ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is integrating its nuclear-capable Hatf VII/Vengeance VII Ra’ad air launched cruise missile onto its JF-17 Thunder aircraft, but analysts are unsure if this signifies a nuclear deterrence role for the aircraft.
Air Commodore Khalid Mahmood at the JF-17 Project Management Office said integration work was ongoing with Chinese and Pakistani weapons, and that “most weapons have been integrated”.
“Ra’ad and the H-4 [glide bomb] will be for the Block I and Block II” aircraft currently in or about to enter service, not just the forthcoming Block III variant, he said.
Former Air Force pilot and analyst Kaiser Tufail said, “It makes good sense to get on with the wiring as well as flight trials of these weapons on the JF-17 at this stage. For one thing, all subsequent production aircraft would have the mod integrated from the outset and there will be no need for retrofits that also result in long down times at the flight lines. Secondly, the whole process is lengthy and it was about time we started it.”
He added, “Possibly, by the time the mods are in place on the JF-17, the first of the older Mirages would be retiring.”
The Mirage III carries the Ra’ad and is the delivery platform for Pakistan’s airborne arm of its nuclear deterrent. Its avionics were upgraded in the 1990s under the Retrofit Of Strike Element (ROSE) program.
They have been in service for many years, however, and are approaching the end of their useful lives.
Most recent major military developments have aimed to strengthen the nuclear deterrent, such as the unveiling of the Hatf IX/Nasr battlefield ballistic missile and the submarine-launched variant of the Babur cruise missile.
However, analysts are uncertain if the airborne arm of the nuclear triad is set to be similarly strengthened with the introduction of the JF-17 in this role.
Tufail said the Ra’ad’s integration onto the JF-17 would be very beneficial.
“It would certainly add to PAF’s [Pakistan Air Force’s] stealthy ingress capability [due to low cross-section of the cruise missile], considering that the parent aircraft do not have it,” he said.
However, Mansoor Ahmed, from Quaid-e-Azam University’s Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, and who specializes in Pakistan’s national deterrent and delivery program, is unconvinced that replacement of the Mirages with the JF-17 is imminent.
“The Mirage is a tested and well-integrated platform, it would take some time to have the Thunder in large numbers to do the job”, he said.
“Secondly, how good are the Thunder’s ground attack/avionics capabilities compared to the ROSE Mirages?”
Tufail, who flew the Mirage operationally, does not see the Ra’ad-capable Mirages as “less credible as a nuclear deterrent in any way.”
“However, the JF-17 would certainly be a better and more modern platform, about which there should be no debate. As and when the JF-17s attain full operational capability with the Ra’ad, that role will be withdrawn from the Mirages, but that is not to mean that the Mirages would be retired — they do a lot more than just carry Ra’ads,” he said.
“The Mirages would be retired as they outlive their airframe hours or run out of spares support, which I see starting to happen over the next five years or so.”
Depending on the material state of the Mirage aircraft, Ahmed said they should give the PAF enough time to bring the Block III variant of the JF-17 into service, which is to have an improved avionics suite.
Mahmood said the avionics suite of the Block III variant is not yet finalized as the PAF is “looking for something to give more operational capability, and still examining avionics options.”
A perennial issue for the JF-17 has been the question of the continued availability of its powerplant. Currently, it is powered by a Russian Klimov RD-93.
It has been speculated for some time that the JF-17 will eventually be powered by a Chinese engine, a possible thrust vector control (TVC) variant of the Guizhou WS-13 Taishan.
Mahmood, however, would only say that the engine “depends on customers,” and that “we have options with regards to engines; we’re not restricted.”
Tufail is unconvinced a TVC variant is a necessity at present.
“Personally, I don’t see the JF-17 as a ‘do-all’ fighter, and I feel that it needs other areas to be looked at for modifications, rather than just follow fads,” he said.
“TVC helps in air combat maneuvering, whose days are numbered, if one goes by the technological developments underway. If that be true, it would make much more sense to focus on enhancing BVR [beyond visual range] capabilities, including radar and weapons, which need to be constantly upgraded during the life of an aircraft.”
The JF-17 is only rated to plus 8g, and for this reason Tufail said “the JF-17 cannot fully exploit the TVC potential, which a 9g aircraft can do far better.”
Analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said the JF-17 airframe “can certainly handle more than +8g, but the restriction is in place to increase the airframe life.”
He said this “may be increased in later variants where more composites are used to increase airframe strength and reduce the overall weight.”