Could the JF-17 Thunder help South Africa? (Part 2)
November 28, 2023

Could the JF-17 Thunder help South Africa? (Part 2)

03 February 2016

By Bilal Khan

Monday’s article introduced the idea of Denel Dynamics partnering with the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) to offer a combined fighter and munitions package using their respective products. In summary, the JF-17 can serve as a native platform of sorts for Denel Dynamics to use as a means to market its munitions, specifically in the context of becoming a preferred vendor for countries unable to acquire sufficient numbers of Western or Russian fighters, or at all. For insight as to how the JF-17 could directly benefit the South African defence industry more broadly, be sure to review part-one.

For Denel Dynamics and PAC, the best time to make a splash would be with the formal unveiling of the JF-17 Block-III, which is currently under-development. The PAF plans to equip the JF-17 Block-III with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, helmet mounted display and sight (HMD/S – for which South Africa could offer technical assistance), and potentially even an infrared search and track (IRST) system. While the jump from legacy platforms to the JF-17 Block-II is already significant, the JF-17 Block-III pushes the leap to a much higher league by embracing the cutting-edge technology (e.g. AESA radar) found on the industry’s flagship competitors, such as the Saab JAS-39E/F Gripen.

In fact, the JF-17 Block-III’s entry would be markedly strong if presented with Denel Dynamics’ range of new munitions, which in turn could be marketed as being comparable in form and function to the systems supplied by Western vendors. For PAC, the benefits are obvious. With Denel’s support it could guarantee the availability of advanced munitions to prospective customers, and in turn, package the JF-17 as a complete ready-to-go solution.

The prospect of presenting the world a fifth-generation high-off-boresight (HOBS) within visual range air-to-air missile (WVRAAM), a set of modular precision-guided bombs (PGB), and potentially even an anti-ship capable air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) as well as next-generation beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) with a readily available AESA radar-equipped fighter without many “ifs and buts” cannot be understated. Factor in the presence of Paramount Group and its capacity to train and potentially assist in the induction process (at least in Africa), then the JF-17 can emerge as a very compelling end-to-end solution.

There are scarcely few – if any – competing vendors who could offer such a package as affordably and readily as Denel Dynamics and PAC. Before continuing further with the market potential, it would be a good idea to look at how each of the aforementioned munitions can benefit the JF-17.

The A-Darter HOBS WVRAAM and Marlin BVRAAM would imbue the JF-17 with a competitive air-to-air profile. As discussed in Monday’s piece, the A-Darter is a fifth-generation system similar to the AIM-9X, which is an industry flagship available to relatively few air arms, especially in the developing world. The A-Darter’s thrust-vectoring nozzle, highly accurate imaging infrared (IIR) seeker, and electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) capability makes the A-Darter a system designed to be used in modern electronic threat environments. When coupled with an HMD/S system, the A-Darter would position the JF-17 as a very credible dogfighter, even against more capable platforms.

The Marlin active radar-guided BVRAAM is being developed as a technology demonstrator which will incorporate improved electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) to handle up and coming radar-frequency ECM techniques (such as DRFM-based decoys). With an expected range of 100km, the final product will be a major gain for the JF-17 in terms of its extended-range air-to-air capability, which in Block-III would accompany an AESA radar (which will hopefully include substantial improvement in range and engagement capabilities). The Marlin platform is also envisaged to be a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system for use on land and sea. In other words, this missile’s inclusion with JF-17 could open those JF-17 users as prospective SAM buyers as well.

The Raptor and Umbani (also known as al-Tariq in UAE service) are modular precision-guided bombs (PGB). Collectively, these munitions would imbue the JF-17 with versatile strike capabilities. The Raptor is a glide-bomb design meant to carry a heavyweight explosive at stand-off ranges. The Umbani is a kit for transforming general purpose bombs (GPB) such as the Mk-8x series into precision-guided bombs (similar to the U.S Joint Direct Attack Munition). In addition to having multiple guidance options, the Umbani could also extend bomb ranges to over 100km. With the capacity to have these bombs equipped for stationary (INS/GPS) and moving targets (laser and IIR), the Raptor and Umbani are versatile strike options. In turn, the JF-17 would present itself as a fully adept platform, i.e. capable of fulfilling the same level of air-to-surface air support and strike engagement offered by more expensive platforms.

The Mokopa has the potential to be Denel’s equivalent to the much-appraised MBDA Brimstone. Even in its current form the Mokopa would make for a good tactical munition, but with a millimeter wave seeker and range-extension, the Mokopa could be a highly precise fire-and-forget air-to-ground missile, especially against moving vehicles. For prospective buyers interested in better time-sensitive targeting and low-yield precision-strike capabilities, the JF-17 and improved Mokopa could make for an attractive package.

While not on Denel’s roadmap at this time, an air-launched cruise missile that could double as an anti-ship missile (AShM) would offer air forces long-range strike capabilities. In turn, this would present the JF-17 as more than simply a tactical fighter. A developing country has very limited resources, hence the idea that a relatively affordable fighter offering limited or quasi-deterrence value (in conventional terms) makes for a value-added proposition. The added anti-ship aspect (which is an industry-wide trend) would position the ALCM and JF-17 as a versatile package. Moreover, Denel and PAC can market the ALCM as their equivalent to the KEPD 350 and MBDA SCALP.

Collectively, these munitions will give the JF-17 a strong chance of entering high-value markets such as Egypt and Morocco, and potentially those which had closed their doors, such as Argentina. It could also raise interest in markets that were not on PAC’s radar in the first place. To readily secure a sale with certain customers, Pakistan and South Africa could come to an agreement where the munitions are sold to a customer directly by Pakistan (under a paid license to South Africa). This is similar to the idea of having Paramount Group serve as a reseller of the JF-17 in certain markets; Pakistan could be a single-source vendor for a specific set of markets.

Due to budgetary constraints, Denel Dynamics will require Pakistan’s financial support in developing some of the aforementioned weapons, such as the Marlin BVRAAM. Although risky, this would be a worthwhile opportunity for the PAF to acquire incredibly strong insight into the development of munition technology, and perhaps even tailor systems currently under development (such as the Marlin) to meet its own specific needs. Besides strengthening PAC’s position in the market, the PAF’s investments in the above programs could also meet the PAF’s long-term requirements. The technology and competency injection would also enable the PAF to have access to advanced locally sourced munitions, thus giving Pakistan further control over its defence supply chain, and thus, more autonomy.

For these reasons the PAF needs to value the development of munitions as seriously as it does the JF-17. Of course, this should occur in conjunction with further localization of the JF-17, such as gradually producing the entirety of the airframe, directly establishing and maintaining strong ties with external vendors (for engines, radars and avionics), and showing enthusiasm for further indigenization where possible. Not only would work in each of these areas strengthen the PAF’s strategic position militarily, but it would enable it to command considerable respect from the commercial market.

This is not to say that China is an unreliable vendor, but Pakistan must carve out for itself autonomy and self-dependence, and in pursuit of that, it needs to branch out and establish ties with players that could (at least in some respects) be its peers, such as South Africa, Brazil and Ukraine. In regards to South Africa specifically, Pakistan has an opportunity to form deep-rooted defence ties, i.e. engage in cooperation that could be spread across many areas, especially commercial, education, industry, and research and development.

The idea that defending one’s borders with contemporary weapon systems that do not have to cost an inordinate amount of money and political integrity is a key message Pakistan is conveying with the JF-17. The JF-17 Block-III, with its AESA radar and HMD/S, would be a decisive step forward in this regard; but to present the JF-17 Block-III with the latest in munitions technology, such as the A-Darter, Raptor-II/III, Umbani and hopefully the Marlin and others, would be a true leap. Together, Denel Dynamics, PAC, and other possible partners (such as those involved in supplying radars and avionics for the JF-17) could show the practical manifestations of this idea, and in turn, generate market-share for their respective offerings.