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South Asia , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

The Importance of the JF-17 Thunder; How Pakistan's Indigenous Fighter Program Will Help End the Country's Reliance on Foreign Arms

February 03rd - 2018

In 2007 the Pakistani Air Force inducted its first ever JF-17 Thunder light multirole fighters. The fighters were co-produced by China's Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, and the program represented the culmination of decades of close cooperation between the two countries' defence industries. The development of the fighter led to significant technological transfers to Pakistan and reduced the country's absolute reliance on imported fighter designs. Pakistan had previously relied heavily on its fleet of over 70 U.S. F-16 Falcons and dated second generation French Mirage platforms.

The development of an indigenous aircraft design with Chinese cooperation has proven to be a highly advantageous agreement for Pakistan's military and its defence industries, particularly when compared with the prospects of a continued reliance on imported Western fighters. Producing the JF-17 indigenously has allowed Pakistan to regularly modify the fighter domestically and modernise its design. Three blocks of JF-17 fighters have been planned, with Block Two having entered production in 2013 and Block Three currently undergoing testing. Block Two fighters demonstrated improved avionics, a higher payload, superior electronic warfare capabilities and aerial refuelling capabilities. Block Three in turn, set to enter service in 2019, boasts further avionics advancements, new helmet mounted and multi functional displays, a search and track system utilising both an advanced AESA radar and infrared, an a superior engine capable of reaching Mach 2.

While in many ways inferior to the latest and most capable variants of the U.S. F-16 and Chinese J-10, both light platforms with a similar role to the Pakistani fighter, the key value of the JF-17 for Pakistan is its ability to facilitate the development of a domestic military industrial base for modern fighter aircraft - an invaluable asset few countries have. While Pakistan, as with other operators of the F-16, previously needed to regularly send its fighters to the United States for refurbishment and modernisation for months at a time, the induction of the JF-17 allows the county to upgraded the designs of its new fighters domestically and adjust designs for future platforms to accommodate upgrades. Several of Pakistan's F-16 fighters are currently out of service undergoing modernisation in the United States.

Despite the advanced technological capabilities of their weapons systems, Western arms producers more than any others have shown themselves to allow political concerns to influence their export policies - to the extent that they have on several occasions broken contracts and cut former clients off from arms and spare parts as a means of exerting political control over or punishing these nations. There are several prominent examples, one of which was Pakistan's neighbour Iran which not only was unable to purchase spare parts for or upgrade its sizeable fleet of U.S. built F-4 and F-14 fighter jets following its 1979 Islamic revolution - but also had funds paid in advance for F-16 fighters and AIM-54 missiles frozen by the U.S. This seriously hindered the country's ability to defend itself against the Iraqi invasion which ensued the following year. Sudan, Egypt, Indonesia, Argentina and China among others similarly had arms cut off as part of American sanctions when their governments enacted policies which were not favoured by Washington, including suspension of the delivery of much needed F-16 fighters to Pakistan in the 1980s. For Pakistan's JF-17 on the other hand, the risk of having parts cut off based on Washington's approval or disapproval of Islamabad's policy are nil - as Western nations have no involvement in the program. The importance of the self reliance that developing fighters indigenously provides Pakistan is not to be underestimated.  

While the JF-17 is outmatched by the U.S. F-16 in most of its capabilities including speed and firepower, it is far easier to maintain and can be produced at less than half the cost of the American platform despite roughly analogous capabilities. Lower maintenance and operational costs are also set to translate to superior training for Pakistani pilots, which could well prove an invaluable asset in future.

The JF-17 is set to compensate for any disparity with the F-16 in its ability to carry more sophisticated Chinese missile systems, which are set to provide the Pakistani fighters with a significant advantage over the F-16 in beyond visual range combat. While the most advanced long ranged air to air missile deployed by the F-16 is the AIM-120B, a 75km range platform with somewhat unremarkable manoeuvrability, the JF-17 has been armed with the Chinese PL-12, an overall far more capable missile platform retaining a range of 100km and coming at a far lower cost than the AIM-120. Further enhancing the JF-17's capabilities, China is set to induct the ramjet powered PL-15 air to air missile in the near future. A game changing weapon with a range of over 300km, should the JF-17 platforms be equipped with these platforms they will prove lethal at long range - particularly when coordinating with AWACS. While the U.S. is unlikey to develop significantly more capable missile platforms for the F-16, focusing most of its research and development efforts on more modern platforms such  as the F-18E and F-35, modern missiles for the J-10 and JF-17 is set to continue to be developed by China which will allow the platform's weapons systems to be modernised in a way the F-16 cannot.

Whether Pakistan will continue to use its cooperation with China to develop superior aircraft, possibly high performance fighters equivalent to the F-15 or J-11, is yet to be seen. There have however been indications from the Pakistani military that the country has taken steps to begin the joint development of a fifth generation fighter under 'Project AZM', which could well lead to the production of a light next generation successor to the JF-17.


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