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IDEAS 2022: The JF-17 Reaches a Key Maturation Phase

One of the highlights of Pakistan’s most recent biennial defence exhibition, IDEAS 2022, is the story around the JF-17’s growth as a platform. Though the JF-17 Block-3 was not present at the event, its presence was felt through the buzz surrounding its new subsystems and, potentially, weapon systems.

There were signs throughout the exhibition that the JF-17 had finally reached a key maturation stage. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was on the cusp of inducting it and its subsystems, such as an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, integrated electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, and, a finally-announced helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system.

Historically, the PAF would induct new technologies through a high-cost platform that it would induct in limited numbers, at least initially. However, with the JF-17 Block-3, the PAF is getting marque capabilities found on its ‘high-end’ platform (i.e., J-10CE) through a mainstay asset it can acquire in numbers.

New Helmet Mounted Display and Sight (HMD/S) for JF-17 and J-10CE

One of the long-awaited reveals was the HMD/S system of the JF-17 Block-3 and the J-10CE, i.e., PAF’s new mainstay multi-role fighter aircraft.

The PAF had sought an HMD/S for the JF-17 since as early as the Block-II. However, the PAF was not able to find a willing supplier. In the early 2010s, the leading option was likely the Thales TopOwl-F; however, the chill in Pakistan’s defence ties with France likely closed that avenue.

Due to the limited options available on the market, the PAF had to push the HMD/S to the JF-17 Block-3.

Quwa had started learning about the PAF’s requirements for the HMD/S in 2015. For the Block-3, the PAF decided to seek a system that could project information on the vizor. This was in contrast to the monocle-based system as used in the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) and TopOwl-F, among others.

The PAF basically wanted to emulate the quality and performance shown in the BAE Striker II. In fact, the PAF had directly requested the BAE Striker II, but it could not finalize a deal.

The eventual HMD/S of the JF-17 Block-3 is of Chinese origin. It is unclear if this HMD/S is anything similar to the BAE Striker II, especially in terms of projecting information to the vizor instead of using a monocle. However, AVIC’s HMD/S concepts dating back to 2016 suggest that the Chinese had been working on new project-on-vizor-based HMD/S. Thus, it is possible one of these projects materialized.

In any case, one can expect that the Chinese HMD/S offers the baseline capability to cue high-off-boresight air-to-air missiles (HOBS AAM) and, potentially, air-to-ground munitions. For example, the JF-17 pilot can engage their PL-10E HOBS AAM by facing their head towards the target. This makes the Block-3 a credible threat at within-visual-range (WVR) and, thanks to its KLJ-7A AESA radar and PL-15/PL-15E long-range air-to-air missiles (LRAAM), at beyond visual range (BVR).

This Chinese HMD/S is a multi-piece set. It comprises of an “inner” shell that is custom-made for the pilot. While a shift away from standardized helmets (like the Gentex HGU-55/P), the custom shell helps provide more comfort for the pilot, especially from an ergonomics standpoint. The second piece is the optronics suite, which the PAF will likely procure in sets based on the number of fighter aircraft it wants to equip.

Currently, the PAF has 30 Block-3s on order (out of an original requirement of 50 aircraft). However, it has also acquired 26 twin-seat JF-17Bs. The PAF can readily configure the JF-17Bs along the same lines as the Block-3 as they are largely similar from an underlying technical standpoint. For example, the Block-3 and JF-17B leverage the new three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system (instead of the hybrid FBW of the JF-17 Block-1 and Block-2). Quwa expects that the PAF will upgrade the JF-17Bs, thus giving it a total of at least 56 JF-17s configured with AESA radars, HMD/S, and integrated ECM.

In addition, the PAF has at least two squadrons of J-10CEs on order from China. However, the PAF would not induct a new fighter platform without planning for at least a total of 90 units. Thus, Quwa expects that the PAF will induct a minimum of 90 J-10CEs, potentially by the end of this decade.

Between the J-10CEs and the JF-17B/Block-3, the PAF could have 100 to 150 fighters equipped with AESA radars, HMD/S, and integrated ECM suites. This number could cross 200 if the PAF upgrades the Block-2s or, less likely (but still sought), carry out a F-16V-type upgrade on the Block-52s and F-16A/Bs.

Taimoor Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM)

At IDEAS 2022, the PAF revealed that it will induct a new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which it has named ‘Taimoor.’ The Taimoor ALCM seems virtually identical to the Ra’ad II ALCM, which has a range of 550-600 km. However, it seems that the PAF is planning to use the Taimoor ALCM as a conventional stand-off range weapon (SOW). Some observers who had attended IDEAS 2022 report that the PAF termed the Taimoor ALCM as a next-generation anti-ship missile as well.

The Taimoor ALCM could be a sign of the PAF investing in the JF-17 and, potentially, J-10CE’s SOW suite by adding a long-range, heavy-payload weapon. It is not known which of Pakistan’s in-house bureaus will be producing the Taimoor ALCM, but it is likely National Engineering & Scientific Commission (NESCOM).

GIDS (Global Industrial & Defence Solutions), which markets products on behalf of Pakistan’s state-owned enterprises (SOE), started promoting the “Harbah-NG” anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM). The Harbah-NG is the export variant of the Harbah, which was first announced in 2018.

There could be an intriguing scenario where the Taimoor ALCM leverages the same propulsion/engine or electronics stack as the Harbah-NG ASCM. This standardization could help with reducing the cost of these systems. In turn, standardization can them affordable enough for wide-scale conventional use. Until this point, Pakistan has largely positioned its cruise missiles for strategic use.

Interestingly, two Pakistani production entities have also emerged recently – Qaswa and Harobanx. These entities marketed both air and surface-launched SOWs at IDEAS 2022.

Observers have noted that Harobanx (and Qaswa) have ties to Pakistan’s SOEs, such as NESCOM. While the details about how these munitions will be produced are not known, their availability could hint at the PAF’s planning in terms of tactical attack.

Harobanx displayed new air-to-ground munitions (AGM), such as the Zarb. The Aahan has a total mass of 75 kg and can be configured with a semi-active laser-homing (SALH) or millimeter-wave (mmW) seekers. When fired from a drone, the Aahan has a range of 35 km.

While Harobanx says that the Aahan is deployable from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), the specifications are similar to fighter-deployable munitions, like the MBDA Brimstone.

Qaswa marketed a range of precision-guided bomb (PGB) kits similar to the Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK) or Takbir-series PGB. This series, called “AZB,” also includes a munition with a 390-425 kg warhead and a range of 190-220 km called AZB-V. There were rumours of the PAF adding a ‘REK-III’ to the JF-17; this AZB-V could be that solution. In any case, it seems the PAF wants a long-range PGB.

Overall, these projects could indicate that the PAF is actively working towards filling out the JF-17’s SOW capability, especially beyond the 200 km mark (via the AZB-V and, potentially, the Taimoor ALCM). If this is an accurate assessment, it would mark a significant maturation phase for the JF-17.

Basically, the JF-17 is burgeoning to the point of being capable of both long-range air-to-air engagement via the PL-15 and PL-15E, and long-range air-to-surface strike via new SOWs. There is also a possibility of the PAF pursuing a supersonic-cruising missile (e.g., HD-1A) for the JF-17.

This would have two major impacts.

First, it greatly improves the PAF’s air warfare capabilities by offering new technology gains at a mainstay fleet level. In other words, these marque capabilities will not be confined to a few fighters operating in a niche role; rather, they will be integrated to the PAF’s workhorse fighters.

Second, it positions the JF-17 as a uniquely intriguing option for countries seeking credible, but low-cost and ITAR-free, air warfare solutions. Arguably, the only better platform operating this level of capability, affordability, and flexibility would be the J-10CE, i.e., another Chinese platform. Otherwise, the market is dominated by either U.S-origin fighters (or technology, as seen in the Gripen and Tejas), or costly Western European fighters like the Rafale and Typhoon. This reality could herald an upsurge in sales for the Chinese industry, especially in countries that had traditionally bought Russian aircraft, like Algeria.

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