Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks during a Dec. 18 ceremony at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra. Pakistan launched production of a new version of a combat aircraft featuring upgraded avionics and weapons system. The plane, to be called Block-II JF-17, will be manufactured at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex west of Islamabad, which has so far produced 50 older-model Block-I JF-17s for the air force. (Aamir Qureshi / Getty Images)
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan rolled out its 50th JF-17 Thunder Block I multi-role combat aircraft Wednesday and will now begin construction of the next batch of 50 which will be of the Block II standard.
The 50th example of the Sino-Pakistani fighter was rolled out during a ceremony at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in the town of Kamra not far from the capital Islamabad. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and Chinese dignitaries were in attendance.
Sharif lauded wider Sino-Pakistani defense cooperation as well as that in other fields.
He also noted he headed a previous administration in the 1990s that kick-started the program in the face of adversity that ultimately produced the JF-17. Sharif praised the program and the air force, and said the government “will fulfill all the needs of the Pakistani Air Force.”
At present the air force is gearing up to replace its legacy aircraft that consists mainly of Dassault Mirage-III/5 and Chengdu F-7P types after the retiring of the Nanchang A-5 Fantan attack aircraft, which was replaced by the first JF-17s.
The main advantage the JF-17 has bought so far is its beyond-visual-range air-to-air combat capability, which Pakistan lacked until relatively recently.
Analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said 50 aircraft “are enough to form three squadrons with a typical squadron strength of 16 aircraft.” One squadron will most likely be based at Minhas/Kamra to assist with all the weapon and system integration plus flight testing and evaluation in addition to acting as the [operational conversion squadron],” he added.
“The two other squadrons would be normal multi-role squadrons with one based at Peshawar and the other at either Rafiqui/Shorkot or Masroor/Karachi.”
The next batch of 50 will bring additional capabilities.
“From early 2014 the first Block-II will rollout. Block-II has no airframe changes other than the addition of [an in-flight refuelling probe] which would later also be refitted to all Block-I aircraft. Most of the improvements are in radar and avionics,” said Shabbir.
The addition of an in-flight refuelling capability is of considerable importance, according to ex-Pakistan Air Force pilot and analyst Kaiser Tufail.
He highlighted that the JF-17 carries three large drop tanks as its internal fuel capacity is somewhat low, but believes there is a simple enough solution that could be applied.
“If the JF-17 Block II could address the issue of low internal fuel, then that would be a good development. This could be done by using conformal fuel tanks,” he said.
Tufail said he believes other options could be enlarged wings or fuselage, but these could change the aerodynamics of the plane.
Another possible future change, according to Tufail, could be that of the powerplant.
The JF-17 is powered by the Russian Klimov RD-93, which is a development of the RD-33 that powers the MiG-29 Fulcrum. Tufail said there is “nothing wrong” with the engine and that the air force is “quite pleased” with it.
He said the availability of the engine is assured, and any problems such as excessive smoke have been addressed. However, Tufail said he believes the air force “may want to diversify the engine supplier in the long term.”
Where an alternative engine would be procured from is uncertain. But the Chinese Guizhou WS-13, which reportedly powers the Chinese variant of the JF-17, the FC-1, Xiaolong/Fierce Dragon, is a good possibility.
Regarding improved avionics for the JF-17 Block II however, Tufail highlights that we do not yet know what has been selected as details of the new suite have not been publicized.
“The avionics on the JF-17 are seven years old already, so new technology could be integrated if available”, Tufail said.
Tufail said he thinks this should be reasonably easy.
“Avionics improvements are an ongoing process and the Block II is at a stage where new avionics can be integrated, which would be easier during the manufacturing stage, but still possible later during an upgrade,” he said.
Previous reports have stated the suite is of Chinese origin, and Tufail said he believes this is perfectly acceptable as “Chinese avionics have improved remarkably” since the 1990s, and some are comparable to those found on the F-16.