ISLAMABAD — Pakistan hopes to sell its JF-17 Thunder aircraft to Malaysia, now that the cash-strapped country is officially looking for such a fighter.

Malaysia was eyeing larger fighters like the Rafale and Typhoon, but that plan was shelved due to budgetary woes, and the country instead turned to fulfill a light combat aircraft requirement. An LCA fleet would support Malaysia’s F/A-18 and Su-30 fighters.

The JF-17 is under consideration alongside the Tejas, produced by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and the FA-50 Golden Eagle, made by South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries. Pakistan’s offering is the most affordable of the three.

An Indian Hindu priest conducts a ritual in fromt of a newly commissioned Indian Air Force Tejas. (AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian Hindu priest conducts a ritual in fromt of a newly commissioned Indian Air Force Tejas. (AFP/Getty Images)

Defense News reported in 2015 that Malaysia was considering the JF-17 as an option for its Air Force modernization program, as signaled by its high commissioner to Pakistan, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan. But Malaysia’s defense minister at the time denied the report.

Pakistan renewed efforts last year, most notably at April’s DSA defense expo in Malaysia and November’s IDEAS defense conference in Pakistan. Pakistan is offering the latest Block III variant.

The 2021-2022 LCA program delivery time frame means a Malaysian order could include some of the first fighters off the production line, with potential industrial offsets.

Analyst and former Pakistan Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail says the Block III “is quite promising" with an active electronically scanned array radar, helmet-mounted display and sight, electronic countermeasures, and an additional underbelly intake sensor station.

Tufail noted the JF-17 has been operational for the past 12 years and serves in six squadrons at full operational capability, whereas the Tejas was inducted just days ago “and has to go through the usual teething troubles.”

"On cost grounds, the JF-17 has a square chance,” he said.

Ben Ho, an air power analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the contenders have “fairly similar” performance, with individual advantages “marginal” or “negated in other areas.”

The JF-17 costs $25 million per unit, and the Tejas and the FA-50 cost approximately $28 million and $30 million respectively. An order of 36 JF-17 fighters would mean “a very substantial amount will be saved,” Ho said.

The FA-50 is produced by South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries. (Republic of Korea Air Force via Korea Aerospace Industries)
The FA-50 is produced by South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries. (Republic of Korea Air Force via Korea Aerospace Industries)

However, the JF-17’s Russian engine may be problematic, as due to serviceability issues with the related engine of Malaysia’s MiG-29s, potentially requiring “significant after-sales support and maintenance,” Ho added.

The Tejas is powered by the same General Electric F404 engine used in Malaysia’s F/A-18s, and shares weaponry with the Su-30s. However, the Tejas’ Israeli avionics would likely need replaced, which “invariably means additional costs,” he noted.

While the FA-50 is the “costliest prima facie,” it is also powered by the F404, shares weaponry used by the F/A-18, may have “lower downstream costs” and is in service regionally, allowing “interoperability between its major regional counterparts during exercises and operations,” he added.