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Discussion: With KLJ-7A, could an AESA radar-equipped JF-17 come sooner?

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.

The recent unveiling of the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) KLJ-7A active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar at Air Show China 2016 has offered a substantive indication of China’s progress in developing contemporary electronics subsystems. It has also given a tangible look at what the JF-17 Block-III, the first major iterative update of the JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter program, could include, at least in terms of an AESA radar (which is planned for that variant).

AESA radars are increasingly common in modern fighter platforms. An AESA radar system is essentially an amalgamation of many – hundreds and, in some cases, more than 1,000 – transmit/receive or transceiver modules (TRM). One can think of a TRM as a small milk-carton-sized radar that emits its own unique signal. In contrast to preceding pulse-Doppler radars, which would transmit one different signal per pulse, an AESA radar can transmit multiple different signals per pulse. This process makes it difficult for electronic warfare (EW) systems, such as radar warning receivers (RWR) or active jammers, to isolate a specific signal for re-transmission (to confuse the pulsing radar). In effect, an AESA radar has a higher level of electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) capability.

This would be a very important addition to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), not just in terms of the JF-17, but its fighter fleet in general – especially units that are envisaged for use against enemy assets, which will be equipped with a wide range of quality EW and electronic countermeasures (ECM) capabilities. For the PAF, the JF-17 has already emerged as an indispensable platform. Not only is it a multi-role system equipped with tactical data-link (TDL) connectivity and compatible with a beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), but it is a platform that the PAF can control and configure based on its will.

Moreover, the JF-17 is backed by a domestic support network, which better guarantees a reliable and timely source for spare parts, repairs and depot-level support. In this vein, the availability of an actual AESA radar – i.e. KLJ-7A – is an exciting prospect for the PAF. As per an NRIET technical manager, the KLJ-7A uses more than 1,000 TRMs and is capable of tracking 15 targets aerial targets and simultaneously engage four of them. The KLJ-7A can track a fighter-sized target 170 km away (East Pendulum).

That said, the availability of the KLJ-7A alters what we had expected of the PAF’s modernization plans, especially in regards to the JF-17. Put another way, the KLJ-7A could be an indication that an AESA radar-equipped JF-17 could come sooner than the JF-17 Block-III. One will have noticed that the previous sentence differentiates between a JF-17 equipped with an AESA radar and the JF-17 Block-III. The reason for this is that the KLJ-7A could plausibly make its way to existing JF-17 Block-I and/or Block-II airframes before the JF-17 Block-III rolls off the production line.

Granted, there are several caveats. First, the KLJ-7A may not be as close to availability as believed by this author. Second, an upgraded JF-17 Block-I or Block-II could be the basis of the JF-17 Block-III. These are both plausible scenarios, but if the KLJ-7A is ready for production before the completion of the JF-17 Block-II’s production run, then the PAF could have an opportunity to upgrade the Block-II platform ahead of the JF-17 Block-III. This scenario could enable the PAF to field an AESA radar-equipped JF-17 before 2020.

There is a rationale for this course. The PAF had pursued (and may still be pursuing) an off-the-shelf fighter platform to serve as a stopgap before it could field a sizable JF-17 Block-III fleet, which would likely happen in the mid-2020s. However, there are limitations. First, and in the best-case scenario, the PAF may only have two or so AESA radar-equipped fighter squadrons (inducting a distinct platform is a fiscally and time-consuming process). Second, the cost could simply prevent the PAF from pursuing this route at all. It is not clear where that effort stands at this moment, but in lieu – or even in tandem – of it the PAF could upgrade its qualitative element in relatively short-order through a pre-Block-III upgrade (read: Block-II Plus?).

The prospect of upgrading the JF-17 Block-II will depend on the complexity involved with integrating the KLJ-7A to the current production airframe. Aesthetically, the KLJ-7A does not appear to be significantly different in terms of dimensions or footprint to the KLJ-7 or KLJ-7V2, which are currently used on the JF-17 Block-I and Block-II, respectively. The designation of the AESA radar seems to suggest that NRIET had been aiming for seamless integration, if not a level of commonality between components.

On the other hand, expediting the integration of an AESA radar could be a suboptimal solution. This may sound disingenuous if examined considering an AESA radar’s ECCM benefits, but the PAF could genuinely require the extra time to integrate an AESA radar with the JF-17 Block-III’s onboard EW and ECM suite. If given sufficient financial and time investment, the JF-17 could be configured to utilize its radar for jamming and EW/ECM suites (if based on AESA TRMs) for target detection and identification. Granted, a ‘JF-17 Block-II Plus’ would be suboptimal in comparison to the JF-17 Block-III, which could potentially benefit from subsystem fusion.