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Analysis: The JF-17’s Unique Value Proposition on the Market

Argentina’s draft budget requested $664 million USD for the purchase of 12 new multi-role aircraft. The Argentine Air Force has yet to make a final decision, but the JF-17 is still among the aircraft (among five) Buenos Aires is considering. Pakistan had also been marketing the JF-17 to Azerbaijan and Malaysia, and reports also emerged of Iraq showing interest, but these have yet to be verified.

That said, the uptick in overseas interest in the JF-17 would not be surprising. The multirole fighter is now evolving past its identity as a ‘low-cost option’ into a rare – if not unique – combat asset.

The JF-17 Block-3 is driving the growth through its incorporation of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an integrated electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S), and plethora of new air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions.

While there are numerous high-cost Western aircraft on the market on offer (theoretically) with these capabilities, the options that offer as much as the JF-17 Block-3 without ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) inputs narrow down to three or four aircraft from China and Russia.

These alternatives include the J-10CE, MiG-35 and the Su-35 – though the latter two may not include as many as the same types of electronics (such as a modern HMD/S) as the JF-17 Block-III and J-10CE. Oddly, the JF-17’s ‘biggest’ direct competitor from a budget-sensitive, ITAR-free perspective is the J-10CE. But in that scenario, the JF-17 still costs less and offers a service record in multiple countries (Pakistan, Myanmar, and Nigeria), while the J-10CE’s export record is only just scratching the surface.

JF-17 Block-3: Burgeoning Capability

The JF-17 Block-3 will be among the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) new qualitative drivers. This basically means that the Block-3 will introduce new technologies to the PAF combat aircraft fleet.

Chief among these gains is the induction of an AESA radar, which will boost the PAF’s electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) capabilities. ECCM is a means to protect one’s own radars from falling victim to enemy ECM techniques – such as radar-spoofing – and triggering electronic warfare (EW) instruments, such as enemy radar warning receivers (RWR). AESA radars achieve these capabilities through their large numbers (i.e., around 1,000) transmit/receive modules (TRM), which basically function as small individual radars, each with their own frequency and ability to change frequencies with each pulse.

Combined with an integrated ECM suite, which will probably incorporate a digital radio frequency memory (DRFM)-based radar jamming system for spoofing enemy radars, the Block-3 is a credible asset for use in contested air environments. Finally, with the PAF in close proximity to a combat scenario (it is only two or so years out from its last confrontation with the Indian Air Force), one can also expect a serious focus on iterative improvements to the electronics suite to ensure effectiveness and survivability.

The eventual addition of an HMD/S (the PAF said that Chinese and Pakistani companies are now working on an original model) and high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBS) will help with within-visual-range or dogfighting situations (on top of ECM-based radar jamming).

However, defensibility is not the only improvement in the Block-3. Its AESA radar – i.e., Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) KLJ-7A – will also offer a maximum range of 170 km for “fighter-sized targets.” This may be the range of targets with a radar cross-section (RCS) of 3m2. The PAF may pair this with the newly revealed PL-15E, the export version of the PL-15 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). The PL-15E offers a stated range of 145 km, well exceeding the reported 70-100 km range of the SD-10. The PL-15E’s range also works within the target detection range of the KLJ-7A.

Tactically, the availability of the PL-15E offers several advantages for the PAF. First, it offers a “first-look, first-shot”-type capability thanks to the additional range. Second, it enables the PAF to operate the JF-17 farther away from the border, which is key if the S-400 is near the border (in an attempt by India to utilize the SAM’s long-range to cut into Pakistani airspace). Granted, Pakistan will work to discourage India from deploying the S-400 close to the border by deploying electronics intelligence (ELINT) assets and land-based stand-off weapons (SOW) like the Fatah-1 guided-rocket and Babur land-attack cruise missile (LACM).

In terms of SOW, it seems that the JF-17 is – somewhat surprisingly – poised to, relatively speaking, excel with the variety of air-to-surface munitions on offer. In fact, the JF-17 already has a respectable SOW line-up through the C-802 anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM) and indigenous range-extension kit (REK) precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit. There are also rumours of the PAF integrating a ‘REK-III’ to the JF-17, which may be a variant of the Chinese FT-12, a rocket-assisted PGB with over 100 km in range.

However, recently, a scale mock-up of the JF-17 was shown equipped with two HD-1A supersonic-cruising missiles. This could be informative on several fronts. First, it seems that the JF-17 now has an actual option for supersonic-cruising missiles. This gives it a credible anti-shipping option to pair with the sea-skimming, subsonic C-802. Second, the HD-1A could be a heavyweight missile with a mass of at least 1,000 kg. If the JF-17 can carry two HD-1As, it may also be capable of deploying two Ra’ad-2 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). The Ra’ad-2 has a revised tail-section that could enable it to fit under the JF-17’s wings; the ALCM has a stated range of 600 km. If Azerbaijan signs onto the JF-17, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) may try integrating the Turkish SOM ALCM as well. In any case, Block-3 is poised to have a startingly capable SOW capability in terms of long-range, heavyweight munitions.

Basically, at this point, the main constraint of the JF-17 is its limited range and payload. Its SOW capability would likely be confined to two heavyweight munitions at a time. But the main benefits of SOWs are their range, accuracy and warhead payloads. The inherent ranges of SOWs can offset the range limits of the JF-17, while the accuracy and warhead payloads reduce the need for larger munitions loads as there is now a higher chance of the main weapon reaching and destroying its intended target.

Finally, the capability will not be theoretical. In most cases, China and Pakistan would not have a problem furnishing the necessary munitions and subsystems for the end-user. By necessity of supporting the PAF’s needs, the JF-17 is largely free of ITAR and other restrictions. These aspects will probably attract a larger assortment of countries to the JF-17 in the coming years.

Basically, the benefit is not the JF-17 in of itself. The “low-cost fighter” option appeals to some countries, but the wide-market appeal will come from the technology and munitions stack. Yes, the munitions may be available off-the-shelf from China, but there is an added cost to integrating it to a new platform. With the JF-17, the end-user can get a package that “just works”, and at a digestible price-point no less.

On top of that, not every country can acquire the Western-equivalent to these technologies or munitions. Some, such as Iraq and Pakistan, have tenuous relations with the United States, while others, like Nigeria and Argentina, must work within tighter budgets (on top of precarious relations with the West). It returns to the point that the options on the market are so limited, the JF-17 Block-3 stands out.

Moreover, the PAF itself may start positioning the JF-17 as more of a specialized asset. The PAF is likely to acquire the J-10CE (building on strong official hints about needing an off-the-shelf fighter). Along with the F-16C/D Block-52+ and Mid-Life-Update (MLU) fighters, the J-10CE will probably carry the PAF’s air-to-air requirements, such as interdicting enemy aircraft or providing top-cover to strike assets. However, the JF-17 will likely be among the strike assets in this future composition.

This angle could appeal to countries interested in improving their air-to-ground and air-to-sea capabilities. In other words, the JF-17 need not compete as a multirole fighter or lightweight fighter, but as a solution to specific needs. This largely changes the market landscape as it encourages more countries to view the JF-17 as a complementary solution, not an all-in-one package. Of course, for some countries, the multirole aspect works too, and the JF-17 can work with budget-sensitive requirements.

As for the PAF, a strike-oriented JF-17 is evidently a bridge for short-to-medium-term needs. For the long-term, the PAF is hoping that its next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) materializes. The PAF set its main requirements for a twin-engine design – likely with a minimum-maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 32 tons to 35 tons – with the capability to one day use directed energy weapons. Thus, the NGFA is the PAF’s optimal strike-capable solution, but it is a long-term factor (regardless of the form it eventually takes).

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