Although we have touched upon this issue in practically every article we have published about the JF-17 Thunder, it is important to give the question (titled) attention. Why? If Pakistan and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s objectives with regards to the JF-17 are not properly understood and put into context, then we all run the risk of missing the point of the JF-17 program. If the objectives are not clearly understood, then we basically risk misplacing the JF-17 program (above or below its potential), and in turn, not identify the next steps the PAF (and Pakistan Armed Forces) ought to take in the coming years.
There are two aspects to the JF-17 program: the fighter and the domestic support base. The JF-17 as a fighter we have discussed quite a bit on Quwa (you can find our articles here), but the domestic support base needs some attention. To the point, the JF-17 has been a success; while it did not result in Pakistan producing an entire fighter from scratch, it has infused a much needed and very valuable foundation for more intensive development in the future.
Of course, Pakistan should have gotten to this stage earlier, and it might have had it not taken U.S. aid and access to arms for granted in the 1960s and 1980s, but in the end, necessity won. It won the first time when the PAF understood that it cannot build a backbone fighter via imports, and it won again in recent days when the PAF understood that it cannot even look to build the qualitative edge via imports.
In the case of the PAF and Pakistan broadly, depending on a foreign supplier – especially the U.S. – has and will continue to be fraught with problems in the form of cost, limited end-user rights (especially in regards to modifications and upgrades), and potentially even precarious long-term support.
Dependency may not be an issue for an air force that is deeply integrated within a coalition comprised of strong allies. Dependency may not be an issue for an air force that has little need for stand-off range munitions to put an adversary’s distant assets at risk. Dependency may not be an issue for an air force that does not have to deter geo-strategic rivals looking to raise their interests at their neighbour’s expense.
But Pakistan cannot afford to be dependent, not at this stage, and certainly not in the medium to long-term. The JF-17 in terms of its domestic support goals was designed to begin rectifying this dependency problem; with the Thunder, the PAF can integrate its choice of weapons and avionics in the fighter. It did not enter the program with the aim of proving that it has the ability to design and develop a fighter. To suggest such a thing would be a bad joke given that Pakistan openly stated that it is depending on China to develop the fighter. Granted, co-funding the development of the JF-17 has given the PAF freedom in terms of co-owning the fighter platform (e.g. integrating its choice of weapon at will), but the JF-17 was not meant to be a reflection of Pakistan’s abilities. It was meant to build Pakistan’s abilities.
Thanks to the JF-17, Pakistan today possess an aircraft manufacturing facility that produces 58% of the JF-17’s airframe and a proportion of its avionics under license. At the bare minimum, it can at least fully support the fighter to the end of its life via a locally available supply base of spare-parts and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO). In truth, it can go a bit further, and in relatively important ways. While the PAF would have to wait on U.S. approval for making the F-16 capable of firing a high off-boresight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM), it can acquire and integrate the HOBS AAM of its choice on the JF-17. Yes, there are issues in terms of funding, but these obstacles are dependent on Pakistan, not Washington.
It takes human capital development to get this far, even though in the grand scheme of things it is only a little progress, it is necessary in order to keep going further. While JF-17 was designed from the onset as a cost-centric backbone fighter, and thus, inherently limited in what it can offer, the foundation it has laid has given the PAF a clearer idea of what it needs to do in order locally source a more capable platform (thus ending the need for the ‘metaphorical F-16’ in the future).
In fact, there is a sense that the PAF’s next-generation fighter program will become quantitative and qualitative driver of the PAF’s future fighter fleet. In other words, this platform may (and we certainly hope that it does) become a no-compromise fighter. How that impacts the configuration or design is not known to anyone at this time, but the expectations behind the next-generation fighter are certainly higher than that of the Super-7.
There is an important caveat. While the PAF’s pursuit to build the necessary human capital via the Kamra Aviation City project ought to be commended, there are structural realities that still need to be addressed. Pakistan’s precarious economic condition is not news to anyone, but strong emphasis needs to be placed on the development of wide scale science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and applied research. Even Kamra Aviation City’s masters and postdoctoral programs will need competent graduates of bachelors-level STEM majors, who in turn will need sufficient school-level STEM teaching. Not to mention the need for a wide pool of technicians and applied technology specialists to help with integration and implementation at every step. Sadly, this is not (and should not) be the purview of the PAF (a war fighting arm).