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Does the JF-17’s Market Potential Matter?

Nearly 12 years after its maiden flight, the JF-17 was able to secure its first export order during the Paris Air Show in June 2015. At the time the customer was not disclosed, but at this point it is all but an open secret that the buyer was Myanmar (IHS Jane’s 360). Moving forward, Pakistan is reportedly aiming to close a sale of up to 10 JF-17s to the Sri Lankan Air Force as well as pursue possible leads in the form of Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco.

There has been some recent momentum, but it is a far cry from the expectations the fighter carried in its early development years, especially in the hopes that it could play a big part in replacing hundreds of ageing MiG-21/F-7, Mirage III/5 and F-5 Tiger IIs serving in the developing world. The fact that China, the co-development partner, did not order any JF-17s did not help with building positive perception either. With the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) as the sole user at this time, one might feel tempted to conclude that the JF-17 program did not live up to its expectations, or that it is too flawed to succeed.

Granted, the JF-17 is no paragon of fighter design nor a trendsetter for high-performance benchmarks, but it was never meant to be in the first place. Right from the onset the JF-17 was envisioned as a relatively low-cost replacement for the increasingly obsolete legacy platforms in service by the hundreds in the PAF, not to mention the many other air forces in Asia and Africa with similar or direr financial capacities. If there was a standard to broadly assess the JF-17, it ought to be on the basis of whether it actually delivers current-day air warfare benefits to an air force.

In Pakistan, the JF-17 has thus far replaced the PAF’s entire fleet of Nanchang A-5s as well as a number of its many Chengdu F-7Ps. For the most part, these platforms were limited to using the AIM-9 Sidewinder within visual-range air-to-air missile (WVRAAM) and general purpose bombs (GPB).

The JF-17 on the other hand has been greenlit to use the SD-10 active radar-guided beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), LT-2 laser-guided bombs (LGB) as well as LS-3/LS-6 satellite-aided precision-guided bombs (PGB), MAR-1 anti-radiation missile (ARM), H-2/H-4 stand-off weapon (SOW), as well as C-802 and CM-400AKG anti-ship missiles (AShM). For a more thorough understanding of the JF-17, be sure to read Quwa’s prior articles on the fighter.

The difference in munitions alone demonstrates how much of a leap the JF-17 is in comparison to the hundreds of legacy platforms still in service around the world. However, if this is apparent, then it begs the question, “Why is the JF-17 having difficulty in garnering sales?”

The answer can be traced to two issues: First, the apparent bifurcation of the combat aircraft market, i.e. the pull towards two extremes between aircraft that are expensive high-performance fighters such as the Rafale on one end of the spectrum, and very low-cost light attack aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano on the other end. Second, the reality that arms acquisitions are not purely commercial transactions.

A number of air forces that in an earlier age would have made for prospective JF-17 buyers may today be inclined towards light close air support (CAS) aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano or the in-development Textron AirLand Scorpion. The rationale (in those specific countries) would stem from the idea that there are no aerial or state-level threats warranting a full-fledged fighter; A-29-like aircraft would be sufficient for defending one’s territorial integrity from low-capacity threats (such as smugglers or war lords).

On the other end of the spectrum are air forces content with acquiring comparatively small numbers of expensive high-performance fighters such as the Dassault Rafale or Eurofighter Typhoon. For a country upholding key security interests necessitating a fighter fleet, an air force may emphasize a smaller number of potent force-multipliers ahead of a larger number of less capable platforms. In the end, it may seem more efficient and worthwhile for certain countries to acquire two squadrons of Typhoons over four or five JF-17 squadrons.

In effect, the JF-17 has to compete in an increasingly compressed space in the middle, which in turn is increasingly saturated with very similar platforms: FA-50, Tejas, second-hand Gripens and surplus early-model F-16s. However, there is also the angle of international relations. For example, countries aspiring to join NATO (such as those in the Balkans) will probably look to surplus F-16s for replacing their MiGs, not just out of concern for cost, but the fact that it is a mature platform of choice within the organization. Others, such as Sweden and South Korea, may offer some countries a favourable line-of-credit or financing terms should a country choose their respective fighters; Pakistan is in no position to offer such support.

To be frank, it is unlikely that any of today’s lightweight platforms, such as the JF-17, will make massive in-roads (to the tune of the F-16 and MiG-21 of old) in the global fighter market. Acquisition dynamics have changed since the Cold War and there are few air forces in the world today in need of affordable platforms to serve in numbers. The market should not be the central concern for Pakistan; rather, it should focus on ensuring the JF-17 receives the developmental support to quickly reach its next big milestone.