Skip to content Skip to footer

Could a Western Radar Work on the JF-17?

The centerpiece of the JF-17 Block 3, the upcoming (and most extensive) development of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) backbone fighter aircraft, will be its active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

With the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, expressing hope for inducting the Block 3 in March 2020[1], the PAF is expected to decide on a radar by the end of 2019.

The leading candidates are the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) KLJ-7A, Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (LETRI) LKF601E, and Leonardo Grifo-E. Though the PAF is largely expected to select a Chinese AESA radar, the Grifo-E is, reportedly, still a factor.

The Grifo-E’s continuing inclusion in the mix is interesting because Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) had reportedly stated that it did not expect the PAF to select a Western AESA radar. AVIC’s rationale was that neither party would share its respective source-codes.[2]

If this is still the case, then the PAF’s reported interest in the Grifo-E would imply that it is interested in a Western air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions suite. If not, then the Grifo-E would suggest that the PAF has an alternative route, perhaps a third-party (i.e., non-European and non-Chinese) source.

Background on the Leonardo Grifo-E

The Grifo-E uses an undisclosed number of gallium nitride (GaN)-based transmit/receive modules (TRM). Compared to older gallium arsenide (GaA)-based TRMs, GaN-based TRMs are more energy efficient, and can offer better performance/output as well as a longer lifecycle.

In promoting its own GaN technology, Saab outlined that GaN-based AESA radars would enable for small and lightweight fighters to deploy high-performance AESA radars. In other words, GaN would help offset limitations in internal space, weight, and power-consumption requirements.

In terms of the radar’s performance, Leonardo outlined that the Grifo-E can track 24 targets in its track-while-scan (TWS) mode. It can track “fighter-sized targets” at over 138 km in track formation range mode, and 157 km-plus in look-up detection range mode. In its air-to-air mode, the Grifo-E can track up to eight targets. In addition, the Grifo-E has simultaneous air-to-air and air-to-surface modes.

In its specification sheet, Leonardo also lists a large number of other features, including synthetic aperture radar (SAR) with ground-moving target-indication (GMTI), sea surface search and track, inverse SAR, air-to-ground ranging, and other capabilities. It also features core AESA radar capabilities, such as elevated resistance to electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM).

Compatibility is Not a Concern

Selecting the Grifo-E would break munitions compatibility between the Block 3 and JF-17 Block 1 and 2.

However, that compatibility break, at least in the near-term, may not be a concern.

One of the primary reasons why observers believe the PAF would select a Chinese AESA radar is that it would enable the Block 3s to use the PAF’s existing stock of SD-10 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) and C-802A anti-ship missile (AShM).

That is a logical reason, but it ignores the fact that the PAF will have to purchase a new set of BVRAAM to support the Block 3’s new AESA radar anyways. Be it Chinese or European, the AESA radar will provide a longer range, and the PAF will need a new BVRAAM to take advantage of it.

Since there is a high off-boresight air-to-air missile (HOBS AAM) in the pipeline as well, the Block 3 would necessitate a large munitions purchase. Moreover, due to the limited shelf-life of munitions, the PAF will have likely optimized its SD-10 and C-802A purchases for use from the Block 1 and Block 2.

Thus, breaking compatibility with the Block 3 might not limit the value of the SD-10/C-802A purchases for the Block 1 and Block 2. However, to guarantee the value of the SD-10/C-802A purchases, the PAF would either keep the Block 1 and Block 2 as-is, or upgrade them with Chinese AESA radars.

The net-result of this would be maintaining two parallel JF-17 fleets. However, if there is no off-the-shelf fighter in the pipeline, the PAF might tolerate the break provided it delivers enough of a benefit.

How Could the Grifo-E Work for the JF-17?

For the PAF, the winning radar vendor would likely need to deliver the following:

  • a competitive cost;
  • a measure of transfer-of-technology (ToT) for local maintenance and assembly;
  • and a credible weapons package.

Leonardo can deliver on the ToT, at least for local maintenance and, potentially, assembly from complete knock-down kits (CKD). The cost might not be as much of a factor to the PAF either if it its not planning to procure an off-the-shelf fighter. The main factor would be a credible weapons package.

For Leonardo, the key to securing a PAF contract would be to offer a credible weapons package, one that would help the PAF close some of the capability gap India’s marquee acquisition – the Rafale – will create.

Only the MBDA Meteor Can Drive Interest in the Grifo-E

Simply put, the strongest rationale for considering the Grifo-E would be accessing the MBDA Meteor, the marquee BVRAAM coming with the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Rafales. To the PAF, the Grifo-E could be the most accessible way of procuring the Meteor (or, in other words, the only potential way of procuring it).

The alternative would be procuring a European fighter, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon or Saab JAS-39 Gripen E/F. But these routes are not only costlier, but also require multiple layers of approval/support.

For example, some of the Gripen E/F’s subsystems (e.g., its General Electric F414 engine) are bound by US export controls. The Typhoon involves four consortium members, each of which must approve of a sale and, at least in Pakistan’s case, back a line-of-credit or loan.

Background on the MBDA Meteor

MBDA did not disclose the range of the Meteor, but it states that the BVRAAM offers the “largest no-escape zone” of any AAM available on the market. Thus, it is a coveted asset.

In addition to the high cost and potential reluctance of the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to release the missile to Pakistan, or use from aboard the JF-17, the Meteor involves six consortium states.

The Meteor is the result of a partnership between the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

In the scenario of a sale to Pakistan, Leonardo might have support from most of the Meteor’s OEMs:

  • The UK sold sensitive equipment to Pakistan in recent years, notably Kelvin Hughes’ SharpEye low-probability-of-intercept (LPI) radar for use on the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) Agosta 90B submarines.
  • Spain sold Alcotán-100 single-use anti-tank rockets to Pakistan, first with a $24.75 million US order in 2015-2016, and a follow-up $9 million US order in 2017-2018. The JF-17 Block 2’s radar warning receiver (RWR) is also from Indra, a Spanish OEM.


  • The PAF is a customer of Saab’s Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform, and there is potential for the PAF to procure additional Saab radar equipment.


  • Diehl BGT told Quwa (at IDEAS 2018) that the German government had given its approval for the promotion and sale of Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) system to Pakistan. Thus, there is traction between Germany and Pakistan on defence, albeit modest.


  • Leonardo has the biggest stake in the equation seeing how a large sale of Grifo-E AESA radars (as well as other electronic subsystems) would be tied to the sale of Meteor BVRAAMs. Thus, Italy is likely to support a sale (as Leonardo stands as the biggest beneficiary).


  • Because of its commercial interests with India, France might be the main obstacle. This is ironic because nearly a decade ago, France had also walked away from a potential sale of Thales RC400 and MBDA MICA BVRAAM to the PAF for use from the JF-17 in the early 2010s.


Moreover, the PN also selected Turkey’s Savunma Teknolojileri Mühendislik ve Ticaret A.Ş. (STM) to upgrade the Agosta 90B, i.e., over the original vendor Naval Group (formerly known as DCNS). And seeing how Naval Group did not factor in the PN’s other procurements, especially its frigates (i.e., the Jinnah-class and Type 054A/P), this commercial loss could factor into Paris’ decision.

Granted, the Meteor is speculation, but it is the only rational explanation for considering the Grifo-E. And if the Meteor is not a factor, then there are two plausible alternatives.

First, Leonardo is willing to release whatever source codes or support that would enable the integration of Chinese munitions to Pakistan. Second, the PAF has access to a third-party munitions set, such as from Turkey (which is developing its own BVRAAM) or South Africa (which is developing the Marlin BVRAAM).

However, it is unlikely that either option would be ready in time for the PAF to integrate and test. Given how close India is to inducting the Rafale, the PAF will need a serviceable solution in the near-term.

While Turkish or South African solutions can work, it would be in the long-term (e.g., the fourth tranche of JF-17s following the Block 3). If the Meteor is not available, then the AESA radar will be Chinese.

[1] Alan Warnes. Interview. Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, Chief of the Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

[2] Alan Warnes. “Two-seat JF-17B progresses.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2017.

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment