ISLAMABAD — Pakistan and Sri Lanka have signed an agreement for an initial eight JF-17 Thunder multirole combat aircraft. The agreement comes amid Pakistani and Sri Lankan efforts to boost defense co-operation, and in the face of heavy Indian opposition.
The news broke late Tuesday on the second day of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's three-day visit to Colombo. It had been widely speculated Sri Lanka would sign a deal for the JF-17 to start replacing its current fleet of Chengdu F-7, IAI Kfir and MiG-27 aircraft.
India has lobbied long and hard against the deal that has been speculated for some years now. It even reportedly offered its own HAL Tejas Light Combat Aircraft in place of the JF-17.
However, media reports citing diplomatic officials state Sri Lanka will try assuaging New Delhi's anger with warship orders from Indian shipyards.
There has been no official confirmation of the deal, though it has been widely reported.
No comment was forthcoming from the JF-17 sales and marketing team when contacted. Officials here do not comment on defense deals before they have been signed, and the lack of official confirmation underlines that though something has been agreed to, it is not yet a legal contract.
Author, analysts and former air force pilot Kaiser Tufail believes it is best to wait until some official comment has been made to confirm the deal as things are not yet certain.
Nevertheless, analyst, author and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley was expecting some progress at least on a JF-17 deal, as well as the likely Indian response.
"I thought that [Nawaz Sharif's] visit might produce something. And I'm not surprised at the Indian reaction [if that story is true]", he said.
Considering the state of Sri Lanka's frontline aircraft, which Cloughley says are "all long in tooth" with "very low" serviceability, he believes should this initial order go ahead "further orders almost certain."
While it appears the JF-17 may now start carving its niche in the export market, Tufail believes India's Tejas might struggle, in contrast.
The Sri Lankans themselves are reported to have pointed out the Tejas is not even yet in service in India. Tufail agrees, however, that Tejas' US-origin engine coupled with US sanctions against those nations, including Sri Lanka, deemed to be human rights violators by Washington mean the Tejas "would be a hard sell for India."
In contrast, he says the threat of Western sanctions does not hover over the JF-17.
"Luckily the JF-17 has no major Western components and it can survive any such restrictions; this aspect in particular makes it attractive to developing countries who have run afoul of USA", he said.
Adding, "The Tejas, for these very reasons, is likely to face similar hurdles, and for the present, I do not see it taking off in any spectacular way."
The JF-17 agreement was also signed with others to further defense production and security as both sides push for closer and more wide ranging relationship.
After talks with the Sri Lankan president and prime minister, Sharif is reported to have made a statement in which he said, “I conveyed our desire for more frequent port calls, participation in military exercises and defense seminars and training of military personnel.”
Cloughley believes this will generally build upon the existing defense relationship, and also could enable wider exports of Pakistani defense products.
"[Pakistan Ordnance Factories] supplied Sri Lanka with ammunition during the campaign against the [Tamil Tigers], and it is likely that such arrangements continue in a modest fashion", he said. "There is much scope for expansion of cooperation, especially as many of POF's products are world class but very much cheaper than equivalent material from western manufacturers."
Adding, "This could be an opportunity for [Heavy Industries Taxila] to export some of its armored vehicles," in reference to Pakistan's state-owned armored fighting vehicle manufacturer.
As to whether India would ultimately accept the JF-17 deal if the Sri Lankans balanced it out with warship orders from Indian shipyards, Cloughley believes this unlikely. But, he notes, New Delhi will have to accept reality as China is also involved.
"Delhi will not be placated at all, but will have to accept the facts of life as regards Sri Lankan economic and military cooperation with China and Pakistan. China is spreading its wings significantly in the region, and it is hardly coincidental that Pakistan, China's 'all weather friend' according to President Xi, is following Beijing to Colombo," he said.