Foreword: This is not a news story, but a piece for discussion. The details offered in this article are not authoritative pieces of information, but rather, perspectives of the author.
With the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) FC-31 progressing, most notably with the maiden flight of its second prototype, the question of whether China’s new platform will figure into the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) next-generation fighter plans has returned to the fore. The known answer has not changed: the PAF is currently in the process of conceptualizing and forming its next-generation solution, and thus, it has not issued its desired configuration, much less selecting a platform.
Before venturing further into the question, it will be worth re-visiting what the PAF, especially the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, has stated regarding next-generation aircraft. In this respect, there are two key facets: First, in conceptualizing a solution, Aman stressed that the PAF will need to look beyond the capabilities and systems on offer in fifth-generation designs. It is not clear what ACM Aman meant in this statement, but it appears that he was advocating for the inclusion of emerging technologies, especially at the abstract level. Second, ACM Aman outlined that indigenization will be a key facet of the PAF’s next-generation fighter plans. From expanding the JF-17’s industry and technology base to finally making a concrete and directed effort in aviation research and development (through the Kamra Aviation City initiative), ACM Aman wanted Pakistan to “[no longer] be dependent on few [sources] to again ask for next-generation aircraft.” Third, there is urgency in bringing a next-generation solution to fruition, especially since the older F-16s (and, in due time, older JF-17s) will need to be replaced.
The PAF’s desire for indigenization could lead one to believe that an original design is being sought. This is a possible scenario, though it would necessitate considerable time and financial investment, neither of which are plentiful to the PAF. Its oldest F-16s are nearing 8,000 service hours (i.e. the guaranteed lifespan), and currently, there are no service life extension programs (SLEP) in place for Block-15 airframes. The PAF will need a new medium-weight fighter to begin supplanting the F-16A/Bs from the 2030s. The pursuit of an original design, even with collaborative support from China, would not be a factor by the time the PAF’s oldest F-16s need to be replaced. In this respect, the SAC FC-31 could fit within the PAF’s procurement timeline quite well. Although it is unclear if Beijing is now investing in the FC-31 as the sole backer (i.e. negating the previous need for an outside funding partner from the program), the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) aims to bring the FC-31 into full operational capability (FOC) status by the mid-2020s.
The promise of the FC-31 – which aims to offer prospective users an agile airframe with a small radar cross-section (RCS), advanced electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, modern electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, an infrared search and track (IRST) system, and even integrated electro-optical targeting (EOTS) system – is a significant jump over the F-16A/B Block-15 Mid-Life Update (MLU) variants in use by the PAF. Granted, one might question the extent or quality of sensor fusion on the FC-31 (e.g. binding the AESA radar and active phased-array based EW/ECM arrays to a single software engine), but there are clear generational upgrades in many respects between the F-16 MLU and FC-31. Furthermore, considering Beijing’s extensive investment in electronics, which is evident in its ability to push AESA radar solutions for many naval and airborne applications, the idea of sufficiently useful sensor fusion (not “the best”) is plausible.
With its ability to carry a payload of 8,000 kg across four internal and six external hardpoints, the FC-31 is a natural bridge from the F-16, retaining the latter’s base air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. To put it another way, the FC-31 can enable the PAF to maintain continuity in the roles it currently delegates to the F-16s. The FC-31 can also extend its utility in key areas. For example, unlike the F-16, the PAF is free to integrate the FC-31 with its choice of stand-off range weapons, most notably anti-ship missiles (AShM) and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). If the FC-31 fulfills its potential, it would be a qualitative driver.
When considering the above as well as a known timeline, mature developmental stage, and supplier, the notion of the PAF being a strong contender for procuring the FC-31 is not surprising. In terms of the PAF’s desire for indigenization, procuring the FC-31 need not be mutually exclusive from the indigenization effort. Yes, the PAF would have to depend on China for the supply of the platform and technology, but that could yield a measure of valuable domestic support for the fighter.
Critical elements, such as maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO), ought to be expected, but the existing production base could be expanded to involve the local production of spare parts and subsystems. Interestingly, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), which provides the PAF with MRO support as well as the JF-17 (via a co-production workshare agreement with AVIC), is interested in gas turbine production. If activated, this route could lead PAC into deeper turbofan engine support work.
Considering the investment made in the JF-17 Thunder, it would be disingenuous to assume that the PAF would walk away from the platform in the foreseeable future. To the contrary, one should expect the PAF to continue backing the development of the JF-17. The presence of another platform, such as the FC-31, removes the pressure of offensive and/or long-endurance operations from the JF-17, freeing the Thunder for its intended purpose as a workhorse fighter for defending the country’s airspace and territory. If put in a defensive role, a fighter with significant local support, low costs, and high operational availability can be an immense asset. This ought to be the JF-17 Thunder’s next step.
This is not a discussion regarding the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III, but a later (and, to be clear, hypothetical) variant. Investment in the FC-31 could be tied to extending its technology to the Thunder. For example, besides a similar onboard electronics suite and munitions inventory, the future JF-17 could utilize the WS-13E turbofan, which – as per some analysts – powers the second FC-31 prototype. Smokeless exhaust and a higher thrust rating would be welcome additions to the JF-17. In parallel, indigenous efforts could be made to improve the airframe, and in the process, gradually build competency in a few critical areas, such as composite aerostructures and flight control. This would be a long-term effort, but it can align with the PAF’s call for indigenization in next-generation aircraft. The future Thunder that could replace the current Thunder in the PAF fleet two decades from now could potentially reflect that effort.
The SAC FC-31 deserves consideration, but it would be premature, at least today, to argue that the PAF will certainly select the platform. However, as the platform develops, it would be difficult to see another scenario, especially since the FC-31 is among a scarcely few next-generation platforms in development, and among three to be on the market in the 2020s (the others being the F-35 and Sukhoi T-50). Beijing moving to back the program alone would be key to its success, and considering the dearth of options on the market for non-NATO air arms, it would be surprising to see Beijing leave AVIC to develop the fighter on its own or to depend on an external funding source. When options are scarce, the market has shown its willingness to embrace analogous Chinese solutions. This was seen in the armed drone space. The FC-31 could be a defining product for the Chinese aviation industry, one Beijing would be wise to support.