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JF-17B: The Pakistan Air Force’s Growth Asset

Over the next three to five years, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) combat aircraft fleet will transition to almost entirely 4 and 4+ generation fighters. Though moving past legacy designs such as the Mirage III/5 and F-7P/PG may mark a significant shift on paper, the PAF’s training and doctrine efforts are critical to closing the gap between practice and theory. The JF-17B is the centerpiece of those efforts.

Background on the JF-17B

The JF-17B is the two-seat variant of the JF-17 Thunder, one of the PAF’s mainstay fighter aircraft. Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) announced the JF-17B’s development start in April 2016.[1] The first JF-17B prototype flew the following year in April 2017.[2]

Though the two-seat version, the JF-17B was also an upgrade of the Thunder in itself. For example, AVIC introduced the new three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) digital flight control system slotted for the JF-17 Block-3 via the JF-17B. The JF-17B also featured a larger nose cone with the express purpose of one day integrating the KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.[3] AVIC also designed in a dorsal spine to carry fuel so as to offset the space taken by the second seat.

PAC took delivery of its first JF-17B (i.e., 17-601) in early 2019. The second unit (i.e., 19-602) followed later that year. In May 2019, the then PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan revealed that Air Headquarters (AHQ) ordered 26 JF-17Bs.[4] This would be in addition to the JF-17 Block-1, Block-2, and the Block-3, thus bringing the PAF’s total Thunder fleet to well over 150 aircraft.[5]

The PAF received its first 12 JF-17Bs on 30 December 2019, and the remaining 14 the following year on 31 December 2020. However, the PAF lost a JF-17B in an accident on 06 August 2021. The PAF allocated the bulk of the JF-17Bs to No. 18 Squadron (‘Sharp Shooters’), the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). Besides assigning No.18 to acclimate pilots for the Thunder, the PAF also sent JF-17Bs to each operational frontline squadron to reinforce its training regimen. Each squadron should have at least one JF-17B.[6]

The New Challenge

Interestingly, the PAF was content with using simulators to train pilots for the JF-17. Originally, it did not require a twin-seater.[7] Prior to the JF-17B, pilots would spend 30 hours on simulators (procured by Spain’s Indra) before flying a real aircraft. It seems that the PAF sought the JF-17B to help transition newer, less experienced pilots to both multirole fighter flying and the Thunder in one stroke.

One of the ‘good problems’ of shifting to a fleet of 4 and 4+ generation fighters is that new pilots will start on those sophisticated aircraft from the onset. The capabilities that were limited to the F-16 and upgraded Mirage III/5s got diffused across the entire fleet. In some cases, such as AESA radar use, the JF-17 will have a net-new capability that does not even exist in the F-16.

However, while the capability looks good on paper, the PAF is working to make that theoretical capability matter in the real world. If it does not succeed in this area, the PAF would suffer from underutilization, an ironic twist for AHQ which had worried of closing the gap with India, but not its own assets.

Thus, it makes sense that the PAF is using the JF-17B thrice along its training doctrine. First, the PAF utilizes the JF-17B as a lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT) to transition pilots to a modern fast-jet environment. Second, it uses the JF-17B as an OCU asset to acclimate pilots to the Thunder. Third, the PAF uses the JF-17B again in operational squadrons, likely to solidify pilot familiarity. Basically, the PAF would require new pilots to spend several years on the JF-17 before they reach an operational unit.

This is a significant change for the PAF. Prior to the JF-17, the average PAF pilot may not have experienced the full breadth of capabilities until after several years of flying on the F-7P or Mirage III/5. Today, the new PAF pilot will have several years of network-enabled, multi-role fighter-flying experience before they even join their first operational squadron (by virtue of LIFT and OCU time).

This is not to say these pilots will be seasoned veterans by the time they start operational flying. Rather, the more sophisticated technology or capability stack of the JF-17 may require more training time. In fact, the PAF even said it will configure the JF-17Bs with the KLJ-7A AESA radar.[8] This – along with the fact that PAC is assembling the KLJ-7A – suggests that the PAF will re-equip many existing JF-17s (at least the Block-2s) with the KLJ-7A. Thus, the JF-17 has not even reached its actual level of complexity.

Speaking of complexity, the JF-17 is a multirole asset. However, the PAF will not transition to only multirole squadrons. Rather, some squadrons will specialize in some areas – like anti-ship warfare (AShW) or deep-strike – while others will be available for multirole. Thus, it will be worth watching how soon the PAF starts training pilots for specialized roles. The PAF may have allocated JF-17Bs to frontline units to enable those squadrons to train pilots for the unit’s specialist roles. These can include, among others, deploying anti-ship missiles (AShM), stand-off weapons (SOW), and air-to-air refuelling (AAR).

Overall, the next few years will be a major test for the PAF’s training processes. In fact, not only does the PAF need skilled pilots for its multirole fighters, but it will also need adept drone operators. Thus, not only are the expectations upon each individual pilot going up, but so is the need for more personnel.

Moreover, the PAF may not entirely be sure it can smoothly transition pilots from the K-8P to the JF-17B. When then CAS ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan revealed the news about acquiring 26 JF-17Bs in 2019, he still said that the PAF would require a dedicated LIFT.[9] He was also clear in saying that the LIFT aircraft did not need to be supersonic.[10] Thus, at some point, the PAF had actually demarcated between the LIFT and JF-17B. It would not be surprising if, ultimately, the separate LIFT project was shelved due to other priorities, such as an off-the-shelf fighter, among other initiatives.

However, based on how its new pilots adjust to the new training program, the PAF may revisit the idea of a separate LIFT. The factors driving that shift can include, among others, freeing up JF-17Bs for operational duties, finding new training gaps between the K-8P and JF-17B, needing more aircraft to support a higher number of trainees, and/or seeking a training-first design (as opposed to a fighter reworked for LIFT).

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 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.

[5] Ibid.

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

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alan Warnes. Interview with Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan. Jane’s Defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

[10] Ibid.

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