A squadron of Harbin H-5, a Chinese version of Russian Illyshin IL-28 was formed in early 1970s. China helped establish Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) at Kamra in 1973. The complex is wholly owned by PAF with all appointments controlled by PAF Chief. In mid 1980s PAF received A-5Cs (Chinese MiG-19 ground attack variants) and Chengdu F-7s (Chinese MiG-21).

Picture Credit: tribune.com.pk

          Pressler amendment, 1990, banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan after nuclear tests. USA froze F-16 deliveries and stoppage of spares for many years. 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 the JF-17. Currently PAF has 120 plus of these, and numbers will increase to 200 plus later. For long PAF was negotiating with China for 36 Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ fighters (PAF designation FC-20), the tail-less delta wing with canards which Chinese claim comparable to JAS 39 and Dassault Rafale. The negotiations were called off in 2016. 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 has been supporting Pakistan’s nuclear program.

ZDK-03 Chinese AWACS. Picture Credit: globalsecurity.org

JF-17 ‘Thunder’ – The Success Story

          The JF-17 Thunder or CAC FC-1 Xiaolong is a light-weight single-engine,  multirole combat aircraft designed by China and produced jointly by PAC and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China. The aircraft can be used for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack, and air interception. This fly-by-wire, 1.8 Mach fighter is powered by Russian Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine. China had contracted to buy 100 RD-93 engines from Russia for the FC-1 (JF-17), with an option to buy another 400. The aircraft could later be powered by the Chinese indigenous Guizhou WS-13 engine. Aircraft has wide-angle Head Up Display, aerial refueling, a data-link, and KLJ-7 Doppler radar. The aircraft has  an electronic warfare suite. It can carry 6,700 lb (3100 Kg) external load on seven hard-points. Weapons are mostly Chinese, and include the Gsh 23 mm gun, 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 (SD-10A) radar-guided beyond-visual range (BVR) missiles with a range of around 80 km. Chinese claim that missile is comparable to the American AIM-120 AMRAAM and the Russian R-77.     

SD-10A (PL 12) on display with the JF-17 light-weight fighter at the Farnborough International Airshow 2010. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

          Aircraft costs have been kept low by borrowing technologies developed for Chinese J-10 fighter. The JF-17 is gradually becoming the backbone of the PAF. In 2015 PAC produced 16 JF-17s. Currently Pakistan is believed to have capacity to produce 25 JF-17 per year. Work share wise, 58% of the airframe is Pakistani and 42% Chinese. As of 2019 Pakistan operates nearly 120 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 refueling got introduced in Block II. The last three JF-17 Block II aircraft were delivered to the PAF in June 2019. Meanwhile in May 2019, China has delivered the first overhauled JF-17 back to PAF.

A great comparison of a PAF JF-17 Block 2 vs the Block 3 prototype. Image on Twitter by @RupprechtDeino (Image via Dazzler/PDF)

The Block III Variant

            A Block III variant of the JF-17 is under final development. 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, a holographic Head Up Display, an infra red search and track system, new electronic warfare systems, weapons upgrade and a radar cross-section reducing ‘pseudo-stealthy’ airframe. Pakistan is reportedly also still considering Leonardo’s Grifo-E AESA radar system. The aircraft is initially armed with two PL-5EII short-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs). The missile has a dual band, multi-element detector as well as a laser proximity fuse and an all-aspect capability. PAF has ordered 900. Later, PAF claims, they may get longer range and more sophisticated PL-15 AAM (150 km). The first two aircraft have reportedly already entered production at the Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF) final assembly line at PAC Kamra. The Block III is being called a 4th generation-plus fighter by some. The JF-17 constitutes the ‘backbone’ of PAF and after February 2019 engagement, claimed to be ‘battle proven’. The AESA, and if they get PL-15 combination with a 150km range, PAF claims would outrange all IAF aircraft till Rafale and upgraded SU-30 MKI enter service.

Display of a Squadron of JF-17 Thunders of Pakistan Airforce at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra, Pakistan Picture Credit: steemit.com

          The PAF plans to operationally deploy the latest variant in 2020. PAF has initially ordered 50 Block III to be delivered by 2024. Older JF-17s may also be upgraded to the Block III variant later. The JF-17 Block II variant was known to cost around US$ 25 million. The new Block III, will reportedly cost around $32 million each. The 26 two-seat JF-17B ordered will be used for training, and is more effective electronic warfare platform with second seat having a weapons systems officer (WSO) for operational role. The first 8 JF-17B aircraft were produced in record time of just five months, and inducted by December 2019. PAF expects to receive a further 14 JF-Bs in 2020 and four more in 2021.

JF-17 Block III compared to F-16 Fighting Falcon C. Picture Credit: globalvillagespace.com

            Three JF-17’s were sold to Nigerian Air Force in 2018. At least six out of an order of eighteen JF-17Ms delivered 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.

JF-17B Two Seat Variant. Picture Credit: pac.org.pk

Tejas LCA Vs JF-17

          Comparisons are being drawn between the JF-17 and India’s LCA. 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. Some call JF-17 the aircraft of today and the Tejas the aircraft of tomorrow. The JF-17 Block II costs close to US$ 25 million, vis-a-vis the LCA Mk 1 around US$ 28 million.

Jf-17 on top and LCA Mk 1 Below. Picture Credit: fighterjetsworld.com

            LCA Tejas has been manufactured by a single country, and is claimed to be the world’s lightest supersonic fighter. Second LCA squadron has just been formed. Only 20 aircrfat in service still. Aircraft production is still at 8-12 a year, and is planned to be ramped up to 16 a year. The more comparable LCA Mk 1A will have its first flight only in 2021 and induct earliest by 2023. Indian government has recently cleared 83 LCA MK1A to be purchased for Rs 39,000 Crore (US$ 5.4 billion). 

LCA and JF 17 cockpits. Picture Credit: Pinterest

          The JF-17 is joint project between China and Pakistan. Nearly 120 are already flying. The aircraft production at nearly 25 aircraft a year is high. The Block III will induct in 2020. There are already two foreign customers flying the JF-17. JF-17 has been in service for last ten years and serves in six squadrons at full operational capability, whereas the Tejas has only two squadrons with incomplete aircraft after four years. LCA and JF-17 are competing for the Malaysian contract. The two 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.

Picture Credit: Pinterest

JF-17 in Op Swift Retort

          As response to IAF strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammad terror training camp at Balakot, PAF launched Operation ‘Swift Retort’ between 1000-1030 h on February 27, 2019. Their aim was to regain honour, and stabilise domestic negative opinion. It was also to demonstrate a capability of equivalence of firepower, and not let IAF make the new normal. They wanted to achieve their tactical aim without escalation. They aimed to maintain numerical superiority for that short period, to ensure strikes went through. PAF was also to prevent IAF Combat Air Patrol engaging their aircraft. Lastly to shoot Indian aircraft that tried to engage them. PAF fielded nearly 25 aircraft. 12 x F-16s, 8 x JF-17 and rest Mirage III/Vs. IAF had 2 x SU-30 MKI in Dharmshala area, 2 x Mirage 2000 (upgrade) in North Kashmir, and 4 x Bison in the Valley. The F-16s flew supersonic at high altitude, staying within PoK, and aided by Saab ERIEYE, launched AIM-120 AMRAAMs at Su-30 MKI. Sukhois avoided the AMRAAMs with tactical cranking and chaff assisted by AWACS and IACCS, but could not launch R-77s due snap up range limit. No Su-30 was hit. 4 x JF-17s got into BVR Hot/Cold tactical action with the Mirage 2000s, with both looking for kill opportunity. The second JF-17 formation with GPS guidance satellite-aided inertial navigation system (GPS/INS)-guided bombs with REK kits, were thwarted by IAF Mirages, and forced to drop their load and turn back. PAF Mirage III/Vs launched 5 x H4 Standoff Weapons that did not hit the targets. Meanwhile IAF scrambled 4xBison from Srinagar. One of which, flown by Wg Cdr Abhinandan crossed the LoC around Naoshera. The Bison fired an R-73 and reportedly shot an F-16 before being hit by a PAF AMRAAM or ground air defence fire. Meanwhile additional MiG-29s (upgrade) and Su 30s came to the tactical area but PAF had withdrew. PAF reportedly used Radio jamming. Despite PAF firing 5 x AMRAAMs no Sukhoi was shot. H4 bombs did not hit the targets.

JF 17 Weapons. Picture Credit: globalvillagespace.com

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-refueling 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 maneuverable 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 deeply impressed by PAF’s aggressive combat style and brave fighting spirit. 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 Indian Air Force frontline SU-30 MKI aircraft and to help them validate their tactics. PAF so far has held operational exercises with air forces of United States, Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Egypt and few others. The most recent Shaheen VIII (Eagle VIII) was also held at Hotan in south-western Xinjiang in August 2019. This was the first war-game after the Abrogation of Article 370 in India. PAF participated with JF-17s while China fielded J-10 and J-11 fighters which are PLAAF’s backbone. The J-11 is a copied variant of the Russian Su-27 air superiority fighter.

Shaheen VIII Exercise Hotan. Picture Credit: geo.tv

Implications and Options India

          Despite mounting economic pressure, and low GDP growth rate (3.29%) Pakistan’s defence modernisation continues. Close ties between PLAAF and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) force IAF to cater for a two front war and to acquire advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. IAF is at an all time low of 30 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis authorised 42. With PAFs 19 squadrons, the IAF force advantage is down to 1.6:1, from 3:1 in 2001. PAF will soon regain to 22 fighter squadrons. IAF already has 13 Su-30 MKI squadrons, one more will add this year. That effectively means 45 percent of the IAF, and it puts IAF deeper back in the Russian basket. Meanwhile IAF Has identified 21 MiG 29s with good airframe life. These are proposed to be bought soon and upgraded. The operators tell us that MiG 29 upgrade has greatly increased operational capability. The response to IAF’s RFI for the 114 medium multi-role combat planes was received from the six global companies in July 2018. The RFP for the same has still to be issued. Going by the past, even if the RFP was to be issued today, the induction can begin not earlier than 2025. By then even the five MiG 21 Bison squadrons would be phased out. One can see further depletions in IAF combat strength. IAF needs both quality and quantity. LCA production has to be ramped to 16 with immediate effect from current around 6-8 aircraft. The LCA Mk1A contract for 83 aircraft has already been cleared. Its development must be pushed at highest levels. MMRCA 2.0 process has to be hastened. Also the development of LCA Mk 2, medium weight fighter (MWF) must be driven. India must choose a reliable partner for hand holding on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project. After one year of Balakot, there is a need to invest in modern encrypted radios, radio jammers, and more long range air-to-air missiles.  Days ahead are tough, only the tough can get going. It is time to stop pretending and face the reality head on.

Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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