ISLAMABAD — A deal for Pakistan to directly import Russian engines for the JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter will improve the program and may lead to more Russian-made parts for the aircraft, analysts say.
News broke over the weekend that Pakistan would directly import the Klimov RD-93 engines from Russia rather than via China, which reportedly also supports the deal.
Kaiser Tufail, an analyst and former air commodore, said he believes the deal is significant on cost and political grounds.
"I think a direct deal with Russia for supply of the engines basically removes the Chinese middleman, resulting in cheaper procurement cost. It is also reflective of a thaw in what has been a frosty relationship with Russia over the past several decades," he said.
Considering the JF-17 is a Sino-Pakistani project, Tufail said: "China's approval of direct procurement from Russia is also significant, and can be seen as trilateral cooperation between the three countries, in which Pakistan enjoys a pivotal position."
Engine availability has always been a source of speculation for the JF-17 program — initially the lack of a Western-made powerplant — and whether Moscow would continue to supply the RD-93, leading Pakistan to look for an alternative.
An alternative does exist in the Chinese Guizhou WS-13, but analysts do not consider it yet to have matured. With the guaranteed availability of the RD-93, the only issue is whether a more powerful, and perhaps thrust-vectoring, variant may be adopted at a future date.
The European EJ200 is also being offered, but for potential customers such as Saudi Arabia.
Brian Cloughley, analyst and former Australia defense attache to Islamabad, said, "I think there is already examination of the means of upgrading the JF-17 in many ways, and it would be surprising if this did not include more powerful engines, and certainly an improved version of the RD-93 would be a sensible choice."
Cloughley said financing may be an issue, but it's something he said he believed politics will overcome. "As usual, it all comes down to cost — but Russia is cutting the price of its exported defense material in order to acquire and lock-in markets."
Cloughley also highlighted a perennial fear of sanctions for Pakistan that still shapes its policies. "This is yet another blowback effect of sanctions, and it may cost the west considerably in the long term."
However, Tufail questioned the need for the JF-17 needing a replacement engine.
"I believe it is a premature idea, as the current RD-93 is powerful enough, providing a thrust-to-weight ratio of almost 1:1," said Tufail.
"So far the engine has performed flawlessly, both from an operational and maintenance point of view, its relatively low [time between overhaul] notwithstanding. When the PAF eventually decides to replace the current engine, it would likely be on the TBO factor," he added.
Tufail explained that under present circumstances, the JF-17 may not be suited to a more powerful engine.
"It also needs to be understood that any thrust increase in an aircraft that is not amply endowed with a large internal fuel quantity is not a feasible option. The RD-93 is, therefore, likely to continue on the current version of the JF-17 for the foreseeable future," Tufail said.
Cloughley said the engine deal could lead to further Russian involvement in the JF-17. "I have no doubt that Moscow and Islamabad are looking at all sorts of equipment, and it would make sense for Pakistan to make deals — providing they are acceptable to China."
The engine deal could eventually lead to weapons deals, Tufail said.
"Over a long term, Russian weapons would surely come under consideration, but I believe for the time being, we won't get into retrofits," he said.
Tufail added: "These are effort intensive for they need time to iron out the interface glitches. For the next 5-7 years, the PAF would like the weapon system to mature, though I am sure studies of Russian weapons integration would surely get underway during this period."