A question we are asked more often is what is our opinion about the PAC JF-17 Thunder multi-role all-weather fighter for use within African air forces. For this reason, along with the fact that we were privileged to observe the JF-17 Thunder in action against the Dassault Mirage 2000 and various General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16 variants during a few exercises, we decided to write a brief article about this extremely capable, but highly underestimated aircraft.
The PAC JF-17 Thunder is a low-cost 4th generation multi-role fighter aircraft operated by the Pakistan Air Force as primary user. The aircraft was designed as a modular fighter platform to enable simple low-cost maintenance with limited ground technical support under the initiative of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) who specifically required a suitable low-cost modern platform to replace its ageing fleet of 3rd generation fighters (Mirage III, Mirage V, Chengdu F-7). The platform and its mission systems were designed, developed and produced jointly by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China. The aircraft is designated PAC JF-17 Thunder in Pakistan, and in China it is designated CAC FC-1 Xiaolong. The Pakistan Air Force decided on partnering with China to develop this platform within a very short development timeframe, along with an extremely low project development budget. The project design officially commenced during 1995 with first work commencing 1999, the first flight in 2003, followed by first introduction into PAF service during 2007 of the Block I model. Now, if the development time until initial service entry is not impressive enough, the total development budget was only US$ 500 million (divided equally between Pakistan and China). Now, for those that do not know, the higher the development costs, the higher the eventual production model cost (why the majority Western competitor platforms are so extremely expensive to purchase). It is also for this reason why economy of scale is such an important factor as a means of offsetting the initial high development costs looking at arms sales.
However, one characteristic about the JF-17 Thunder we need to take into consideration is that it was never designed incorporating any People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF China) requirements for the reason that it was solely developed to meet PAF requirements, and initially the PLAAF had no interest in the platform whatsoever. The JF-17 (CAC FC-1) was considered from a Chinese perspective (initially) to be a low-cost export fighter for countries requiring a cheaper alternative for replacing older generation fighters of either USSR, Chinese or Western origin. What we can derive from this is that what we see today within the latest developments of the JF-17 Thunder is purely based on Pakistan Air Force user experience and expertise.
The Pakistan Air Force as primary user:
The JF-17 Thunder has evolved to become a popular platform within the PAF due to the successful development milestones it has achieved under the air force leadership as the main driving force behind the aircraft’s continuous research and development for improvement as a result of operational necessity while subject to a strict US arms embargo. Also, we should in fact not look at the JF-17 Thunder as a Chinese product, but rather a Product of Pakistan for it is Pakistan who is actively developing the JF-17 platform into a very formidable and advanced 4th generation fighter. Pakistan (via PAC) manufactures 58% of the airframe, and final assembly of the JF-17 Thunder is also in Pakistan. One of the reasons for the success of this program is the Pakistan government’s full commitment to ensuring the program's success as a matter of national security and pride. South Africa is a classic example of how quickly an advanced arms industry can be depleted into very little in the absence of committed government support. Does the JF-17 Thunder compare to the SAAB JAS 39 Gripen C/D? From a quality over lifetime perspective, no, but from a missions capability perspective, yes (referring to the JF-17 Thunder Block III). However, it was never designed to directly compete against Western platforms for it was designed from the onset as a ‘lower end market alternative’ to offer emerging- and/or arms restricted economies a new, customer requirements adapted, 4th generation modern fighter capability at a fraction of the cost of purchasing modern Western fighters of comparable performance and capability, but with very restrictive end-user criteria. Looking back at the original PAF requirements prior to the JF-17 program (if they had their way), they would have preferred supplementing their existing General Dynamics F-16 fleet of various models, the most modern being the F-16 Block 52, with additional modernised versions of the F-16 and even other US platforms. However, due to ongoing US Congress restrictions blocking arms sales and support to the PAF due to Pakistan’s continuation of its nuclear weapons program (as countermeasure to the Indian nuclear weapons program), the United States as arms supplier has become unreliable due to political reasons why Pakistan had to seriously look at alternatives to counter future threats from India operating advanced 4th Generation plus fighter aircraft. This led to the hastily commissioned JF-17 Thunder fighter program as a joint venture with China who was the only feasible development partner to design and produce a new 4th generation fighter in as short a time possible while keeping program development costs to the absolute minimum.
Looking at the JF-17 Thunder since its first introduction into PAF service in 2007 as the JF-17 Block I, it has had some mixed results, and the program has not progressed without its challenges. Again, we need to understand the development approach followed by the Pakistan Air Force trying to keep development costs low as a critical priority, and at the same time meeting critical operational performance requirements under conditions of extreme limitations in terms of military hardware options. To understand this from a development context, the different JF-17 models are better explained as follows:
Block I: What is generally referred to as the Experimental Development Model (XDM).
Block II: The upgraded version of the Block I, what is also referred to as the Advanced Development Model (ADM) incorporating improvements based on user-experience gained from the XDM.
Block III: The approved production model (the final product conforming to initial design requirements) incorporating all required end-scope systems integration and de-snagging.
What is referred to now as the JF-17 Block III (currently within final development phase for first introduction into service around 2022), is what the PAF originally required from the onset, but knowing how long the development timeline can be (calculated from first flight in 2003 to 2022 to be exact), along with constantly increasing costs (based on lessons learnt from the PAF Mirage III ROSE upgrades), the PAF decided to combine the JF-17 development phases with operational frontline use. The main thinking behind this strategy is that a half-decent flying fighter is better than a fighter on the ground. Where a traditional development approach entails developing different versions subject to various ‘testing’ regimes over a project’s lifetime until the ‘ideal’ production version is achieved before entry into service, the PAF just went all in and combined the whole development phase with operational use, testing each development version under real operational conditions while at the same time enabling ground crews to acquire the technical capabilities to support these platforms. To date (what really makes this platform fascinating), is that it has already accumulated more than 20,000 hours flying operational sorties within the War in North-West Pakistan combatting Islamic extremist groups operating both Block I and Block II platforms. What we can conclude from this approach is that if the PAF followed the traditional track of development, then what is referred to now as the Block III would have been completed around now, and that platform as a combat system would not have been anything compared to what the PAF is going to receive in the form of the JF-17 Thunder Block III around 2022.
On 19 June 2017, a JF-17 Thunder Block I downed an Iranian UAV in Pakistan controlled airspace using a short-range air-to-air missile. The PAF also credits the shooting down of two Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters (one Mig-21 Bosun, one Sukhoi Su-30MKI) on 27 February 2019 during Operation Swift Retort to the JF-17 Thunder Block II using air-to-air missiles. The IAF still denies the loss of the Su-30MKI, although there is much evidence supporting the PAF version of events
Note: ADF is in agreement that there is a certain degree of unconfirmed information and speculation pertaining the exact sequence of events on the 27th of February 2019, but what is confirmed is that whatever the true circumstances were on that day, the IAF sustained losses during a combat aerial engagement with the PAF.
If we accept the PAF version of events, this can be considered quite remarkable for an aircraft that is still technically under development.
Development Challenges and Considerations:
One of the main design limitations of the JF-17 is its current propulsion, the Russian Klimov RD-93, which was deemed outdated, inefficient and underpowered even before the program started. The original design required the platform to be equipped with a Chinese engine of higher specifications compared to the Klimov RD-93, but the decision to use the RD-93 on Block I + II was intended as a safeguard to ensure the program did not fail as a result of an engine still under development at the time (referring to the Chinese developed Guizhou WS-13E). The original idea was to incorporate a cost effective and reliable engine with no political imposed restriction risks, why the JF-17 was designed to be equipped with the Chinese WS-13E engine (a modernised design based on the Russian Klimov RD-93). However, keeping this in mind, the JF-17 Thunder/CAC FC-1 Xiaolong was cleverly designed as a simple modular platform enabling simple low-cost upgrade to different engine options (such as WS-13E or alternatively the RD-33MKM) in future if required (or based on customer requirements). In the meantime, the United Engine Corporation of Russia has taken note of the success of the JF-17 Thunder program and consequently developed the improved Klimov RD-93MA to power the JF-17 Thunder Block III, enabling the performance originally expected from the Chinese WS-13E. However, due to additional US sanctions imposed on Rosoboronexport of Russia during 2018, the option of using Russian components have become a serious challenge due to a lack of spare parts and OEM technical support required to extend engine lifetime. The PAF is currently experiencing a dilemma of a growing number of time-expired RD-93 engines requiring overhaul, with no further access to replacement engines due to depleted Chinese stocks.
Now, looking at the Guizhou WS-13E engine, within its current phase of development it is believed to have a shorter lifespan than the Russian RD-93/RD-33 range of engines (at around 2,200 hours). However, if not already achieved, we do believe that it is not long before China will actually achieve the point where that engine will improve on current RD-93 performance for the reason that the PLAAF requires the same engine for its 5th Generation fighter currently under development, the Shanyang J-31, as a matter of priority. China used to have large stocks of Klimov RD-93 engines available for its export fighters business, which has since been depleted with no additional plans of purchasing more Russian engines. The reason for this is because no current PLAAF aircraft is equipped with the Klimov RD-93, and China intends to phase in the WS-13 engine option as alternative to the Russian option. Current performance projections indicate that the WS-13E would push the payload for the JF-17 Block III beyond 5 tons due to an increase in thrust. But, looking at a WS-13E engine with even reduced lifespan (as currently claimed), in many a developing country a guaranteed supply of cheaper ‘reduced lifespan engines’ is better than a time expired engine which cannot be repaired or replaced as applicable to engines originating from Europe and especially the US. South Africa, for example, has learnt that lesson hard during the era of sanctions with the French SNECMA, and it was also because of the US Pratt and Whitney turbofan engine in the original Israeli Lavi why South Africa was eventually excluded from that program due to US enforced restrictions (Israel eventually killing off the Lavi program in favour of the F-16I as a result of political influence). The PAF is also facing the same challenge with its F-16 fleet approaching the point of requiring major overhaul, maintenance and upgrade which they know will not be possible under the current US arms restrictions. The only option now for the PAF is the JF-17 Thunder Block III equipped with the Chinese Guizhou WS-13E engine, and/or introducing another platform into service to supplement current degraded capabilities in the form of the Chinese Chengdu J-10 which already shares much of the systems found on the JF-17 Thunder design (The J-10 is equipped with the Chinese developed WS-10 engine which is entering service with the PLAAF at present).
With all US sanctions and restrictions set aside, the improved Russian Klimov RD-93MA with comparative performance to the Guizhou WS-13E would have made totally sense to the PAF due to their experience gained and technical investment into the system, but for smaller operators without economy of scale, the Russian engines come at a very high cost over lifetime, especially for countries who do not have the diplomatic leverage to go the Russian supply route and to ensure sustainable support over lifetime without greater political fall-out. Looking at African air forces with limited budgets, who in general fly moderate hours over lifetime to limit costs of operation, the Guizhou WS-13E engine option will be more than sufficient without any limiting restrictions. Based on experience in Africa, a characteristic of Chinese arms sales is that China will sell anything to anyone, and from an impartial perspective we have to acknowledge the opportunities and associated advantages relating to guaranteed sustainable supplies when traditional friends become your greatest limitation (looking at the current state of world affairs and rising global economic uncertainty).
Looking at all other systems comprising the greater JF-17 Thunder platform, the PAF also had to deal with the following challenges experienced on mainly the Block I models, but also affecting the Block II models, which had to be addressed and modified prior to commencement of Block III production:
The Link 17 datalink on the JF-17 Block I & II has proven very unreliable in terms of maintaining networked linkage with PAF AEW&C aircraft during operations in addition to not being compatible with the Link 16 system found on the PAF F-16’s. This is unfortunately a common problem when air forces have mixed platforms originating from competing nations.
The JF-17 Block II standard does not meet up to the current PAF F-16 Block 52 in terms of operational capabilities, performance and reliability. It is essential for the PAF that the Block III standard would meet and exceed the current F-16 Block 52 standard. The Block III will be equipped with a fly-by-wire controls system which would enable F-16 handling characteristics, while drastically reducing pilot workload to focus better on combat systems.
The JF-17 Block I and Block II variants in current service are extremely limited in terms of AAM (Air-to-Air Missile) options. One of the reasons (along with a poor performing radar system), are the PAF’s initial decision to incorporate Western avionics and combat systems on the Block I and Block II variants to achieve some level of compatibility with existing PAF systems. The most notable of these critical systems are supplied by Leonardo who refused to allow the PAF access to system source code for adaptation in the event of Chinese weapons systems integration for security reasons. As a result of this restriction, the PAF has extremely limited sensors fusion on the Block I & II variants which is further complicated by a poor performing datalink to enable networked integration. The Block III will be equipped with the PL-5 Short Range IR homing AAM, the PL-12 active radar-guided BVRAAM, and PL-15 active radar-guided VLRAAM with a full Chinese glass cockpit to enable optimised sensors fusion. However, PAF is also seeking integration of the South African Denel V-3E A-Darter AAM through joint venture production to allow for some form of domestic AAM manufacturing capability, which may include the addition of the Denel Marlin BVRAAM in future. The Denel munitions are all compatible with Western systems integration.
The KLJ-7 Radar and existing Weapons Control System found on the Block I & II variants have proven to be inaccurate and unreliable, which further reduces existing AAM application effectiveness. For this reason the Block III will be equipped with a more powerful AESA radar system which will be license manufactured in Pakistan. In addition to a more powerful radar and a better Weapons Control System (with open architecture source code written using C++), the glass cockpit electrical system will be improved on the Block III based on malfunctions experienced on both the Block I & II variants.
Structurally, the early model Block I variants are showing signs of nose landing gear instability well before the end of its designed lifespan. During inspections, minor cracks were also found on the lower fuselage area between the main landing gear of some aircraft. Both these structural areas will incorporate reinforcements in the Block III model, which will gradually be retrofitted into existing platforms in service when deemed necessary. The Block III will also incorporate greater composite materials reducing overall weight, while enabling a slighter larger fuselage for increased fuel load enabling greater combat range.
In general, looking at the whole JF-17 Thunder development program, it is actually quite ingenious and we think that Pakistan can be congratulated on a job well done, especially taking into consideration the pressure they have to endure caused by the US imposed sanctions. Western militaries can learn much from the Pakistan approach to complex arms development, especially how to keep development costs down to the bare minimum. The main lesson to be learnt from this is that the JF-17 program is successful because the Pakistan government was 100% committed from the onset to achieve success as a matter of necessity considering current and past threats facing the state. Also, the JF-17 Thunder program was managed by the PAF through its subsidiary PAC (Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, established by the PAF during 1971), with no private involvement. Initially everyone outside of Pakistan were somewhat ignorant about the JF-17 Thunder during the initial stages of development, and it was only after a few ‘coffee table discussions’ with a few outstanding individuals involved with the Pakistan Armed Forces that we truly realised the growing capabilities of the JF-17, especially the PAF thinking behind the program. Initially what impressed us most was the Mirage III ROSE program, especially what Pakistan achieved with extending the life-span of their ageing Mirage III fleet (currently still the back-bone of the PAF ground-attack fleet). However, the ROSE program is as far as you can go with the Mirage III, and due to the ageing airframes it has become too costly to continue operating the Mirage III. The PAF is not the only country facing the dilemma of replacing ageing fighter fleets with a modern design solution, and we believe the JF-17 Thunder Block III (as supplied via Pakistan), is a suitable platform for many air forces around the world being excluded in some way from purchasing modern hardware without operational use restrictions. The JF-17 Thunder is an affordable solution for many MENA, African and Latin American air forces seeking modern budget friendly options, and current Chinese armaments and avionics have proved very capable over time, with much improved support over life-time. In fact, just looking at customer service and willingness to cooperate in joint developments, Chinese arms manufacturers have really come a long way, exceeding the standard of service of its competitors in certain areas.
Looking at the future when the first Block III platforms enter operational service with the PAF, the whole induction process will be extremely simple and less time consuming, allowing for gradual withdrawal of suitable Block I platforms for upgrading to the Block III standard (followed by Block II). That said, based on the current Block III standard, there is a great technological difference between the Block III and its predecessor Block II. All the Block III aircraft destined for the PAF will be new-built aircraft, and not upgraded versions of older models. Whereas the JF-17 Block II is now what would be considered the minimum benchmark standard for a 4th Generation multi-role fighter, the JF-17 Block III would be an advanced 4th Generation fighter. In the present day, an advanced 4th Generation fighter is considered more advanced than the original legacy 4th Generation fighters, but not advanced enough to be classified as 5th Generation fighters, but equipped with relative systems capable of countering 4.5 and 5th Generation fighters. To understand what this means, a 5th Generation fighter is classified as an aircraft with the following capabilities:
Stealth: The level of invisibility to radar of an aircraft by means of either active and/or passive countermeasures (including low radar cross-section design);
Super Cruise: Sustained supersonic flight of a supersonic aircraft without the use of afterburners or ‘reheat’.
Super Manoeuvrability: The ability of a fighter aircraft to execute tactical manoeuvres not possible with purely aerodynamic mechanisms.
Sensor Fusion: The ability to bring together various data inputs from multiple radars, lidars, datalink and cameras to form a single model or image of the environment around the aircraft.
The JF-17 Thunder Block III will not have 5th Generation fighter capabilities, but it will have much upgrades to effectively counter 4.5 Generation fighters entering service with the Indian Air Force. To meet the 5th Generation aircraft requirements, Pakistan is in process of developing such a platform with China under Project Azm.
However, the most important development in terms of the future of the PAC JF-17 Thunder / CAC FC-1 Xiaolong design is the PLAAF’s announcement around the end of 2020 that they plan on replacing the current PLAAF fleet of around 388 Chengdu J-7 fighters with the newly upgraded PLAAF adapted version (based on the JF-17 Block III standard). Remember how the JF-17 / FC-1 initially failed to meet PLAAF consideration during design inception? What this means is an aircraft platform that will remain in service for at least the next 30 years with reliable low-cost technical support over lifetime. But in the age of 6th Generation aircraft under design, where would the JF-17 Block III feature within 20-30 years’ time? Looking at the modular design of this platform, it would be suitable for final evolution into a ‘robotic wingman’ design (maybe Block IV) incorporating limited AI with the sole purpose of carrying munitions under the networked control of either remote AWACS/AEW&C or piloted 6th Generation fighters. The design is fortunately so simple and cost effective that the opportunities are but only limited by the mind.
To really understand the value of the JF-17 Thunder development program, we need to focus on the Block III model currently in production. The platform development did not go without its challenges, which is not abnormal for systems of this complexity, which is in fact a very good aspect of this program for the reason that there were sufficient numbers of Block I & II development models in service subjected to realistic user conditions enabling the final development of the Block III variant. In the end, the PAF did an excellent job in ensuring that the project did not experience requirements creep, a factor that has a major negative effect on the US (and partnering nations) F-35 joint fighter development program, why the F-35 5th Generation fighter program has so many problems at an extremely high cost per unit (too many end-user requirement inputs that are constantly modified throughout the development lifetime). The main issues affecting the JF-17 Thunder is not so much build quality related (except for a few repairable issues considered normal for any project of this scale), but mainly systems integration under conditions of sanctions affecting the greater supply chain to the whole JF-17 Thunder program. With Block III, which represents the production model as per original PAF requirements, the majority of these challenges should be resolved which should also make this a very formidable fighter aircraft with relative immunity to ITAR imposed restrictions.
Looking at the African air forces scenario, the Block III variant should be most suitable for:
Operators of obsolete 3rd Gen fighters reaching end of life/obsolete combat systems capabilities seeking a simple next generation modular system with simple low-cost day-to-day maintenance. An important point of note regarding the JF-17 Thunder is the fact that it was designed to be maintained by only one ground crew member with average technical skills.
Air forces equipped with mostly ex-Soviet era combat aircraft, and/or existing lead-in fighter trainers of Chinese origin;
Users of Western platforms who are bound to limiting end-user application parameters and ITAR restrictions; and
Countries seeking some form of domestic technical capability to manage own hardware adaptation and upgrades over lifetime suitable to domestic operational requirements.
In Africa, the Nigerian Air Force has become the first operator of the PAC JF-17 Thunder Block II variant, with first delivery of its first batch order of 3 aircraft commencing March 2021. The NAF is currently evaluating the aircraft under operational conditions, especially within the multi-layered CAS capability for a possible order of between 25 - 40 additional platforms, and interest from other African air forces are on the increase. To end this brief discussion about the JF-17 Thunder / FC-1 Xiaolong, we quote the words from a senior Pakistani official involved with the program:
“We know the present version JF-17 [Block II] does not compete one-on-one with the latest F-16V Block 70, but for the price of one F-16V Block 70 we can purchase multiple JF-17 Thunder Block IIIs. With the correct armament, three JF-17 Block III against one F-16V turns the odds against the F-16 in battle” (Comment made at the time when the Indian Air Force was considering procurement of the upgraded Lockheed Martin F-21 variant based on the F-16V Block 70/72 design).
Based on the last batch of (19) F-16V Block 70 sale to Bahrain in September 2017, the total package unit price for the F-16V Block 70 came down to around US$ 146 million each, whereas the average unit price for a JF-17 Block III is estimated to be around US$ 45 million each (and much less for the Block II standard). In light of these costs, the PAF approach to the F-16V Block 70 threat dilemma from a JF-17 perspective makes totally sense while having an aircraft in inventory that is built, supported and upgraded domestically, already well established within the PAF frontline structures, with little to no operational use restrictions from major components suppliers. Knowing the current limitations on the existing variants in service, the PAF applied extra effort in ensuring that all PAF members involved with the day-to-day frontline use of the JF-17 platforms are trained to an exceptionally high standard to counter their adversaries equipped with more modern and better equipped hardware (such as the IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Dassault Rafale). It is no secret that PAF pilots are superior trained compared to their IAF counterparts operating more superior equipment. In the end, superior training and effective command and control always outweighs superior equipment in the hands of lesser skilled and experienced operators in battle. Superior weapon systems mean little if the people operating them are not superior trained.
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