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Airshow China 2018: AVIC Showcases Subsystems for the JF-17 Block-III and Demonstrates the Thunder’s Potential

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is using Airshow China 2018 to showcase both its strong advances in developing new aerospace and defence technologies as well as its growing export portfolio.

Marquee revelations included an improved variant of the Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) Z-10 attack helicopter, the Z-10ME, new armed drones, and two active-electronically scanned array (AESA) radars intended for the JF-17 Block-III, the first major upgrade of the lightweight fighter.

These AESA radars came from two state-owned institutes.

NRIET KLJ-7A AESA Radar

First, an improved version of the KLJ-7A from Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET). The KLJ-7A was originally revealed during Airshow China 2016 as a proposed AESA radar for the Block-III.

As per reports at the time, the KLJ-7A could detect ‘fighter-sized’ targets at up to 170 km, simultaneously track up to 15 targets, and engage four of them at once. The KLJ-7A is said to have more than 1,000 solid-state transceiver modules (TRM), providing it with much improved resistance to electronic warfare (EW).

However, the variant of the KLJ-7A apparently shown at Airshow China 2018 was equipped with slanted side-panel arrays on both sides, thus providing a wider detection range without the need for a mechanical arm or swashplate to move the main array. In addition, NRIET also unveiled a KLJ-7A variant with a moving array, it is possible that this version is meant to be a lower-cost alternative to the multi-array version.

LETRI LKF601E Air-Cooled AESA Radar

Second, AVIC officially unveiled its proposed air-cooled AESA radar – the LKF601E. Interestingly, the radar shares the same performance specifications of the KLJ-7A (albeit based reports from 2016), i.e., the ability to detect ‘fighter-sized’ targets at 170 km, track 15 targets and engage four simultaneously.

According to LETRI, the LKF601E’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) offers “high-resolution real-time imaging capability” with ground-moving target indication (GMTI). In other words, the LKF601E can lock onto tanks and other moving vehicles and engage them with radar-guided air-to-ground missiles (AGM). The radar’s SAR has a capture resolution of 1m2. In terms of air-to-sea, it has a range of 200-220 km.

Developed by the 601 Institute – i.e., Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (LETRI) – the radar is marketed as readily compatible with the JF-17, including, apparently, the Block-I and Block-II. In fact, a marketing video clearly shows LETRI engineers installing the LKF601E to a JF-17 prototype.

Compatibility with the JF-17 Block-I and Block-II is significant.

Firstly, it confirms that an AESA radar can be installed onto the JF-17 with relatively limited changes to the fighter. This removes a previously-held concern about AESA radars being too heavy and too power-hungry for the lightweight fighter (at least without significant changes to the fighter).

Secondly, the availability of the LKF601E implies that the PAF can proceed with upgrading its Block-I and Block-II fleet without necessarily having to remanufacture the fighters into Block-IIIs. Of course, the PAF could potentially opt for the latter route in the long-term.

The PAF has yet to officially reveal which radar it selected for the Block-III. However, considering that the previous PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) announced that the Block-III’s design was “frozen”, the radar decision has been made. Based on AVIC’s marketing video, one can confirm that at least the LKF601E was fitted to the JF-17, but it is unclear if that necessarily applies to the Block-III.

Is Upgrading Existing JF-17s a Major Priority?

In light of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) modernization plans (most notably its purchase of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters from France) and limited funding for new fighter procurement, the notion of the PAF fast-tracking an upgrade program for its current Block-I and Block-II fleet is plausible.

The availability of the LKF601E certainly makes that a possibility and, when complemented by the Block-III, would provide the PAF with more than 150 multi-role fighters equipped with AESA radars. If other parts of the Block-III upgrade are made available, such as the helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) suite and high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBSAAM), this would be a credible defensive force.

However, though a fleetwide update sounds attractive in theory, the practicality of it is not flexible. Each JF-17 being put through the upgrade will be out of active service, thus leaving a gap in the fleet. Moreover, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) has a limit as to how many planes it can update at any given time.

It is unlikely that the PAF will update older JF-17s while also inducting the Block-III. Upgrading the Block-I and Block-II could be a factor following the completion of the Block-III’s induction. Conservatively, the PAF should be able to commission the 50 Block-IIIs before 2030. This would leave the earliest Block-Is at nearly 20 years of age, which would correspond to the aircraft’s airframe lifespan of 3,000 hours.[1]

If the PAF opts to upgrade older JF-17s, it could push them through a service-life extension-program (SLEP) with remanufacturing, fresh engine and new generation electronics. Alternatively, it could opt to produce new-build fighters on a future variant, such as a hypothetical Block-IV or Block-V.

Semi-official documents (written by aviation journalist Alan Warnes, who has directly reported news from the PAF) state that the PAF could procure up to 200 JF-17s, though others report that production could reach 275.[2][3] However, if the goal is to supplant old airframes with new ones, then the PAF could end-up manufacturing 275 aircraft, but with a final fleet of 200.

Be it through China, Europe or Turkey, most of the Block-III’s main subsystems have been settled. Yes, the design was frozen, but based on the information available it is clear that new AESA radars, new electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems, human machine interfaces (HMI) and other subsystems are available to Pakistan. The PAF has choice in these domains.

However, little is known about the Block-III’s HMD/S – or more specifically, whether an HMD/S has been secured. The PAF might have already selected one, but as of Airshow China 2018, AVIC has not shown an actual product cleared for export. That said, there is footage of the Chengdu J-20 equipped with an HMD/S that, at least aesthetically, looks similar to the BAE Striker II. China is evidently making progress.

Note: AVIC did showcase a helmet during Airshow China 2018. It is unclear if it is an HMD/S. It has wiring and a mount, but this could be for night-vision goggles.

The JF-17 is Not Short on Munitions

In addition to AESA radars, AVIC also showcased an impressive line-up of guided air-to-surface munitions for use on the JF-17. To be fair, these displays have always been there, but the addition of an extended-range variant of the GB 500C stand-off range bomblet dispenser is intriguing. Notice that this is not simply a glide bomb (like the standard GB 500 or YJ-6), but it has an intake. This suggests that this version could be an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) analogous to the MBDA SCALP or Roketsan SOM.

Combined with the C-802 anti-ship missile (AShM) and domestically-built Range Extension Kit (REK), this extended-range version of the GB 500C would complete the JF-17’s stand-off range attack capabilities, at least in a conventional sense. Granted, the range of this ALCM is not known, but even if it is short of 300 km (i.e., the limit set by the Missile Technology Control Regime), AVIC may not be far from fielding a true SOM or SCALP-like competitor. This is both a valuable export asset and a low-cost, conventional ALCM the PAF could use to complement the strategically-oriented Ra’ad-series.

The LFK601E’s confirmed SAR/GMTI capabilities also opens the JF-17 up to an expanded close air support (CAS) role. The PAF has the option of pairing the YJ-9E radar-guided AGM with the LKF601E for use against enemy tanks and other moving vehicles. In other words, a Brimstone-like capability. It could pair this with the gliding version of the GB 500C bomblet dispenser for area-wide attacks.

The Chinese industry also officially unveiled the HD-1 supersonic-cruising missile. The HD-1 was reportedly developed by Guangdong HongDa Blasting Company Limited. According to the company in October, it was awaiting an export clearance from Beijing to market the missile.

At Airshow China 2018, the HD-1A was shown sporting four lateral intakes along with a solid-fuel rocket booster. This confirms that the HD-1A is indeed a supersonic-cruising missile, though it requires a rocket booster for ignition and initial flight. It has a cruising speed of Mach 2.2 to Mach 3.5 and sea-skim at 5 m to 10 m. It can optionally be equipped with a terminal active radar-homing seeker for anti-ship operations, while it also be launched from fighter aircraft.

Pakistan had reportedly been pegged by observers as a potential buyer of the HD-1A. Pakistan certainly lacks a capability analogous to the BrahMos and, if procured, the HD-1A would provide it. However, if the PAF could also pair the HD-1A to the JF-17 (alongside a conventional ALCM and the YJ-9E), then the JF-17 would be an immensely valuable strike-asset. It would add reason to expand the JF-17 fleet past 150-200.

Editor’s Note

Firstly, I want to apologize to my readers – especially Quwa Premium subscribers – for the unannounced hiatus. It was a result of personal illness and a recent injury to the arm. However, not notifying my paying customers of the issue was an unacceptable oversight. Such an oversight will not occur again.

Secondly, I am aware that the publishing schedule has been erratic. Unfortunately, my situation as it is at this time requires me to basically work full-time in addition to Quwa. Thankfully, Quwa is growing, but it is far from being independently sustainable at this time.

Thirdly, despite these hiccups, work was done (along with savings thanks to Quwa Premium subscribers) to attend the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) in Karachi, Pakistan.

I can now confirm that Quwa has been cleared to attend IDEAS as an accredited media source. I will be at IDEAS from 28 to 30 November. A special report about the event along with exclusive multimedia will be prepared and given to all current Quwa Premium subscribers.

In gratitude to all of you, Quwa Premium subscribers are free to send me questions or requests they would like to see answered at IDEAS. I cannot promise to address them all (as there are limits to how exhibitors and officials will answer), but I will make a full effort to be your eyes and ears on the ground.

On that note, I am also happy to announce that I have budgeted to attend IDEF 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey and the 2019 Dubai Air Show. Depending on time and funding, Quwa might attend an exhibition or trade show between those two events in 2019.

That said, given my time and resource limits, I will only be able to commit to 1,500 words per week (rather than 3,000 words). However, to offset this, we will be putting more resources into original news reporting (e.g., IDEAS, IDEF, etc) and having credible, well-known guest authors.

Once more, I thank you all for your patronage, support and, above all, patience. I understand if, given the circumstances as of late or even the nature of Quwa’s content thus far, if you are not satisfied with Quwa. However, I do ask that you at least stay until IDEAS is completed so that you can get the report, if at least as a parting and, hopefully, a valuable information asset.

[1] Tomislav Mesaric. “Pride of Pakistan”. Air International. December 2013. p.47.

[2] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s Multi-Role Fighter”. 2015.

[3] Richard D Fisher Jr. “Paris Air Show 2015: JF-17 fighter flying with indigenous Chinese turbofan”. HIS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 17 June 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160421064512/http://www.janes.com/article/52308/paris-air-show-2015-jf-17-fighter-flying-with-indigenous-chinese-turbofan (Last Accessed: 22 March 2018).

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