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Malaysia and Azerbaijan Headline Pakistan’s Fresh JF-17 Sales Efforts

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) are renewing their efforts to secure additional customers for the JF-17 Thunder lightweight multi-role fighter, which is co-produced by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and PAC, and is the mainstay combat aircraft of the PAF.

These efforts follow deliveries of the JF-17 to Myanmar, which had reportedly ordered 16 aircraft in 2015, and Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) greenlighting a $184 million sale of three aircraft to Nigeria in late 2018 (Nigeria earmarked a $35 million installment for the order in its 2018 budget).

Currently, Malaysia and Azerbaijan appear to be the PAF and PAC’s top priorities for securing sales – both countries are high-value prospects. With at least 100 JF-17s inducted into the PAF fleet and, following the February 2019 air skirmish with India, the PAF seemingly accrediting the MiG-21bis kill to the Thunder (via Air Forces Monthly), a big-ticket sale to a third-party would drive significant momentum.


On March 22, the Pakistani Minister of Finance, Asad Umar, reportedly told local media that Malaysia had shown interest in purchasing the JF-17 alongside anti-tank missiles from Pakistan.

Invited as a guest of honour at the Pakistan Day Parade, the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was given a briefing of the JF-17. However, reports of PAC’s speaking with Malaysia about the JF-17 stem as early as 2015, when reports initially emerged of Islamabad proposing the fighter to Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysian Minister of Defence at the time, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, had denied of any such dealings. In 2016 and 2017, it had seemed that the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) would procure a Western European fighter, especially as Saab and BAE had reportedly been willing to extend loans/lines-of-credit to back the Gripen and Typhoon, respectively. Malaysia has largely favoured Western systems.

However, at the 2018 Defence Services Asia (DSA) exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, PAC told IHS Jane’s that it and the Malaysian side were in “primary level talks” regarding the JF-17. This round comes following the RMAF opting to procure lightweight fighters to augment its fleet and, potentially, supplant its MiG-29s.

PAC had still cautioned that these were not ‘serious’ talks, but the Malaysian Prime Minister’s recent visit to Pakistan may have potentially pushed the matter to a more substantive level.

The Foreign Relations Side Involves China

Rarely do marquee defence purchases, such as those of combat aircraft, separate the technical merits of the acquisition from its foreign relations realities. Malaysia’s current fiscal constraints notwithstanding, it is unrealistic to expect Pakistan to win-out against better backed competitors.

However, when it comes to a JF-17 proposal, Pakistan is not the only factor – there is China as well. Thus, a potential sale in a market as significant as Malaysia will likely see PAC leverage AVIC’s support (including offset, financial, and transfer-of-technology carrots).

On the other hand, China itself has only entered the Malaysian defence and security market recently, with its recent watershed sale being four Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) to the Royal Malaysian Navy. Though the LMS has a scope for up to 18 ships, there is no guarantee that the Chinese LMS program will mature to that extent. Thus, a JF-17 sale in Malaysia will likely be an uphill battle for AVIC and PAC, but the Thunder is not without its own competitive strengths in terms of cost and readily available versatility.

Low-Cost & Available SOWs will be Key

The one advantage the JF-17 can leverage is the fact that its stand-off range weapons (SOW) are available for export and, in most cases, at lower cost than their Western counterparts.

Be it the C-802 anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM), Range Extension Kit (REK) precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit, and potentially others, such as the GB6 (analogous to the Joint Stand-off Weapon or JSOW), the RMAF can draw a diverse line-up of long-range strike munitions that it may not have access to from the US and Western Europe, at least not without paying a relatively high price.

In fact, a major benefit of the JF-17 is that the PAF, by virtue of its own requirements, has already absorbed the cost and time necessary for integrating the C-802 ASCM and REK.

The RMAF can acquire a long-range land and sea attack capability right from the onset. This also includes certain support systems, such as the Aselsan ASELPOD targeting pod from Turkey.

Finally, and certainly not least, the JF-17 is on an upgrade track (intended for the PAF) that will incorporate an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar and a new set of munitions.

While others can provide the same, the JF-17 Block-III stands – alongside the Gripen E/F – with guaranteed scale thanks to at least 50 confirmed fighters in the pipeline. The PAF will simply absorb the integration and testing costs as it needs the JF-17 Block-III for its own needs. Thus, the JF-17 Block-III is a sure factor and independent of any sale to Malaysia.


It is unclear where PAC is at with regards to Azerbaijan. The only concrete report about Azerbaijani interest in the JF-17 came in 2016 following the conclusion of IDEAS, when the aviation journalist Alan Warnes reported Baku rekindled its interest in the fighter. Since then, numerous Azerbaijani news outlets, such as Azeri Defence, reported that the two countries will close a deal.

To be fair, the PAC has never officially stated who its JF-17 customers are, even when such information is on the official record. During the 2015 Paris Air Show, PAC did not disclose that the JF-17’s launch export customer was Myanmar, and at IDEAS 2018, PAC told Quwa that Nigeria “was close, but not final”, despite the fact that Nigeria had already earmarked funding for the JF-17 in its budget.

In other words, the notion that news about an Azeri JF-17 sale come from Azerbaijan is plausible, but an official statement from Baku or the Azerbaijani Air and Air Defence Force has not come. That said, reports from Azerbaijan indicate that Baku could opt for an AESA radar-equipped variant.

If Azerbaijan is intending to procure the Block-III, then it is likely that the JF-17 will replace the MiG-21 as well as augment the MiG-29. It is unclear if the JF-17 will supplant the Su-25, a close air support attacker.

Why Buy Fighters from China and Pakistan, and not Russia?

As Azerbaijan flies Russian-origin combat aircraft, why would it procure fighters from China and Pakistan, and not Russia? On first glance, one might assume that Azerbaijan has every interest in maintaining links with Russia and, on that note, Russia can exercise leverage to ensure that Baku flies new Russian jets.

Interestingly, though Azerbaijan flies Russian fighters, SIPRI’s (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) arms transfer database from 2000 and 2018 shows that Azerbaijan bought its fighters not from Russia, but second-hand from Belarus and Ukraine. Given the limited supply pool, Azerbaijan had bought older-generation R-27 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) and no ASCM or PGB.

In this context, the JF-17 would be Azerbaijan’s first new-built combat aircraft and, should it procure the SD-10 BVRAAM, its most modern air-to-air combat asset. In effect, the JF-17 could potentially supplant Azerbaijan’s MiG-29s; these are not modern MiG-29M/M2, but legacy variants built during the Soviet-era.

Moreover, Azerbaijan can draw on a complete training and doctrine program in Pakistan. In other words, not only would it get the JF-17, but access to PAF expertise, maintenance support, training, and exercises.

Support from a major air force with recent combat experience, especially against conventional threats, is a benefit in its own right. Thus, when it comes learning about how to best deploy the JF-17 for combat or train (e.g., for in-flight refueling), Azerbaijan will have help.

An Opportunity to Integrate Turkish Munitions

The advantages available to Malaysia would apply to Azerbaijan as well. However, an Azerbaijani sale may offer more to the PAF than just a foreign income source, i.e., an opportunity to integrate Turkish weapons.

Azerbaijan is a confirmed user of the Turkish Stand-off Missile (SOM) air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).

Though the PAF already has the Ra’ad-series of ALCMs, it appears that the primary purpose of the Ra’ad is to drive the PAF’s strategic operations, and that too from the Mirage ROSE I/II/III. However, the SOM is a smaller – and shorter-range – ALCM meant for conventional operations.

With it already possessing the C-802 AShM, REK, and another SOW, the PAF has largely covered its current SOW needs for the JF-17 (the Mirage ROSE will be there to complement it). Anything else is likely a luxury, except when someone else could be willing to foot the integrating and testing costs, such as Azerbaijan.

It is inconceivable that Azerbaijan would procure the JF-17 without integrating the SOM to it, and in time, Azerbaijan may also emerge to be an Atmaca ASCM user as well. Interestingly, Azerbaijan is also a buyer of South African arms, so its patronage could extend to the JF-17 to a wide range of new munitions.

For the PAF, an Azeri JF-17 order could open the path to integrating its own JF-17s with the SOM, an off-the-shelf ALCM, for conventional operations. It also opens the JF-17 up to non-Chinese munitions, which might be of priority to some potential customers. However, at this stage, it would be surprising if countries with difficulty accessing top-of-the-line Western equipment ignore their Chinese options.

Rather, the best approach would be to simply equip the JF-17 with as many contemporary munitions, and from friendly and cost-effective suppliers, as possible, regardless of the source. On this vein, the work for Azerbaijan would not only extend to the PAF, but Malaysia and other export customers as well.

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