Chinese Assistance: Pakistan manufactures the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet in cooperation with Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. (AAMIR QURESHI/Agence France-Presse)
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ISLAMABAD — Financial difficulties aside, Pakistan is modernizing its air power mainly through investing in the critical JF-17 Thunder program. But the Chengdu J-10B/FC-20 order is less certain.
With a funding crunch, the Pakistan Air Force “will concentrate most resources on JF-17 to ensure its success and further development,” said Usman Shabbir, with the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank.
Last year, the Air Force admitted modernization efforts under the Armed Forces Development Plan 2025 had gone unfunded since 2007. However, Pakistan secured a Chinese loan to keep JF-17 production on track. No details, including the amount of the loan, have been made public.
Production of the second block of 50 began in December. With 50 jets in service, Pakistan’s requirement is for up to 250 planes to replace its Mirage and F-7 aircraft. It already has replaced the A-5C Fantan strike fighter with two squadrons.
The Block II JF-17 has improved avionics, weapons load and carriage capability, a data link and an electronic warfare suite, plus an in-flight refueling capability, but officials are reluctant to give specific details.
A spokesperson for the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), which jointly manufactures the JF-17 with China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, would say only that the avionics suite is a “mixed package” and has been contracted.
Shabbir said he believes the NRIET KLJ-7 X-band radar will have been retained for the Block I/II aircraft, and standoff weapons such as the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile, H-2/H-4 glide bomb and Mectron MAR-1 anti-radiation missile might also have been integrated onto the Block II jets.
Multiple ejector racks will make up for a lack of additional weapon store stations, and a dedicated designator pod station could be added later underneath the plane’s port intake.
No JF-17 has been seen carrying a designator pod, but a Chinese type will likely enter service, even though Shabbir said the Pakistan Air Force’s Air Weapons Complex “has also developed one in collaboration with a European firm.”
Which firm is unknown, but PAC collaborates with European companies such as Selex ES and Sagem.
Shabbir said the addition of a separate forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor is unlikely, and those fitted to Mirage 5s would not be “recycled” because “the FLIR-equipped [retrofit of strike element-III] Mirages will soldier on for many years as they are specialist night attack aircraft.”
Further avionics improvements will probably wait until Block III production begins in 2016, with an active electronically scanned array radar variant of the KLJ-7, he said. But “so far, Block III is just conceptual, and even though PAF/PAC and CATIC [China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp.] agree on broad terms what capabilities Block III should offer, the design is not finalized,” Shabbir said.
The importance to Pakistan aside, for CATIC, the FC-1/JF-17 is an export program that has yet to secure an order and become profitable. Production lines in both countries are underutilized. PAC produces 18 aircraft a year but has a capacity of 25.
This has caused some friction, as the Pakistan Air Force wants to meet its requirements before concentrating on exports.
Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he believes China could influence exports as “a Chinese purchase of the aircraft, even if only in token numbers, would also bolster its credentials.
“There’s no obvious reason why the Chengdu JF-17 should not be a credible contender in a number of markets where a more capable combat aircraft is either unaffordable or unavailable, particularly in some African and possibly Middle Eastern states looking to replace legacy types with a low-cost platform,” he said.
Barrie highlighted the “reasonable selection of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons,” and said the air-to-air SD-10/PL-12, a beyond-visual-range missile, is a “credible weapon.”
A Pakistan Air Force purchase of the FC-20/J-10B, while attention focuses on JF-17 exports, would therefore be favorable, Shabbir said. However, the status of the deal is uncertain and there is thought to be a discussion within the Pakistan Air Force as to its fate.
The country’s Defence Ministry would not comment on the matter, and the Air Force has not responded to queries.
Shabbir said the order “was always planned to be signed in the 2014-2015 time frame.” A reported US $1.4 billion agreement was negotiated for 36 FC-20/J-10B aircraft in 2009, with reports at the time claiming they would enter service around 2014 or 2015, but that date has slipped.
However, “if money becomes an issue and if the [Indian Air Force] does not go for the Rafale [fighter jet], it is possible that the [Pakistan Air Force] might drop the FC-20 plan and invest even more resources into the JF-17 project, along with buying more used F-16s and bringing them to Block 52 standard,” he said.
Former Air Force pilot and analyst Kaiser Tufail said, “Purely from a political standpoint, it would be wise for the [Air Force] to diversify its source of advanced fighters of the F-16C class. China is an obvious reliable source and the FC-20 is a possible candidate, though my personal assessment is that overall, it is not as advanced as the F-16C [Block 50/52].”
Yet he still believes ordering the FC-20/J-10B could benefit the JF-17.
“I think that later JF-17 Blocks III and IV could possibly have avionics systems commonality with the FC-20, as these would have been tried and tested systems on the latter aircraft,” he said.
Though Tufail admitted the possibility of speculating too far, “since the specifications and airframe configuration of the later JF-17 Block III and IV is not at all clear, it would be futile to speculate if hardware other than avionics systems could find commonality with the FC-20,” he said.
Similarly, Tufail said he’s uncertain whether a Chinese stealth jet would be a better option than the FC-20/J-10B, as “the full performance capabilities of the Chinese stealth aircraft are not known as yet and on this account, it may be premature to draw up a wish list.”