Our mounting aversion to the idea of Pakistan spending any money towards new-built F-16C/D Block-52+ is no secret, and our strong support for the JF-17 Thunder is well-established.
As a general point, the greatest value of the JF-17 (at least for Pakistan) does not rest in its performance, but in the reality that Pakistan has authority over the platform. By “authority” we refer to the fact that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) can configure the JF-17 according to its will. This is the most essential point. While the F-16 is inherently the superior platform in terms of performance and quality, the PAF does not have the luxury to push the Viper to its available potential.
Just consider the fact that the PAF cannot readily integrate a high off-boresight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM) onto its F-16s without U.S. approval of some shape or form. Even HOBS AAM that have been technically cleared for the F-16, such as the IRIS-T (developed by the German company Diehl BGT), cannot be configured onto the PAF’s F-16s without the U.S.’ approval. It would basically have to wait on America’s willingness to release the comparable AIM-9X; and this story is repetitive – the PAF’s F-16s have yet to be equipped with stand-off weapons (SOW), anti-ship missiles (AShM), and anti-radiation missiles (ARM).
On the other hand, despite the JF-17’s comparatively limited performance, the PAF has been able to arm the JF-17 with the C-802 AShM, and has the H-2/H-4 SOW and MAR-1 ARM in the pipeline (if not in the process of integration). And as we have repeatedly stated in earlier articles, it is the JF-17 that has a HOBS AAM, active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, infrared search and track (IRST), and air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) integration in the pipeline – not the PAF’s F-16s. What benefit does the F-16’s multi-role prowess offer the PAF when that prowess is gradually eroding in the face of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Navy (IN)’s impressive qualitative advancements?
Finally, there is the reality that unlike the F-16, the PAF benefits from an increasingly adept domestic base capable of thoroughly supporting the JF-17. Yes, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) is a novice in terms of being an aerospace industry entity, but it is gradually and incrementally becoming capable, despite the difficult political and economic limitations Pakistan throws onto itself. The workshare agreement has shifted 58% of the JF-17’s airframe manufacturing to Kamra, and efforts are underway to bring a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) for Klimov turbofans as well. With the maintenance and support channel being domestic, the PAF can draw upon the benefits of assured and affordable accessibility. The necessities produced in Pakistan (and in some cases imported from China and Russia) are at the affordable side of the cost-spectrum; the money that goes back into PAC also goes back into Pakistan.
To be honest, the points being explained in this article are mostly earlier ideas being conveyed from a different set of angles, but they set the basis of why it is important to consider ideas about next steps, not just for the PAF, but for PAC and the JF-17 Thunder program.
The F-16 (and import route generally) has become a difficult path to take on, hence the reason why it is imperative that domestic development now take on a much higher level of importance. The PAF ought to seriously consider the value of bringing more of the airframe manufacturing to Kamra. China has been a dependable partner, but urgency and the desire to not take relationships for granted needs to be adopted.
There is a learning curve and a lot of building blocks to set-up, but the expertise and infrastructure built for the JF-17 will prove valuable for future projects. Make no mistake, a unique and independent program is not going to happen, but Pakistan could potentially (one day) offer something of tangible value to an outside partner. We are not talking about ground-breaking research, but at least a chance at becoming a viable co-production partner (that could help pull costs down), or capable licensed manufacturer of more sophisticated sub-systems, etc. It would be a huge shame if – like the K-8 Karakoram – the JF-17 program ends up at a plateau, and then just stays flat from an indigenization and development standpoint.
The PAF should also be critically averse to the notion of capping the JF-17. In other words, the fighter must not be relegated into becoming just a ‘second-tier’ fighter (relative to other fighter options for the PAF). For all intents the purposes, the geo-political and economic reality has made the JF-17 the backbone and edge-driver of the PAF fighter fleet. By “edge-driver” we refer to the idea of it being the platform where the PAF has the flexibility to keep up with qualitative changes in South Asia, such as the eventual entry of AESA radars. While the PAF must not waste funds, the PAF ought to ensure that the JF-17 Block-III (and potentially Block-IV and Block-V) are equipped with the most appropriate – in terms of the cost-to-performance ratio – subsystems available. It would be a shame to see a less capable AESA radar (e.g. via less transmit/receive modules than possible) due to prohibitive costs (which could have been avoided by walking away from a certain F-16 deal).
Finally, it is no secret that the PAF and PAC have been seeking to secure export clients for the JF-17. There is some substantive potential, but again, it is important that the PAF/PAC are careful with next steps. At some point, it may be prudent to clearly separate work between domestic and export variants of the JF-17. In terms of export, some areas could be accelerated, such as the procurement of a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) or HOBS AAM. Subsystems such as radars and electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasure (ECM) suites for export-grade JF-17s could be acquired from the market; the risk for the PAF is minimal because it would not necessarily intend to use those systems for itself. The PAF cannot let its own requirements get guided by the market, but on the other hand, it cannot muddle the needs of prospective clients with its own (which is what happened with the omission of the dual-seat JF-17 in the initial years of the JF-17’s development).