Having won sales in Nigeria and Myanmar, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) are looking to secure new contracts for the JF-17 in Malaysia and Argentina.
In total, the sales prospects could amount to 30 aircraft (i.e., 18 for Malaysia and 12 for Argentina). Though small in scope, these contracts could result in follow-on orders in the future. In addition, PAC will benefit from maintenance, training, and other support contracts through the life of those aircraft.
However, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is also looking to take the JF-17 to a potentially wider market as a lead-in-fighter-training (LIFT) system. In fact, the PAF is pitching the JF-17 as a LIFT asset to Qatar.
Malaysia started its search for a new light combat aircraft in 2019. It is looking to replace its BAE Systems Hawk and Aeromacchi MB339 trainers as well as its MiG-29 fighters. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is seeking a multi-role asset that can also double as a LIFT. With an initial order of 18 aircraft, the winning contractor could secure follow-on orders for a total of 50 to 60 aircraft.
However, the JF-17 is competing against the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50 Golden Eagle. KAI has been positioning the FA-50 as a similar solution to the JF-17 – i.e., a lightweight combat aircraft that could double as a LIFT. In that respect, KAI is working to integrate the FA-50 with a range of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. There had even been talk of integrating the KEPD-350 air-launched cruise missile.
The JF-17, on the other hand, is also available with modern air-to-air missiles (AAM), including the SD-10 and PL-5EII. But one area where AVIC and PAC could claim an edge over the FA-50 is the JF-17’s growing compatibility with stand-off-range weapons (SOW). The JF-17 is available with the C-802 anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM), Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK), and CM-400AKG air-launched rocket.
Argentina had originally selected the FA-50, but the aircraft’s use of six major British components served as a blocker to an actual deal. Basically, the United Kingdom did not approve the transfer of those systems to the Argentine Air Force. As a result, Argentina announced that it would consider the JF-17.
In late 2020, the Argentine Air Force’s Chief of the General Staff, Brigadier Xavier Isaac, said that the force was interested in the JF-17 Block-III. Today, the Block-III is competing with Russia’s MiG-35 for the possible contract, and in May 2021, a delegation from China National Aero-Technology Import and Export (CATIC) visited Argentina to present their formal offer.
If Argentina narrowed its fighter requirement to one of the JF-17 or MiG-35, then the JF-17 may ultimately win the tender. The main impediment to the MiG-35 is CAATSA (i.e., the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which basically bars countries from procuring big-ticket arms from Russia.
Having seen the fallout Turkey is dealing with by buying the S-400 (and losing its seat in the F-35 program), there are few countries willing to test Washington’s resolve in enforcing CAATSA. Argentina is not among those countries, especially when it relies on the US for trade and investment. Likewise, China may package its offer with credit and/or investment, thus further incentivizing Argentina.
With the dual-seat JF-17B in hand, the PAF is also looking to market the platform as a LIFT. It is currently positioning it as such to the Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF). Though it is unclear if the JF-17B will secure the QEAF bid, the idea of pitching the JF-17B as a LIFT is a workable approach.
Interestingly, with the JF-17B serving as a LIFT, the PAF could offer an entire air warfare stack to countries – i.e., a basic trainer in the form of Super Mushshak, the K-8 as an intermediate jet trainer, a LIFT platform through the JF-17B, and the Block-III as a frontline multi-role fighter. Combined with its training facilities and exercises, the PAF can basically help countries set-up an air warfare environment from scratch.
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For more updates on the JF-17, check out:
 “Chinese delegation in Argentina to offer the Air Force, the supersonic aircraft JF-17.” MercoPress. 08 May 2021. URL: https://en.mercopress.com/2021/05/08/chinese-delegation-in-argentina-to-offer-the-air-force-the-supersonic-aircraft-jf-17