We touched on the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s plans for a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system for the JF-17 in our article overviewing the Block-III, but we did not go into a lot of specific detail into how the PAF might fulfill its requirement. For some background, the JF-17 Block-III is being slotted as a significant upgrade of the Thunder, especially in terms of its radar and other onboard electronics. One of the key subsystems being planned for the JF-17 Block-III is an HMD/S, which in turn is expected to be able to cue a fifth-generation high off-boresight (HOBS) within-visual-range air-to-air missile (WVRAAM).
With Pakistani officials reportedly referring to the JF-17 Block-III as a “game changer,” it is obvious that there is a fair bit of excitement and momentum being driven towards the upgrade. This is not surprising considering that the subsystems being sought for the Block-III are of the same technological cut as those found on the industry’s leading platforms, such as the JAS-39E/F Gripen NG. Granted, the Block-III will not be a “cheap” route, but in comparison to many of the alternatives, it will still be among the most cost-effective, especially given the capabilities that are expected to be on offer.
We will take a look at some of the JF-17 Block-III’s other planned subsystems – such as the active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar – in the future, but we will begin with the HMD/S, and for good reason. Believe it or not, the pursuit of the HMD/S actually predates the Block-III, the PAF had planned to integrate it onto the JF-17 as far back as at least 2008! In fact, an official documentary about the JF-17 Thunder even displayed an image (which could not be found elsewhere) of what seems to have been a Denel Archer helmet-mounted sight (HMS) system paired with a MBU-5/P oxygen mask (which was the standard-issue oxygen mask for PAF fighter pilots at the time)
It is apparent that something was tested very early on, but it did not pan out. Why? One can only speculate to be honest, but it may have been due to cost-control (the late 2000s and early 2010s were a particularly bad economic period), or perhaps due to a lack of readily available options off-the-shelf. Even the Archer (which no longer exists as a product) could have been legacy technology in comparison to systems such as the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), which was being integrated onto the PAF’s F-16s via the Block-52+ acquisition and Mid-Life Update (MLU) programs.
Whatever the actual reason, the PAF had decided to push the integration of an HMD/S to the JF-17 Block-III, and this was officially confirmed during the Paris Air Show by Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Arshad Malik, the Chief Project Director of the JF-17 program. In terms of what this HMD/S system would look like, where it would come from, its technology, and its capabilities, this has not been disclosed; but we will speculate.
Before looking at the specific options available to the PAF, it is important get an understanding of how the PAF will likely approach its requirement. It is incredibly unlikely that there will be a straightforward off-the-shelf purchase, not without some meaningful measure of technology transfer anyways. Simply put, one of the key objectives behind the JF-17 is to maintain control: control over the platform, control over the air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions one wishes to integrate onto the platform, and control over the integration of the various subsystems (e.g. radar, data-link, etc) being used, etc.
The PAF is not going to simply buy a solution whereby it is forced to depend on a limited set of suppliers for compatible munitions, such as HOBS WVRAAM. During the Paris Air Show, AVM Arshad Malik noted the South African-Brazilian A-Darter as a HOBS WVRAAM option for the JF-17, not the Diehl BGT IRIS-T or MBDA MICA-IR. However, in their quest to vertically integrate customers, some vendors may try to push the PAF towards certain routes with their solutions as opposed to others, and this unfortunately will pull the PAF away from one of the JF-17’s underlying goals – control over the platform.
It is for this reason that we believe that the PAF will not acquire a readymade off-the-shelf solution, at least not without a sufficient level of technology transfer and control over the end product. Although it may be a costlier route, the PAF may prefer pairing up with an external partner (likely China, potentially others) to develop a bespoke or custom solution, one tailored for the JF-17 Thunder.
Granted, this route will be more expensive relative to simply picking up an existing solution, but taking this route will grant the PAF the highest level of authority over the final product. In turn, this will enable the PAF to freely pair the system to the air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions of its choice, and to export it without necessarily worrying about restrictions or regulatory hurdles on the part of an external party.
Another point worth considering is that while securing a custom solution may be more expensive in comparison to off-the-shelf HMD/S, compared to developing other areas of a modern multi-role fighter, it may not be expensive in comparative terms. As a reference, consider that Saab spent about $54 million U.S. to secure the Cobra HMD for use on the JAS-39C/D Gripen. For the PAF, this is simply a scenario where it will be immensely beneficial for it to simply put down the funds it needs to acquire a custom (and locally produced) HMD/S. The payoff would come from the ability to integrate the munitions and optic systems (e.g. night-vision) of its choice, and the freedom to offer flexible configurations to prospective customers.
It would be worth studying the options potentially available to the PAF for the JF-17 Block-III. Note, this list is not a suggestion of the partners the PAF ought to work with, our recommendations are limited to the PAF’s general method (described above), not the specifics. The following are off-the-shelf options.
Air Marshal Muhammad Ashfaque Arain’s statements about the PAF wanting to acquire the Damocles targeting pod for use with the JF-17 could open the door to other conversations. The Thales TopOwl-F is a fairly mature HMD/S platform, one that has also been adapted for use on helicopters (including the AH-1Z the Pakistan Army is in the process of acquiring). While a seemingly good system (it is widely adopted after all), there are many unclear aspects to the system, especially in light of the PAF’s requirements. For example, would Thales be amenable to enabling the PAF integrate its choice of weapon systems to the helmet? Would Pakistan be able to acquire the TopOwl-F with the requisite technology transfer to locally produce the system? And there is the obvious issue of cost, which can be a problem with French vendors.
In 2013, Thales also acquired Visionix, an American firm specializing in developing HMD/S solutions for the U.S. armed forces. Thales Visionix’s Scorpion Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (HMCS), which is a very interesting concept since it is basically a modular add-on for standard-issue HGU-55/P helmets (which is also the standard-issue helmet in the PAF). Unfortunately, this is not technology that is going to be cleared for Pakistan and the JF-17. As a general point, Thales has a lot of interesting work under its belt, but in the case of the PAF, a lot of it is inaccessible (in financial and/or regulatory terms). To be frank, it is unlikely the PAF is going to go the Thales route in terms of its HMD/S requirements, though a marginal possibility may be there provided its requirements, terms, and financial capacities are met – unlikely.
BAE Striker II
The BAE Striker II is among the newest options available on the market today. It is a development of the original Striker (which served as the basis for the Saab Cobra HMD). At present, the Striker II is being produced for the Eurofighter Typhoon.
However, like France, accessing the Striker II would depend on the PAF’s success in receiving clearance from the British government. But given that a Finmeccanica Vixen AESA radar is being considered for the JF-17 Block-III’s radar requirement, it is possible that acquiring the necessary clearance may not be an issue. While an Italian company, Finmeccanica’s AESA radar work is primarily done by its British subsidiary Selex ES. It is unlikely that either party would make contact with the JF-17 program without having confidence in Rome and London to OK a sale, should it come to fruition.
There are other potential hurdles as well. Britain may have a stake in wanting to push the MBDA Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) with the Striker II. That said, the stake may not be as strong as it might be in regards to France, the British defence industry is comparatively more flexible when it comes to working around the specific needs of its customers. It would be an interesting route, especially if the Finmeccanica/Selex ES route is taken for the JF-17 Block-III’s radar and avionics.
However, we will put this in the “unlikely” category, just too many unknowns at the moment in terms of where the PAF stands in its relationship with BAE Systems.
As one might notice, the off-the-shelf route is not as straightforward as it might seem, especially in the context of the PAF and the JF-17. It is more likely that a custom solution will be developed an overseas partner, and at this stage, China would be the most likely partner. That said, it is worth noting that the Chinese have as much of a stake in mastering HMD/S technology for their own use as the PAF does for the JF-17. In this case, the cost of development could easily be shared, and the Chinese will be the most amenable to enabling Pakistan pair the weapon systems of its choice, in addition to letting it produce the system domestically. Moreover, the PAF could offer its experience using the JHMCS to help shape the final outcome of such a program, perhaps steering it to be more in-line with Western HMD/S concepts than Russian (the primary source of China’s experience).
 Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.” Note: a special publication released by the Pakistan Air Force during the Paris Air Show of 2015.