ISLAMABAD — Despite having opted for French and Russian fighter aircraft earlier this year, Egypt has reportedly expressed an interest in the Sino-Pakistan JF-17 Thunder. This has come as a surprise to analysts who had considered the possibility of Egypt acquiring the JF-17 to be lost.

The interest comes as part of a wider push to increase defense industry cooperation between the two countries, according to a Dec. 4 news release by the Pakistani government's Press Information Department. It outlined how the Egyptian ambassador to Islamabad, Sherif Shaheen, met Pakistan's Minister for Defence Production Tanveer Hussain to discuss improving bilateral defense cooperation.

A cadet exchange program is already in place, but both sides were "looking at collaboration in defense industry as the core of relations between Pakistan and Egypt," according to the news release.

As a matter of policy, officials in Pakistan do not discuss potential defense deals until they are signed.

However, author, analyst and former Pakistani Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail says there are two main reasons the JF-17 appeals to developing nations.

"It offers the best value for money, being one of the cheapest of the modern fighters to purchase and maintain," he said. "Its sale is not constrained by big power politics, in that it is not likely to be used as a tool for exercising leverage over the purchaser's foreign or defense policies. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Jordan (possibly) and now Egypt are keenly eyeing the JF-17 for these reasons."

In respect to a potential Egyptian deal, author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley believes the JF-17 has a key advantage over other fighter aircraft the Egyptians may be able to acquire.

"The Egyptians have many sources for combat aircraft, but none of those being considered for provision of advanced fighters manufacture anything like the JF-17," Cloughley said.

Recent Egyptian purchases, tThe Rafale and MiG-35 are larger twin-engine fighters in comparison to the JF-17, and unlike the latter are off the shelf purchases, with no local production offered for Egypt.

Analysts believe this is where the JF-17 has another advantage, and one that builds on experience.

Egypt already operates 120 Sino-Pakistani Hongdu K-8 jet trainer aircraft, the majority of which were built in Egypt by the Arab Organization for Industrialization. A similar deal for the construction of the JF-17 has been speculated since Egypt first reportedly expressed an interest in the JF-17 in 2010.

The bulk of Egypt's modern fighter fleet comprises of some 220 F-16C/Ds, but these are supported by a larger number of legacy Mirage 5, MiG-21 and Chengdu J-7 fighters. The order for 46 MiG-35s will likely replace the MiG-21s, but this leaves nearly 140 Mirage 5s and J-7s needing replacement.

As the JF-17 was designed precisely to replace these types, Tufail says it is "an excellent platform to replace the older fleet of Mirage III/5, MiG-21/F-7" and the "glitch-free induction and full operational capability of the JF-17 in the Pakistan Air Force makes a great sales pitch for export."

Likewise, Cloughley believes the JF-17 still has a good chance to secure a sizable Egyptian order but believes it is too early to be certain.

"It seems that it would be a good choice to replace the Mirages, which are very long in the tooth, but as always the detail is in the possible deal. It's too early to speculate on what mutually agreeable terms might be, but it's likely that Pakistan (and China) would come up with a tempting offer," Cloughley said.

Pakistan is accepting JF-17 Block 2 aircraft into service, of which it ordered 50. There have been some key Block 2 features such as in-flight refueling and other modifications that will be retrofitted to the Block 1 aircraft.

However, recent reports in the Chinese media have stated any export customers will be acquiring the forthcoming Block 3 that is in its final design stages. Though it is believed to feature an AESA radar, officials are tightlipped on confirming specific details, only saying the Block 3 will be a "game changer."

A two,seat, fully combat-capable variant of the JF-17 is also believed to be undergoing the final stages of testing in China before it is unveiled.

Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.

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