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JF-17 Thunder: Giving 20 Important Years with Decades More to Come

It has been a little over 20 years since the maiden flight of the first JF-17 prototype. Since then, the fighter has undergone multiple iterations and, in turn, become Pakistan’s workhorse multirole fighter aircraft.

When it signed onto the Super-7/FC-1 project in 1994, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) set out to acquire a low-cost, but reasonably capable, fighter to replace its aging Nanchang A-5s, Chengdu F-7Ps, and Dassault Mirage III and 5 combat aircraft. Strategically speaking, the PAF also needed a go-to asset that will continue supporting its air warfare needs irrespective of external factors, like sanctions, or internal problems, such as economic uncertainty or fiscal constraints. Thus, localization – notably from a production standpoint – was a critical aspect of the project. There was also hope that the JF-17 would appeal to many other states with similar geo-political and/or economic issues and, in turn, drive exports.

Though third-party export sales have yet to gain momentum, the PAF has largely achieved its most urgent goals when signing onto the JF-17. It needed a capable multirole fighter that was not beset by high pricing or deep supply-side constraints typically found in Western jets. While the JF-17 does not provide the same range or payload as many of those options, it helped the PAF induct modern air warfare capabilities – such as beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM), stand-off weapons (SOW), network-enabled warfare via tactical datalink (TDL) connectivity, and other elements – across most of its fleet. In some areas, such as active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, the JF-17 helped drive net-new technology gains.

The PAF committed to procuring a baseline of 150 units; it is now on track to inducting a minimum of 168 aircraft across four variants – i.e., Block-1, Block-2, Block-3, and the two-seat JF-17B. The Thunder has met both the capability expectations and, in turn, fulfilled the PAF’s current fleet requirements. So, what is the direction of this program moving forward? What is the future of the JF-17?


The PAF explored the idea of acquiring a lighter weight, lower cost supplement to the F-16 in the 1980s via the Sabre II program. This was a collaborative program involving the PAF, Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC), and Grumman Aerospace of the U.S. The original idea was to significantly upgrade CAC’s F-7M with a new turbofan engine (e.g., PW1120), a redesigned forward fuselage with solid nose radome (housing a modern radar, like the AN/APG-66), and modern avionics suite. In some ways, the idea was similar to what Northrop did with its F-20 program, i.e., greatly evolving the Cold War-era F-5 with a modern powerplant and onboard electronics suite. In turn, the Sabre II would have also been technically capable of deploying BVRAAMs, a targeting pod, and SOWs such as anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM).

However, a combination of Pakistan’s fiscal constraints and a chill in Sino-U.S. ties put the Sabre II project on the backburner. Fortunately, CAC continued working on the idea and, eventually, approached the PAF with a new clean sheet, lightweight single-engine fighter design, i.e., the FC-1/Super-7. Failing to procure an alternative to the F-16 (the sale of which the U.S. blocked in the 1990s due to Pakistan’s atomic weapons program), the PAF signed onto the FC-1/Super-7 in 1994, with development starting in 1999. Quwa wrote an article outlining the complete history of the program.

Current Status

Today, the JF-17 makes up the bulk of the PAF fighter fleet and is the most numerous of the PAF’s multirole fighters. With the newest Block-3 variant, the JF-17 is also a platform with cutting-edge technologies, such as AESA radars, helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) systems, and high off-boresight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM) compatibility, among other features.

Fleet Composition

The PAF’s JF-17s are deployed in six fighter squadrons, i.e., No.02 (Block-2), No.14 (Block-2), No.16 (Block-1, 2, 3, B), No.18 (JF-17B), No.26 (Block-1, 2), and No.28 (Block-1, 2). The JF-17s are also deployed at each of the PAF’s commands or theatres, i.e., North, Central, and South.[1]

In addition to the two-seat JF-17Bs operated by the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) – i.e., No.18 – the PAF, according to the previous Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM), Mujahid Anwar Khan, also planned to provide each squadron with at least one JF-17B to assist them with operational training.[2] The PAF’s goal is to train its younger aircrew on its mainstay multirole fighters sooner (i.e., the F-16 and JF-17), especially as the F-7P and F-7PG (which had been the first platforms PAF pilots used to fly on) retire.

Currently, the only remaining PAF order for the JF-17 is for 30 Block-3s, of which the PAF has already taken delivery of several units. The PAF originally planned to acquire 50 Block-3s, but thus far, it has only ordered 30 units.[3] Several factors may have changed the original plan. First, the PAF bought 20 J-10CEs, and as this was a new platform induction, the PAF had to pay for new maintenance and support infrastructure, likely diverting some funds away from the Thunder. However, there was also a change in the JF-17 program via the induction of the two-seat JF-17B, of which the PAF ordered 26 aircraft.

The JF-17B’s design is closer to that of the Block-3 than the Block-1 and Block-2. For example, like the Block-3, the JF-17B leverages the new three-axis fly-by-wire flight control system. Its nose was also enlarged to carry the KLJ-7A AESA radar.[4] As of 2021, it appeared that the PAF was intending to eventually equip its JF-17Bs with an AESA radar.[5] Thus, in a way, the 50-unit Block-3 order may have gotten split between single and twin-seat variants (for a total of 56 aircraft). However, this would not necessarily spell the end of new PAF orders; the same factors that drove the JF-17’s creation will likely spur further acquisitions.

Factors Driving Future PAF JF-17 Orders

The PAF has invested considerably in the development of the JF-17B and the Block-3, arguably more than necessary if its scope was limited to a few dozen units. In fact, the induction of the JF-17B itself potentially speaks to the PAF’s desire to add more ‘advanced variant’ (i.e., Block-3 or Block-3-based) Thunders. Firstly, the pilots converting onto the JF-17 will eventually do so on an AESA radar-equipped platform (i.e., the JF-17B). Secondly, as the PAF inducts other 4.5+ (i.e., J-10CE) and, possibly, 5th-generation fighters, it will want its pilots to accumulate experience JF-17B/Block-3-type aircraft before moving to the larger platforms. This would give them ample experience operating the type of subsystems and weapons found in the larger jets. Thirdly, the increasingly complex threat environment in South Asia necessitates distributing cutting-edge technology across more of the PAF fleet, especially in the workhorse fighter.

Lifecycle Limits in the Block-1 and Block-2

One option for the PAF could be to upgrade its existing Block-1s and/or Block-2s. However, there are two potential challenges with this route. First, the JF-17 reportedly has an airframe life of 3,000 hours, which – at a rate of 150 to 200 flight hours per year – would provide a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.[6] Thus, the first Block-1s would start reaching that point in the mid-to-late 2020s. Second, the PAF would have to look into a service life-extension program (SLEP) on top of an electronics upgrade. Designing a SLEP will add to the overhead cost of the JF-17 and carrying it out could take facilities and personnel away from production.

Thus, the cost of a combined SLEP and upgrade program may not be much lower than acquiring new JF-17s. In addition, the PAF may prefer keeping the JF-17 production line warm via new-built units, even at a reduced rate of a dozen aircraft per year or so (to gradually replace older JF-17 units).

The JF-17 also serves as a good platform for integrating, testing, and qualifying locally designed air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions. In fact, the PAF is building internal capacity to take on this work, which seems to have bore fruit through the integration of the Ra’ad-2 and Taimur air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). This was not a trivial line of work – rather, it was a costly and time-consuming endeavour. Gaining deeper access into the JF-17 is difficult, but doable; one cannot take such access for granted in the J-10CE. As the PAF invests more in domestic munition development, it will lean more on the JF-17 to deploy those air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions, potentially before any other platform in its service.

Finally, new JF-17s would also be the most cost-effective way of inducting new-generation capabilities at scale. Yes, the PAF is looking at adding new platforms, such as additional J-10CEs and, potentially, a next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) like the KAAN, but these fighters would never form the bulk of its fleet. If anything, these high-capability assets would likely be used for niche roles, such as long-range airstrikes, while the bulk of air-to-air and air-to-surface roles would rest with the more scalable jet – i.e., the JF-17.

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

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Tomislav Mesaric. “Pride of Pakistan”. Air International. December 2013. p.47.

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