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Could the JF-17 Thunder help South Africa? (Part 1)

01 February 2016

By Bilal Khan

It is no secret that Pakistan has been looking to generate market momentum for the JF-17. With a confirmed sale to Myanmar, a probable sale to Nigeria, and a possible (but insecure) lead in Sri Lanka, it seems the JF-17 is beginning to make in-roads in the market of developing world air forces.

But there are challenges. As discussed in an earlier article on Quwa, Pakistan does not have the political and financial clout to displace today’s incumbent defence hardware vendors. In the face of the U.S. and its armada of surplus F-16s or even Sweden with its line-up of second-hand JAS-39s available for lease, the JF-17 runs the serious risk of being shut-out from markets that – while more difficult to attain – are the most rewarding in terms of long-term commercial relationships.

Countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Azerbaijan (among others) could make use of the JF-17, especially as a means to replace legacy lightweight fighters or to build quantitative capacity, but in order to entice them, Pakistan would need to package the JF-17 as a truly serious and worthwhile contender. Yes, the story about not being anywhere near as sanction-prone as a Western platform or not being encumbered by political-strings is a good aspect, but it is only one aspect.

In tandem with attractive cost-savings, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) needs to guarantee the availability of current-day as well as emerging technologies, especially in the areas of air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions. The ideal country to offer the goods and present them with a compatible story — i.e. piercing the limitations of sanctions, managing defence in parallel with structural developmental issues (e.g. poverty), understanding the realities of a developing country — is none other than South Africa.

The benefits South Africa’s support would bring to the JF-17 are obvious (and will be studied in part-two), but the question of how the JF-17 benefits the South Africa, namely its leading defence vendors (e.g. Denel and Paramount Group) ought to be explored. First, it is worth looking at Denel Dynamics’ impressive range of air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions.

The A-Darter is a fifth-generation within visual range air-to-air missile (WVRAAM). According to Air Vice Marshal Arshad Malik (see: “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s Multi-Role Fighter” written by Alan Warnes), the Chief Project Director of the JF-17, the A-Darter is under consideration for use on the JF-17 Block-III. Equipped with an imaging infrared (IIR) seeker and thrust-vectoring nozzles for high-maneuverability, the high-off-boresight (HOBS) AAM is similar in concept to the Raytheon AIM-9X. The A-Darter can be paired with a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, which would allow the pilot to track and engage a target through the use of eyesight.

The Denel Dynamics A-Darter, a 5th-generation within visual range air-to-air missile. Photo credit: Denel Dynamics
The Denel Dynamics A-Darter, a 5th-generation within visual range air-to-air missile. Photo credit: Denel Dynamics

The Raptor-II is a stand-off precision-guided glide-bomb. Derived from the 60km Raptor-I, the Raptor II can be guided by a satellite-aided inertial navigation system (INS) or an electro-optical (EO) system, such as IIR. It also uses a rocket-booster, giving it a range of 120km. The improved Raptor-III incorporates the EO seeker alongside satellite-aided inertial navigation system (INS) with mid-course data-link connectivity. The Raptor series is marketed as a solution for attacking high-value targets at extended ranges.

While the Raptor is a compelling solution, it would be interesting if Denel developed a new variant modelled on the concept of the AGM-154 Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW). While such a system may not be capable of carrying heavyweight warheads like the Raptor II (which could carry 600kg), this system could be used to deliver guided sub-munitions, making it a good wide area attack munition. Interesting note, the Raptor-I and II are produced under license in Pakistan by the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM). They are designated as H-2 and H-4, respectively.

The Denel Raptor II glide-bomb. Photo credit: Denel Dynamics
The Denel Raptor II glide-bomb. Photo credit: Denel Dynamics

The Umbani (also known as the al-Tariq in the UAE) is a modular precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit designed for Mk-8x series (e.g. Mk-81, Mk-82, etc) of general purpose bombs (GPB). Through the addition of large tail fins, as well as a guidance system, the Mk-8x GPB becomes capable of hitting targets with a substantially increased degree of accuracy (within 3 metres CEP according to Denel). The user could pair the bomb with a range of guidance systems, e.g. satellite-aided INS, IIR with automatic target recognition (ATR), and laser. Optional glide-wings and a rocket motor could extend the range of the bombs to over 100km, transforming them into precision-guided stand-off munitions.

The Umbani/al-Tariq precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit for Mk-8x general purpose bombs (GPB). Photo credit: Denel Dynamics
The Umbani/al-Tariq precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit for Mk-8x general purpose bombs (GPB). Photo credit: Denel Dynamics

The Mokopa anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) is another interesting system, though its connection with a fast jet fighter platform such as the JF-17 may not be clear at first. Equipped with a laser-guided seeker and capable of travelling up to 10km, the Mokopa is Denel Dynamics’ equivalent to the AGM-114 Hellfire II. Denel clearly has the competency to extend the range of the missile and pair it with an IIR or even a millimeter wave (mmW) terminal seeker. This could make it a somewhat similar solution to the Brimstone AGM. Such a munition could enable the user to engage ground targets, including moving vehicles, with a very high degree of precision. A single JF-17 hardpoint could also carry two to three of these missiles.

The Denel Mokopa anti-tank guided missile. While currently equipped with a laser-guided seeker, Denel is committed to upgrading the system to incorporate imaging infrared (IIR) and millimeter wave (mmW)-seekers as well, thus giving the missile absolute fire-and-forget capability. Photo credit: Denel Dynamics
The Denel Mokopa anti-tank guided missile. Photo credit: Denel Dynamics

The Marlin beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) is currently under development, and it is being aimed as a solution for air, land and sea-based platforms. In other words, it is also being designed to serve as a surface-to-air missile (SAM). The active radar-guided BVRAAM is expected to have a range of 100km. In addition, the Marlin’s seeker has been designed to effectively engage in simultaneous multi-target tracking as well as possess increased electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) capabilities. The latter aspect will help the Marlin withstand the effects of modern radar-jamming and seeker-fooling techniques. While a technology demonstrator, Denel hopes to eventually evolve the Marlin into an actual product.

Mock-up of the Denel Marlin technology demonstrator for beyond visual range air-to-air missiles.
Mock-up of the Denel Dynamics Marlin technology demonstrator for beyond visual range air-to-air missiles.

While not an openly marketed product (yet), Denel Dynamics’ air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) technology is another area to keep an eye on. In the context of an export-oriented fighter, Denel’s expertise with ALCM technology enables it to develop a sound export-focused solution. Imagine if the company developed a MTCR-compliant ALCM that could double (via an IIR or active radar-seeker) as an anti-ship missile. This would essentially be the Denel equivalent to the Taurus Systems GmbH KEPD 350.

Illustration of the Denel Torgos air-launched cruise missile.
Illustration of the Denel Torgos air-launched cruise missile.

Denel Dynamics has a striking line-up of munitions, but it lacks a ‘native’ platform from which to market those goods. Yes, it could market its munitions in tandem with the JAS-39 Gripen or another platform, but with the exception of specific customers (such as Brazil), Denel would likely have to negotiate space with market incumbents (such as MBDA and Raytheon on the Gripen). The JF-17 on the other hand does not have that kind of attention, which leaves the space open for Denel.

Denel could market itself as the preferred JF-17 munitions vendor. It could inform prospective customers that not only are the weapon systems it has to offer technically sound and up-to-par with the offerings of industry leaders, but that they have already been integrated, tested and green-lit for use on a platform that is ready to be sold with relatively little in the way in terms of cost and other obstacles, such as political-strings and regulatory hurdles.

The availability of the JF-17 as a “ready-to-go” platform enables Denel Dynamics to access a wide set of markets. Not every air force is like the United Arab Emirates, i.e. with the capacity to study and integrate the Umbani onto an existing platform capable of properly using it (e.g. Mirage 2000-9). Air forces considering a new multi-role fighter to replace their MiG-21s, MiG-23s, F-5 Tiger IIs, Chengdu F-7s, Mirage III/5, Mirage F-1 and Kfirs would be delighted to know that they can access advanced munitions as well as a certified fighter off-the-shelf with relatively little hassle and cost.

Paramount Group could benefit from the JF-17 as well. If the JF-17 begins making serious in-roads, especially in Africa, the Paramount Aviation Academy could acquire several JF-17s for use as training and live demonstration aircraft. Not only could the company train new JF-17 customers, but also countries seeking to develop competencies in areas such as precision-strike or network-centric air-to-air warfare could make use of Paramount Group’s facilities and hardware.

As for the JF-17 itself, it is unlikely that the representatives of developing world air forces would find it easy to turn away from a fighter boasting advanced air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions sourced from a highly respectable vendor like Denel Dynamics. The PAF pilots manning the booths at Dubai, Paris and other leading venues could draw parallels with each one of Denel’s offerings (e.g. explain that the “Umbani is the JF-17’s equivalent to the JDAM and Paveway”), and subsequently push the fact that these capabilities are readily available. This will be explored in part-two, which will be published on Wednesday, stay tuned!