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JF-17 Squares Off for New Users

Having won sales in Nigeria and Myanmar, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) are looking to secure new contracts for the JF-17 in Malaysia and Argentina.

In total, the sales prospects could amount to 30 aircraft (i.e., 18 for Malaysia and 12 for Argentina). Though small in scope, these contracts could result in follow-on orders in the future. In addition, PAC will benefit from maintenance, training, and other support contracts through the life of those aircraft.

However, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is also looking to take the JF-17 to a potentially wider market as a lead-in-fighter-training (LIFT) system. In fact, the PAF is pitching the JF-17 as a LIFT asset to Qatar.


Malaysia started its search for a new light combat aircraft in 2019. It is looking to replace its BAE Systems Hawk and Aeromacchi MB339 trainers as well as its MiG-29 fighters. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is seeking a multi-role asset that can also double as a LIFT. With an initial order of 18 aircraft, the winning contractor could secure follow-on orders for a total of 50 to 60 aircraft.

However, the JF-17 is competing against the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50 Golden Eagle. KAI has been positioning the FA-50 as a similar solution to the JF-17 – i.e., a lightweight combat aircraft that could double as a LIFT. In that respect, KAI is working to integrate the FA-50 with a range of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. There had even been talk of integrating the KEPD-350 air-launched cruise missile.

The JF-17, on the other hand, is also available with modern air-to-air missiles (AAM), including the SD-10 and PL-5EII. But one area where AVIC and PAC could claim an edge over the FA-50 is the JF-17’s growing compatibility with stand-off-range weapons (SOW). The JF-17 is available with the C-802 anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM), Indigenous Range Extension Kit (IREK), and CM-400AKG air-launched rocket.

The FA-50 could carry comparable Western munitions, but it is unclear if those are integrated and certified for use from the FA-50 at this time. However, the PAF has already operationalized the C-802 and IREK. In fact, the PAF even used the IREK in a real-world combat situation (i.e., Operation Swift Retort in 2019).

Finally, with the Block-III entering production, the JF-17 will also take on the KLJ-7A active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar and a longer-ranged air-to-air missile (AAM). In fact, the new subsystems and munitions are on offer with the JF-17 package (as they come from one source, China).

However, KAI would need to secure third-party approvals for the FA-50’s key munitions and subsystems. In fact, Israel is a major supplier for both inputs, and that may complicate matters in terms of the RMAF’s tender. KAI could work to add alternative inputs, but that will add to the time and cost involved with the FA-50. Overall, the JF-17 is the technically simpler and lower-cost route.

That said, fighter deals are seldom isolated from wider geopolitical interests. Those factors may direct the Malaysians to weigh in favour of the FA-50. Likewise, the current blockers on the FA-50 are not permanent obstacles; with time, KAI and the RMAF could solve them. In fact, South Korea has a range of indigenous weapons under development or nearing completion, so the FA-50 should gain them in the coming years.


Argentina had originally selected the FA-50, but the aircraft’s use of six major British components served as a blocker to an actual deal. Basically, the United Kingdom did not approve the transfer of those systems to the Argentine Air Force. As a result, Argentina announced that it would consider the JF-17.

In late 2020, the Argentine Air Force’s Chief of the General Staff, Brigadier Xavier Isaac, said that the force was interested in the JF-17 Block-III. Today, the Block-III is competing with Russia’s MiG-35 for the possible contract, and in May 2021, a delegation from China National Aero-Technology Import and Export (CATIC) visited Argentina to present their formal offer.[1]

If Argentina narrowed its fighter requirement to one of the JF-17 or MiG-35, then the JF-17 may ultimately win the tender. The main impediment to the MiG-35 is CAATSA (i.e., the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which basically bars countries from procuring big-ticket arms from Russia.

Having seen the fallout Turkey is dealing with by buying the S-400 (and losing its seat in the F-35 program), there are few countries willing to test Washington’s resolve in enforcing CAATSA. Argentina is not among those countries, especially when it relies on the US for trade and investment. Likewise, China may package its offer with credit and/or investment, thus further incentivizing Argentina.

There is the risk that Moscow may block the transfer of the RD-93 with the JF-17. However, the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) had reportedly integrated the WS-13 to the JF-17 some years ago, so even this blocker may not be an actual issue. China understands that the customer base for the JF-17 includes countries with varying geopolitical complications. Accommodating for those issues has been a significant contributor to China’s various defence exports to-date.

In addition to new-generation subsystems (such as an AESA radar), Argentina can potentially benefit from the PAF itself. The latter set-up a range of training programs and multi-national exercise in Pakistan that can expose Argentina to current air warfare practices and trends. For a country that is looking to rebuild its air force, Pakistan could be a productive avenue thanks to its training infrastructure and experience. In addition, the PAF is also seeking a next-generation fighter through Project AZM, so Argentina could have an opportunity to add input for its own future interests.

Global LIFT Market

With the dual-seat JF-17B in hand, the PAF is also looking to market the platform as a LIFT. It is currently positioning it as such to the Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF). Though it is unclear if the JF-17B will secure the QEAF bid, the idea of pitching the JF-17B as a LIFT is a workable approach.

Interestingly, with the JF-17B serving as a LIFT, the PAF could offer an entire air warfare stack to countries – i.e., a basic trainer in the form of Super Mushshak, the K-8 as an intermediate jet trainer, a LIFT platform through the JF-17B, and the Block-III as a frontline multi-role fighter. Combined with its training facilities and exercises, the PAF can basically help countries set-up an air warfare environment from scratch.

This approach could draw interest in Sub-Sahara Africa and Latin America. Many of the air forces in these regions operate obsolete aircraft with antiquated procedures. In fact, they may have difficulty effectively absorbing new aircraft, so access to Pakistan’s overall training stack could prove beneficial.

Ironically, the JF-17’s strongest unique selling proposition may be something that China and Pakistan are the least comfortable with supporting – i.e., a red-air dissimilar air combat training (DACT) asset. Once the Block-III comes online, there could not a better literal “red air” aircraft available on the market. It would be a modern Eastern fighter with an AESA radar, data-link operability, and long-range AAMs.

However, because the US and the West at large would be the most interested potential customers of such a solution, it is unlikely China or Pakistan would sell it. If anything, the PAF might strategically leverage the knowledge as a means to learn more about the Rafale and other Western fighters (especially if the Indian Air Force pursues them in the coming years). Thus, the JF-17 could become a more frequent sight in multi-national exercises in the near future.

[1] “Chinese delegation in Argentina to offer the Air Force, the supersonic aircraft JF-17.” MercoPress. 08 May 2021. URL:

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