Deal Delayed? Pakistan's economy and other factors will probably force the country to put off plans to buy J-10 fighters from China. (Wendell Minnick/staff)
TAIPEI AND ISLAMABAD — Tough International Monetary Fund conditions on Pakistan and concerns about untested technology likely will delay Islamabad’s plan to buy 36 J-10B Vigorous Dragon multirole fighters from China under a $1.4 billion deal signed in 2009, analysts said.
Current economic conditions “preclude any possibility of acquiring new weapon systems in the next two to three years, at least,” said retired Pakistani Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail, a veteran fighter and test pilot who is now an independent military analyst in Lahore.
Under IMF loan terms, the government faces harsh conditions on raising revenue and controlling spending, including on military equipment.
A Chinese defense delegation visited Pakistan the last week of September to discuss the status of stalled defense deals. Whether this included the J-10 order is unclear.
The J-10B Super-10 is an advanced variant of the J-10A, first fielded in late 2003 with China’s Air Force. The new Super-10 will reportedly be powered by the Chinese-designed WS-10A turbofan engine, which will replace the J-10A’s Russian Saturn AL-31FN. Built by Chengdu Aircraft Industries, the jet is based on Israel’s Lavi indigenous fighter program by Israel Aerospace Industries that was canceled in 1987.
Even if a friendly Arab Gulf state provided financing, Tufail said more used Lockheed Martin F-16Cs from US stocks are preferable, “rather than trying out a new weapon system that is an unknown commodity in the realm of modern-day combat.”
Tufail questioned the wisdom of buying one squadron of J-10s.
To be cost effective “at least three to four squadrons would justify the additional wherewithal and maintenance facilities that would be needed,” he said.
Over-reliance on US high-technology equipment like fighters worries Pakistani officials, and while Tufail said diversification “be explored fully, with China and Russia as suitable sources,” in the case of the fighter, the government may not have another option.
Should a deal occur, however, Tufail foresees no problems with directly or indirectly acquiring Russian equipment such as the J-10’s AL-31FN engine.
The J-10B was first revealed to the public in early 2009. Images appearing on Chinese-language military websites indicate the J-10B had a new nose configuration with an infrared search and tracking system and a “new Diverterless Supersonic Intake configured engine air intake,” also seen on the Chengdu FC-1 Xiaolong (Fierce Dragon), which is co-produced in Pakistan as the JF-17 Thunder, said Richard Fisher, a senior fellow of Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
At least one prototype J-10B has featured the indigenous Shenyang-Liming WS-10A turbofan engine, but it remains to be seen whether all production J-10Bs will feature the WS-10A or the Russian Saturn AL-31F turbofan,” Fisher said.
“I think the JF-17 arrangement has been a workable one so far, and future weapon systems with core Russian and Chinese components can be acquired by the Pakistan Air Force on a similar basis, without difficulty,” Tufail said.
Russia allowed China to supply Pakistan the JF-17s Klimov RD-93 engine despite Indian opposition, and prospects have since improved.
“The thawing of Pak-Russo relations over the past few years is certainly a welcome development, and should help override Indian objections to any military cooperation between Pakistan and Russia,” Tufail said.
Technological advances may also scrap the J-10 deal.
Tufail believes the air force may be turning to the stealthy Chengdu J-20 though this is not presently “anything beyond a mere statement of intent.”
“It is a futuristic aircraft, not yet fully operational, and its capabilities are hardly known, so reading too much into this may be rather premature,” Tufail said.
The J-10B would offer Pakistan some advanced fourth generation capabilities.
“The canted nose cone immediately led to speculation that the J-10B also featured a new fixed antennae phased array radar and this was confirmed in 2011,” Fisher said. “There remains some speculation that this radar may be a ‘passive’ versus an ‘active’ electronically scanned array [AESA], but the key point is that the J-10B is clearly a 4+ generation fighter that also included upgraded cockpit systems and electronic warfare systems.”
But if Pakistan chooses not to become the first customer for an export configured J-10B, at $50-60 million per aircraft it will become attractive to countries like Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Malaysia and Indonesia, who are looking for an affordable multi-role fighter, Fisher said.