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JF-17 Block-3 Starts Taking Shape

The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) next modern fighter aircraft is starting to take shape in terms of its weapons and subsystems integration. The much-awaited JF-17 Block-III, which originally flew in December 2019, is on track to enter serial production by early 2022.[1]

Officially, a primary focus is to integrate the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The PAF is expecting to fly the first AESA-equipped Block-III in 2021.[2] The AESA radar is the centerpiece of the Block-III, which will be both the most advanced JF-17 variant in the PAF as well as the PAF’s sole fighter with that technology in the short-term.

In addition to much improved target range and engagement capabilities, the KLJ-7A, by virtue of its 1,000+ transmit/receive modules (TRM), offers strong electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM). The PAF will also equip the Block-III with an integrated electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, enabling it to operate in contested environments as both a radar-jamming and jamming-resistant jet.

The PAF has yet to officially disclose the AAMs it will equip to the Block-III. However, given the extended targeting range of the KLJ-7A, a longer-ranged AAM is likely. It is not officially known whether the PAF will acquire the PL-15 (or, as Quwa was told in 2018, new versions of the SD-10). Besides range, the PAF would also be interested in an improved no-escape-zone (NEZ) – i.e., an area where the AAM can achieve a high chance of a kill – and ECCM for the seeker against ECM jammers.

In March 2021, a photograph of a JF-17 Block-III prototype (i.e., 3001) equipped with the PL-10 high-off-boresight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM) started circulating online. This could suggest that the PAF opted for the PL-10 as its new within-visual-range (WVR) AAM. Moreover, the full advantage of using the PL-10 would come in combination with a helmet-mounted-display and sight (HMD/S), which the PAF is working on with both Pakistani and Chinese companies (suggesting an original joint-venture).[3]

In terms of air-to-surface capabilities, the JF-17 already fulfills the bulk of the PAF’s requirements. It could already deploy anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM) – i.e., the C-802 – and the Range-Extension-Kit (REK)-line of precision-guided bombs (PGB). It will also be equipped with the Aselsan ASELPOD targeting pod for use with laser-guided bombs (LGB) and, potentially, laser-guided rockets and missiles. The PAF has a total of 58 ASELPOD targeting pods on order from Turkey.

It is not known if the PAF will configure the JF-17 with the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). That said, the Ra’ad-II, which has a revised and more compact tail-stock compared to the Ra’ad-I, could possibly make its way to the JF-17 (with a missile under each wing). Basically, if the PAF wants to transition stand-off weapon (SOW) capability to the JF-17 from the Mirage III/5, it will need to adapt the Ra’ad and H-2 or H-4 so that they can deploy from the JF-17’s wings or, if added to the centerline pylon, avoid interfering with the landing gear. The Ra’ad-I and H-2/H-4’s horizontal stabilizers are too wide for that operation.

Finally, the PAF is not changing the Block-III’s powerplant. Currently, it will continue using the Klimov RD-93 as the PAF is both acclimated to and satisfied with the engine. In fact, the PAF is aiming to set-up a full maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) facility for the RD-93 at the 102 Air Engineering Depot.[4]

Currently, the PAF ordered 30 Block-IIIs. It is unclear if it will order the remaining 20 of its originally slated batch of 50 aircraft. However, the PAF is investing in a domestic assembly line for the KLJ-7A, which could suggest that it will retrofit the Block-II and/or Block-I with the KLJ-7A and new AAM suite.

The PAF also ordered 26 JF-17B. Though the aircraft were built with the KLJ-7V2, the JF-17B is close to the Block-III in that it uses the newer three-axis fly-by-wire system. In that sense, it is similar – if not identical – to the Block-III and, technically, could be part of the Block-III order.

That said, the PAF also confirmed that it is using the JF-17B as its lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT).[5] The PAF’s No.18 will be its LIFT unit moving forward. Basically, new pilots will start at No.18, but undergo additional training on JF-17Bs assigned to various frontline squadrons. This move was expected considering the PAF was also marketing the JF-17B as a standalone LIFT in the Middle East.

Returning to the topic of upgrading the Block-II and/or Block-I. Since the PAF confirmed that it will equip the JF-17B with the KLJ-7A, it would make sense for it to upgrade the Block-I/II with the same radar and, potentially, cockpit environment and other subsystems. If new pilots are training for Block-III aircraft from the onset, it would make sense for them to transition to an identical environment, not a different one.

In terms of additional JF-17 orders (be it a follow-on batch of 20 Block-IIIs or, potentially, a new version), the PAF is reportedly “non-committal.”[6] A recent report on the PAF suggests that Air Headquarters (AHQ) is still interested in acquiring an off-the-shelf fighter, potentially a larger design. The PAF’s interest in off-the-shelf fighters dates back to 2016, but the new report implies that another fighter acquisition will take resources away from the JF-17 program. The PAF will have to make a trade-off.[7]

However, with the Block-III in hand, the goal of the off-the-shelf fighter would not be to acquire any new technology to the PAF fleet. Rather, the goal is to resolve specific operational capabilities that the JF-17 is not equipped to fulfill on its own. The main issue for the PAF is finding an aircraft with enough range and payload to drive its offensive operations. Currently, the F-16s and SOW-equipped Mirage III/5s are critical assets for the PAF’s offensive requirements, yet they are also the PAF’s oldest mainstay aircraft.

Realistically, the induction of a twin-engine next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) from either Turkey or China would stretch into the 2040s, if not later. Thus, the PAF may be looking at an interim solution ahead of the NGFA to induct by the late 2020s and certainly into the 2030s. The only available option from both an accessibility and maturity standpoint is the J-10CE (though the PAF during the time of Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman had looked at the Gripen and Eurofighter Typhoon).

The trade-off factor (of taking resources away from the JF-17) makes sense. When it comes to inducting a new fighter platform, the PAF would not stop at one or two squadrons. Rather, it would invest in at least 90 aircraft, just as it had done so with the F-6, F-7, Mirage III/5, JF-17, and even F-16 (when it tried adding 71 aircraft via the Peace Gate III and IV programs to its 40 Peace Gate I and II aircraft in the 1990s).

Thus, the PAF is at a point where it will decide whether to continue producing the JF-17 or, instead, concluding the program and pivot to another fighter platform from the mid-to-late 2020s. However, one benefit of selecting the J-10CE is that the PAF could leverage its existing stock of Chinese munitions from the JF-17, it need not acquire an entirely new line of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan’s roaring Thunder.” Air Forces Monthly. May 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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