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Monthly Report: The JF-17 in 2017 and Outlook for 2018

Quwa Premium’s Monthly Report for February 2018 provides a detailed overview of the leading events affecting the development of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter program. It starts with discussing the factors that led to the development of the JF-17, providing context of the PAF’s rationale and interests in its decision-making. This is joined by an outline of pertinent JF-17-related events in 2017, such as the raising of the No. 14 Squadron, maiden test-flight of the JF-17B, deliveries of Aselsan ASELPOD targeting pods and others. Context is provided (using open-source references) in regards to the PAF’s subsystem, weapon and powerplant selections, which had all steered the JF-17 to its current form. This report concludes with an outlook of the JF-17 program in 2018 along with an overview of potential interests for the industry in regards to the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III.

Background on the JF-17

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) embarked on the process of domestically manufacturing a multi-role fighter in the aftermath of recurring sanctions, most notably by the US through the Pressler Amendments, which resulted on a hold of 28 F-16A/B Block-15 OCU (Operational Capability Upgrade) fighters ordered and paid for by Pakistan. However, through the 1990s it was also apparent that there was a paucity of affordable fighters that could be procured in relatively sizable numbers, i.e. to supplant the PAF’s aging Shenyang F-6s. The Peace Gate III/IV F-16s (i.e. 71 in total) were supposed to assume that task, but Pressler firmly put an end to that prospect, and the alternatives – i.e. the Mirage 2000 and JAS-39A/B Gripen – were either too costly or simply untenable due to political challenges.

Interestingly, Pakistan had toyed with the idea of domestically manufacturing a fighter much earlier than taking on the JF-17. In 1949, an advisor to the Pakistani Ministry of Defence – Mir Laiq Ali – had apparently begun negotiations with Lockheed Martin to supply – along with assembly and eventually manufacturing – F-80 fighters to Pakistan.[1] However, this effort was scuttled amid pressure from Britain on the Pakistani government, resulting in the transfer of 36 Supermarine Attackers to the then Royal Pakistan Air Force.[2] In 1987, the PAF awarded Northrop Grumman and the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) a contract to study a significant upgrade of CAC’s F-7 involving a solid nose, side-intakes, the General Electric (GE) F-404 turbofan engine and modern Western radar and avionics.[3] However, US sanctions on China following the Tiananmen Square incident along with mounting costs shelved that program (Sabre II).

In 1992, CAC offered the PAF an opportunity to support a clean-sheet design, which the PAF accepted in 1994, resulting in a memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) being signed in 1995.[4] The design of the fighter was frozen in 1996, with a co-development contract being signed in 1999.[5] Russia’s Mikoyan was also contracted by CAC to provide consultation support, while Klimov was sought to supply its RD-93 turbofan engine. Furthermore, a workshare production contract was signed which would see Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) manufacture 58% of the fighter, particularly the airframe.[6]

Designated Super-7, the first prototype rolled-out in China in 2003, with its maiden test-flight occurring in August 2003.[7] However, an updated design would fly in May 2006 – i.e. Prototype 4 – which incorporated revised leading-edge root extensions (LERX) and diverterless supersonic intakes (DSI).[8] Prototype 4 formed the basis of the final JF-17, which the PAF began testing from March 2007 through 2010.[9] In April 2011, the PAF converted its two Nanchang A-5 squadrons – No. 16 and No. 26 – to the JF-17 Block-I, stationing the former in Kamra and the later in Peshawar.[10] In February 2015, the first JF-17 Block-II conducted its maiden flight, with the twin-seat JF-17B following in April 2017.[11][12]

The PAF JF-17 in 2017

By the end of 2017, PAC rolled-out the 50th JF-17 Block-II, resulting in a total of 100 JF-17s in service with the PAF (or entering service in the near-future). Thus far, the JF-17s have been allocated to at a minimum of five frontline squadrons: No. 16, No. 26, No. 2, No. 14 and Combat Commanders School. The PAF raised a sixth JF-17 unit In February through an entirely fighter squadron – i.e. No. 28 “Phoenix” – in Quetta.[13]

With No. 28 stationed at Quetta, the PAF has spread JF-17s across each of its operational environments, i.e. maritime (No. 2), central (No. 14 and No. 16), north (No. 26) and the west (No. 28). The allocation to Quetta indicates that the PAF is aiming to greatly strengthen its Western Front (borders with Afghanistan and Iran) but also potentially have a permanent unit of executing counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the southwest region (complementing No. 26 in the north and northwest). However, COIN will not be the sole capability of the No. 28, but mission flexibility appears to be among the PAF’s objectives.

It is curious that a new fighter squadron was raised as the JF-17 was converting F-7P units. Thus, No. 18 – an operational conversion unit (OCU) equipped with the F-7P and FT-7P – made sense as the next unit to transition. However, the PAF raised a new lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT) unit designated ‘Shooter Squadron’, suggesting that the remnant F-7P/FT-7P could be allocated to that unit. Interestingly, the PAF has yet to commit to orders for the dual-seat JF-17B, and though it remains tentative on its plans, the JF-17B could be sought as a dual-LIFT and OCU platform in the future.[14]

The PAF began introducing IFR to the JF-17 through the Block-II (i.e. starting with the 24th-25th aircraft).[15] The PAF publicized the JF-17’s IFR capability in 2017 by showing footage of an IL-78 connecting with a JF-17. However, the presence of IFR-capable JF-17s in the No. 14 and No. 16, the latter being a launch unit with the JF-17 Block-I, shows the use of mixed capability squadrons involving different subvariants of the JF-17 Block-I/II. In fact, a purported image of a No. 28 JF-17 also shows an in-flight refueling (IFR) probe, potentially suggesting another mixed-capability squadron. The mixed-capability approach could suggest that each JF-17 squadron will have the means to undertake similar roles, which would be important seeing that the JF-17 has been allocated to each operational theatre. In other words, mixed capability units will ensure that each region has similar capabilities, such as long-endurance flight (provided through IFR).

In terms of capabilities, the PAF’s most noteworthy integration work (that it completed and announced) was that of the Range Extension Kit (REK) in March 2017.[16] The REK is a precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit for MK-80-series of general purpose bombs (GPB). In addition to using INS/GPS for guidance, the REK expands the range of the GPB to 50-60 km, with an accuracy of within 20 metres CEP (circular error probable).[17] The REK is produced and marketed by Global Industrial & Defence Solutions (GIDS), which is an umbrella organization representing numerous state-owned vendors in Pakistan. It is unclear if the PAF will qualify additional stand-off weapons (SOW) to the JF-17 – adding to the REK and the C-802 anti-ship missile (AShM). That said, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has qualified numerous SOW, including the CM-400AKG, for Pakistan to choose in the future.

SOW such as the newly revealed Ra’ad II air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) – range: 550 km – could enable the JF-17 to overcome its inherent range and endurance limitations, thus providing it substantive strike capability. In lieu of the prospect of another – i.e. heavier and longer-range – fighter type to carry deep-strike and maritime operations in the near-term, the PAF may need to rely on the JF-17 to deploy SOWs. The Ra’ad ALCM’s principal carrier, the Dassault Mirage III/5, will continue aging. With the prospect of a suitable strike-capable successor increasingly being staged through a next-generation platform, it would be difficult to exclude the JF-17 from being a relevant SOW platform. Besides the Ra’ad/II, the PAF could plausibly work with South Africa’s Denel Dynamics (among a handful of companies overtly interested in working with Pakistan) to secure SOWs covering various range spectrums, e.g. 100-200 km through the Tariq/Umbani PGB-series and 250-290 km through the Raptor III.

In 2017, the PAF took delivery of ASELPOD advanced targeting pods from Turkey’s Aselsan. The ASELPODs were bought in June 2016 through a $24.9 million US order for eight pods. The first batch was delivered in November 2016, with subsequent deliveries in September 2017 and February 2018.[18] The PAF acquired the ASELPOD to enable the JF-17 to execute strike missions in Pakistan’s COIN efforts, augmenting the Sniper-equipped F-16s.[19] Technically, fitting the ASELPOD is possible by using one of the seven external hardpoints, but that would leave fewer hardpoints for the ordnance load and the external fuel pods. Granted, dual-ejector racks can help increase the number of ordnance, but existing information suggests that the PAF would prefer using a separate hardpoint for the ASELPOD. The Block-III will have it, but the PAF has yet to show that it will extend this to the Block-II. In 2015, the Project Director of the JF-17 – then Air Commodore Mahmood Khalid – said that the PAF is considering it for Block-II.[20]

In November 2017, the PAF also sent its first JF-17 to the Aircraft Maintenance Factory in Chengfei, China to help define a depot-level maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) program for the fighter. Chengfei will undertake a pilot MRO program, which will then be raised at PAC so that the PAF can execute its MRO work domestically. In depot-level MRO, the aircraft is stripped down to its individual parts, with each part undergoing thorough inspection for wear and damage. These parts can undergo repair or replacement. In 2013, a PAF engineering officer – Wing Commander Babar Ali – stated that the JF-17 undergoes inspection every 100 hours, with each subsequent check being more demanding than the previous.[21] According to Wg. Cmdr. Ali, the most strenuous inspection occurs at 800 hours.[22] It would appear that depot-level MRO occurs after 800 hours. CAC/AVIC told Air International that the JF-17’s total service life is 3,000 hours.[23] The PAF did not outline plans to accompany MRO with an upgrade (e.g. Block-I to II/III), though it would be a suitable period to consider it. The Block-III was designed to be retrofittable to the Block-I/II.[24]

Understanding the JF-17’s Capabilities

Though not specific to 2017, a review of the JF-17’s current subsystems offers clarity to the PAF’s original objectives for the Thunder, the challenges it faces and the prospect of the future. Originally, the PAF had sought the Thales RC400 radar and MBDA MICA beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM).[25] Talks were reportedly taking place from 2007 to 2010, with the French contractors ATE and Astrac identifying an opportunity to fit 100 aircraft.[26] The prospective deal was reportedly worth up to $1.2 billion US.[27]

Despite the apparent cost-sensitive tone of the PAF, it was apparent that the PAF had originally intended to equip the JF-17 with industry-standard subsystems and munitions. However, a combination of higher-than-projected costs and – arguably more so – a bigger prospective Rafale contract from India ultimately scuttled the deal. This prompted the PAF to engage with China’s Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) and AVIC to supply the KLJ-7 radar and SD-10 BVRAAM, respectively.

The PAF emphasized that the NRIET suite, while unideal (as the PAF originally wanted onboard electronics from Thales), still fulfilled its Air Staff Requirements (ASR).[28] The KLJ-7 multi-mode radar provides the JF-17 a detection, tracking and engagement range of 75 km for flying objects with a 3m2 radar cross-section (RCS).[29] The KLJ-7 was supplanted by the KLJ-7V2 – along with improved avionics and electronic warfare (EW) systems, such as radar warning receiver (RWR) and missile alert warning system (MAWS) – in the JF-17 Block-II.[30] The KLJ-7V2 reportedly has a range of 110 km for 3m2 RCS objects.[31] This is sufficient range for using the SD-10, which has an engagement range of at least 70 km.[32]

It must be acknowledged that the JF-17 Block-I and Block-II were going to be baseline multi-role solutions regardless of whether a French or Chinese radar and weapons suite was sought. Granted, the RC400 and MICA combination might have provided a better qualitative package, but the JF-17 Block-I/II are marred with inherent limitations that preclude them from being fully contemporary. For example, the JF-17 Block-I/II do not include integrated EW and electronic countermeasures (ECM) jamming (it relies on an external pod instead); the digital fly-by-wire (FBW) element is only for the pitch-axis, with analog FBW covering bank and yaw; and lack a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system.[33][34] The PAF aims to rectify each of these issues through the Block-III, but the rationale for deploying the Block-I/II in their respective forms is evident. The PAF lacked a sufficient number of fighters capable of deploying BVRAAMs, hence, a mix of urgency and fiscal constraints will rarely spur ideal near-term outcomes. Besides bringing essential air combat capabilities, the JF-17 also improved the PAF’s logistics channel, such as reducing the number of required technicians from 170 (with the F-7P) to 120.[35]

The JF-17 has a respectable payload capacity of 4,000 kg, but the OEM (including PAC and AVIC) have not disclosed the JF-17’s range and endurance. However, neither is likely to be an issue for defensive missions, such point-air defence and short-range strikes (for area denial and cross-border attacks). This payload can also potentially translate into the ability to deploy heavyweight munitions, be it the 1,000 kg MK-84 GBP, anti-ship missiles (AShM), various SOWs and the Ra’ad-series of ALCM. The latter would imbue the JF-17 with the ability to be a deep-strike factor, albeit to a limited extent compared to larger platforms.

The PAF has not sought to equip the JF-17 to in all of these respects, but the long-term nature of the program does provide ample opportunity to do so provided the willingness is in place. Doing so, even with a larger fighter in place to specialize in deep-strike and maritime operations, would distribute attack capabilities to a large number of fighters, thereby creating a larger threat presence and further focusing specialist assets on missions that are decisively untenable for the JF-17.

In terms of the JF-17’s range and endurance limitations, the PAF will rely on IFR, though the method is not a panacea.  First, the PAF has a limited number of IFR tankers in the form of just four IL-78, hence, only a limited number of JF-17s can access it (even among the IFR-equipped aircraft). Second, while sensible for extending endurance, the IFR process can be precarious when done close to the border – rather, likely a non-factor on account of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) capabilities. If done well-within its territory, the PAF can leverage IFR for extended combat air patrols (CAP) and staging maritime operations, but to facilitate a deep cross-border strike mission for the JF-17 unlikely on the roadmap.

It is unclear if the JF-17 Block-III will substantially alter the JF-17’s inherent range and endurance limits. In fact, it is unlikely that it will even improve upon the JF-17’s payload. Rather, the increase of its hardpoints from seven to nine will expand the quantitative ordnance load by enabling the use of special mission pods while also allowing for flexible air-to-air and air-to-surface load-outs.[36] For example, in an anti-ship role, carry six to eight AAMs instead of four; carry multiple EW/ECM pods in a defensive air operation; or carry a large number of lightweight ordnance along with a targeting pod in COIN/CT. The JF-17B is larger than the Block-I/II, while also including digital three-axis FBW (a key feature of the Block-III).[37][38] Using the JF-17B for the Block-III could, in theory, enable for additional space for fuel, thus extending the range and endurance. In fact, the PAF need not change the JF-17B extensively, it can emulate the MiG-35 and L-159A by replacing the rear-seat with an extension of the dorsal spine, thus making more room for fuel.

Export Progress

In June 2017, photos emerged of the first FC-1 Xiaolong meant for Myanmar, which inked an order for 16 aircraft in 2015.[39] The Myanmar Air Force’s (MAF) FC-1s appear to be undergoing final assembly in China, but under the original workshare agreement, PAC is supplying 58% of the subassemblies. Pakistan opted to downplay the sale (likely due to the Rohingya Crisis). Specific timelines regarding deliveries to the MAF are not yet known. In addition, Nigeria allocated a second installment (of $36 million US) for its order of three JF-17s, which it likely made in late 2016.[40] The common factor in the Myanmar and Nigeria sales is the fact that both countries are having difficulty procuring off-the-shelf fighters, with the US and Europe being non-factors. Besides Russia, China is the only option. In Nigeria’s case, it appears that PAC is using a ‘layaway’ form of payment wherein it is accepting cash installments, the completion of which will see it manufacture and deliver the Nigerian Air Force’s (NAF) JF-17s. No delivery timelines are available.

The Engine Question: RD-93

The PAF reiterated that it is satisfied with the Klimov RD-93. It had been clear in its position from the start following the induction of the Block-I. In 2015 PAC officials stated that they had closely cooperated with Klimov to integrate the RD-93 to the JF-17, with the solution being “ideal”.[41] In fact, PAC was adamant in sticking to the RD-93, telling IHS Jane’s: “For us, changing to another engine would not make any sense and would be disruptive and cause a huge expense for the JF-17 programme.”[42]

It is likely that the unease (from observers) regarding the RD-93 stemmed from the sense that is merely a repurposed RD-33 Series-1. However, besides possessing additional thrust (85.3 kN to the RD-33-1’s 81.3 kN), the RD-93 also has a digital electronic engine control (DEEC) system.[43][44] PAC had also stated that it was in talks with Klimov to bring a depot-level MRO facility for the RD-93 to Pakistan.[45] The RD-93 has a time-between overhaul (TBO) of 600 hours.[46] With the airframe overhaul occurring at least 800 hours into the aircraft’s use, the MRO of the RD-93s should have commenced earlier, but PAC did not announce the opening of its own RD-93 MRO facility. Thus, it is likely that the engines are being sent to Russia for MRO.

In 2016, PAC officials told IHS Jane’s that the Klimov RD-33MK was being considered (along with China’s WS-13) for the JF-17. In 2017, British aviation journalist Alan Warnes reported that the engine “will likely” be supplanted by a Chinese turbofan in the long-term.[47] It does not appear that an engine switch is on the roadmap for the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III. Rather, the plausible outcome would be to incorporate a new turbofan for a future variant. Purportedly, Klimov is developing a new variant of the RD-93 – i.e. RD-93MA – but there are no verifiable specifications or timelines for fruition.

The prospect of a post-Block-III JF-17 variant lends to other questions, such as the timeline between PAC producing the JF-17 and transitioning to Project Azm (i.e. the next-generation fighter). Furthermore, the usage of the JF-17 at 150 to 200 hours per year would render an airframe life of 15-20 years. Thus, early Block-I aircraft could be due for replacing in 2025-2030, leaving the PAF with the option of supplanting its older fighters with either Project Azm or a JF-17 Block-IV/V. Logically, if the Project Azm fighter is a clean-sheet design (e.g. with Chengdu), it could require at least 15 years of sustained design, development, testing, qualification and industrial transition for it to come to fruition as an operational fighter (note: it took the JF-17 15 years to transition from frozen design (1996) to PAF service (2011)). In that time-period, it could make sense to prepare new JF-17 variants (with new turbofan engines) as a stopgap.

JF-17B: Test Flight

CAC test-flew the first and second prototypes of the twin-seat JF-17 – i.e. JF-17B – in April and December 2017, respectively. One of these aircraft has also been delivered to PAC, which will accept two of the three prototypes for testing in Pakistan. Besides providing a dual-fighter and conversion-training system of the JF-17, the JF-17B also incorporates some of the subsystems intended for the JF-17 Block-III. This includes a three-axis digital FBW (replacing the hybrid digital-analog FBW) and space for an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar.[48] In addition, the JF-17B also incorporates a slightly enlarged airframe: it has a length of 14.5 m (to 14.2 m) and wingspan of 9.47 m (to 8.5 m).[49] To incorporate the second-seat, a new dorsal spine was introduced to compensate for lost space for fuel.[50] The JF-17B also has a revised vertical stabilizer – i.e. larger and swept-back – compared to the tail of the Block-I/II.[51]

The PAF has been content with using simulators to train its pilots for the JF-17. In 2013, the PAF showcased a full-mission simulator incorporating “air-to-air, air-to-ground, electronic warfare, aerial refueling and night-vision goggles (sic) capabilities”.[52] In 2015, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman had suggested that the JF-17B could serve as the PAF’s lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT).[53] However, in later reports – and the establishment of ‘Shooter Squadron’ at M.M. Alam Air Base – shows that the FT-7P will serve as the principal LIFT platform. Thus, the prospect of the PAF inducting the JF-17B is unclear as it does not require it for OCU. However, as the FT-7P and FT-7PG age, the PAF could consider binding the LIFT and OCU together. In this case, the JF-17B could serve as that dual-role system (i.e. preparing pilots for fighter flying and preparing them for entry with active JF-17 units).

For the PAF, the JF-17B could also serve a complementary – or potentially alternative – role as a testbed for subsystems intended for the Block-III. The JF-17B is already equipped with the three-axis digital FBW and has space for an AESA radar. NRIET has begun testing its KLJ-7A. Equipped with 1,000 transceiver modules (TRM), the KLJ-7A promises a longer detection range of 170 km (it did not confirm if this is for 5m2 RCS or 3m2 RCS), ability to track 15 targets and engage four simultaneously.[54][55] PAC could maintain a JF-17B for enabling prospective customers to test-fly the fighter and another unit for Block-III testing.

Outlook for JF-17 in 2018:

To keep PAC’s production-line warm, the PAF will procure another 12 Block-IIs in 2018.[56] This will serve as a stopgap ahead of the Block-III, which the PAF aims to bring into production in 2019-2020.[57] In 2018, PAC is likely to prepare or undertake construction of its depot-level MRO site for the JF-17, following the pilot program being undertaken in China. However, 2018 might see greater momentum in terms of the Block-III, especially with the PAF potentially seeking, if not finalizing, subsystem selections for the platform.

Industry Outlook:

For the industry, the substantive long-term point-of-interest will be the JF-17 Block-III. The PAF will select a new AESA radar, avionics suite, integrated EW/ECM suite (with integrated jamming), HMD/S, air-to-air munitions and other internal subsystems for the Block-III. The radar will be the centrepiece, not only for being the highest-value segment, but also shaping the subsequent selection of BVRAAMs.

The Chinese – especially NRIET – is favoured as the leading candidate. The main outside competitor would be the Leonardo Vixen 1000E, which was marketed in 2016 and the International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) in Karachi, Pakistan. However, the unwillingness of Leonardo to share radar source-codes with China (and vice-versa) for radar-to-BVRAAM integration makes the Vixen 1000E an unlikely option. Furthermore, selecting the KLJ-7A would enable the PAF to immediately field the SD-10 with the Block-III.

For Leonardo, a ‘dark horse’ scenario would be PAC fast-tracking its own BVRAAM development (e.g. with South Africa’s Denel Dynamics) and/or Turkey bringing its own BVRAAM to fruition. However, this would delay the Block-III program, at least in terms of operational readiness with the PAF. Nonetheless, Leonardo and its industry agents in Pakistan would have to demonstrate a procurable radar and BVRAAM package to credibly compete against the Chinese package. Demonstrating transfer-of-technology and connecting to Project Azm could be a means to build a strong long-term case with the PAF.

The secondary impact of the AESA radar will likely be the selection of the integrated EW/ECM suite. The procurement of AESA TRMs (for radar and EW/ECM) from one source would be cost-effective and could see the PAF and OEM work towards a measure of sensor-fusion on the Block-III. However, single-sourcing the radar and integrated TRMs is essential for achieving this objective. That said, opportunities may exist for other OEMs in terms of EW/ECM pods. For example, the Elettronica EDGE jamming pod is not bound by ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations).[58]

The industry can market such pods for the Block-III and Block-I/II as complementary EW/ECM solutions. Having sold the Seaspray 7300E AESA and ESM system to the Pakistan Navy, Leonardo and Elettronica are well positioned to engage the PAF, having secured clearances for selling their AESA TRMs to Pakistan.[59]

In terms of other munitions, the PAF is expected to seek a high off-boresight (HOBS) AAM for the Block-III. Interestingly, in 2015 the PAF had seemingly identified the Denel Dynamics A-Darter for its HOBS AAM requirement.[60] The then Chief Project Director of the JF-17 – now Chairman of PAC – Air Marshal Arshad Malik stated: “Selex is one of the competitors in the AESA [radar] requirement. A-Darter, LD-10 anti-radiation missile, CM-102 anti-radiation missile, CM-400 anti-ship missile, range extension kits and other precision guided munitions will further improve the jet’s combat punch.”[61] In 2013, Denel Group had even mentioned an A-Darter contract worth ZAR 2.6 billion (i.e. $220 million US today) with Pakistan.[62]

It is not known if the A-Darter was selected, but with South Africa overtly willing to collaborate on defence technologies and trade with Pakistan and with Denel Group listing Pakistan as one of 10 target markets, it is at least likely to be among the leading options.[63][64] While independent of the radar, the HOBS AAM is tied to the HMD/S (pairing is essential to achieve the visual-cueing and missile-slaving capability). While Denel Dynamics can offer the HOBS AAM, it does not currently appear that the company has an HMD/S solution it can secure for Pakistan. Furthermore, there are a paucity of HMD/S options in general, and for the PAF, apparently none outside of an unexpected release of Thales TopOwl-F or BAE Striker IIs. An OEM with a procurable HMD/S – especially one that is pairable with an available HOBS AAM – could maintain a favourable position in the Block-III market (unless the PAF shelves HMD/S and HOBS AAM).

Currently, it appears that the most plausible (though unlikely in its own right) option would be the Thales TopOwl-F. Pakistan is a regular importer of Thales’ optronics for use on the al-Khalid-series of main battle tanks (MBT), demonstrating that the French electronics company is still engaged with Pakistan. If not for Thales, the alternative would be to wait for a new solution, potentially from China, Turkey or – if Denel Dynamics is willing to invest – Hensoldt Optronics South Africa (HOSA). HOSA is among the few companies in the industry with the development experience and expertise to potentially develop a new HMD/S.

Other opportunities include new onboard electronics – such as INS/GPS; multi-function displays (MFD); instruments for the hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS); new ejection seats; and, plausibly, an onboard oxygen generation system (OBOGS). Besides HOBS AAM and new BVRAAM, the PAF has not provided any insight as to whether the Block-III will be equipped with new air-to-surface munitions (but in 2015, it had noted Chinese munitions that had already been qualified for use on the JF-17).


From the PAF’s standpoint, the apparent deficiencies of the JF-17 – such as its range and endurance limits, slower adoption-rate of contemporary subsystems (e.g. HMD/S) and others – pale in comparison to the alternative prospect of not having a modern backbone fighter. Ultimately, the JF-17 was intended to give the PAF a fighter that can deploy essential combat capabilities in sizable numbers and at low relative cost. In 2017, the PAF JF-17 fleet totaled 100 planes, resulting in its previous backbone fighter – the F-7P – being phased-out to marginal numbers with a BVR-capable multi-role fighter in its place. The commitment to iterate upon the Thunder also showed in 2017, with the JF-17B entering the space with a new digital FBW system along with promises for other changes that could point to the JF-17 Block-III. With iteration, the JF-17 is inching close to its contemporaries, to the extent where there will be few deficiencies (in terms of subsystems and capabilities) compared to the direct competition at a time when that competition also begins becoming a tangible factor.

Momentum for the JF-17 Block-III and 2018 align for the industry. In 2018, the PAF will need to select and finalize its subsystem suite for the Block-III, but in November 2018, IDEAS will provide the industry to offer its solutions with the space to explain its value-proposition and compatibility with the PAF’s realities. It is an expansive opportunity, one benefitting from a substantive order (at least 50 aircraft) and desired inputs – from marquee subsystems and munitions to less apparent, but important, systems such as INS/GPS. It will be interesting to see the competitors in this space, especially with China (for the radar and munitions) being the incumbent and leading candidate. These factors position 2018 as an important year for the JF-17’s near-term development and its long-term trajectory.

[1] “The PAF’s Lifeblood”. The Story of the Pakistan Air Force: A Saga of Courage and Honour. Shaheen Foundation. 1988. p.99

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Grumman reveals Sabre II for Pakistan.” Flight International. 19 September 1987. Page 11: URL: (Last Accessed: 11 February 2018).

[4]  Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.” Note: a special publication released by the Pakistan Air Force during the Paris Air Show of 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Richard D Fisher Jr. “Twin-seat JF-17B/FC-1B fighter makes first flight”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 28 April 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[13] “PAF Achieves Another Milestone Squadron, Equipped With Pakistan’s Pride JF-17 Thunder”. Associated Press of Pakistan. 28 February 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 28 February 2018).

[14] This is discussed in detail in the Quwa Premium article, “Why Pakistan is unlikely to procure a lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT)”. 15 January 2018. URL:

[15] Interview with Air Commodore Khalid Mahmood. Defense Industry Bulletin. June 2015.

[16] News. “The ceremony of rolling out of 1000th Aircraft, overhaul of 1st K-8P and integration of standoff weapon with JF-17 Aircraft”. Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. URL: (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[17] Promotional Material. Range Extension Kit. Global Industrial & Defence Solutions. URL: (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[18] “Pakistan Defence Review: Procurement Updates”. Quwa Premium. 12 February 2018. URL:

[19] John Irish. “Pakistan wants air force upgrade for prolonged militant fight.” Reuters. 07 April 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 08 February 2018).

[20] Georg Mader. “Interview with Air Commodore Mahmood Khalid”. Defence Industry Bulletin. June 2015.

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

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Alan Warnes. “Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder Fighter will fly in 2017”. Aviation Week & Space Technology. 13 February 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[25] Alain Ruello. “Pakistan calls on France to beef up its fighter planes”. LesEchos. 23 September 2009 URL: (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[26] Ibid.

[27] “France says arms sale to Pakistan held up”. Reuters. 02 April 2010. URL: (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[28] Promotional Material. JF-17 Thunder. Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. 2015. Promotional Video for the 2015 Paris Air Show. URL:

[29] KLJ-7/10 Fire Control Radar (FCR) (China). Airborne Radar Systems. IHS Jane’s. 19 January 2009. URL:

[30] Interview with Air Commodore Khalid Mahmood. Defense Industry Bulletin. June 2015.

[31] Andreas Rupprecht. “Eye on the East: The JF-17’s Dilemma”. Combat Aircraft. July 2016.

[32] China SD-10 Missile Technology. Jane’s Air Launched Weapons. 08 February 2004.

[33] Re: external EW/ECM pod | Tomislav Mesaric. “Pride of Pakistan”. Air International. December 2013. p.46.

[34] Re: hybrid FBW flight control system | Tomislav Mesaric. “Pride of Pakistan”. Air International. December 2013. p.43

[35] Tomislav Mesaric. “Pride of Pakistan”. Air International. December 2013. p.46

[36] Note: a Pakistan Air Force source had confirmed to Quwa that the JF-17 will have nine external hardpoints.

[37] Alan Warnes. “Two-seat JF-17B progresses.” AirForces Monthly. April 2017

[38] Richard D Fisher Jr. “Twin-seat JF-17B/FC-1B fighter makes first flight”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 28 April 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).


[39] Gabriel Dominguez. “Images show Myanmar Air Force JF-17/FC-1 conducting flight tests in China”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 14 June 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 February 2018).

[40] Bilal Khan. “Nigeria budgets additional payment for JF-17 order from Pakistan”. Quwa. 27 January 2018. URL:

[41] Reuben F Johnson. “Pakistan to stick with RD-93 engine for JF-17, say PAF officials”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 19 November 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[42] Ibid.

[43] Thrust-rating of the RD-93 was provided Quwa by PAC.

[44] Tomislav Mesaric. “Pride of Pakistan”. Air International. December 2013. p.43

[45] Ibid. p.47

[46] Ibid.

[47] Alan Warnes. “Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder Fighter will fly in 2017”. Aviation Week & Space Technology. 13 February 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[48] Alan Warnes. “Two-seat JF-17B progresses.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2017. Issue: #349

[49] Richard D Fisher Jr. “Twin-seat JF-17B/FC-1B fighter makes first flight”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 28 April 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Tomislav Mesaric. “Pride of Pakistan”. Air International. December 2013. p.46

[53] Alan Warnes. “Exclusive interview with new Pakistan Air Force Chief: PAF’s Cutting Edge Grows.” Air Forces Monthly. June 2015. Issue #327.

[54] Bilal Khan. “KLJ-7A: Proposed AESA radar for JF-17 undergoing tests”. Quwa. 21 November 2017. URL:

[55] Henri Kenhmann. “Airshow China 2016: KLJ-7A, the AESA radar” East Pendulum. 01 November 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[56] Alan Warnes. “Dubai Airshow: Pakistan JF-17 returns to Dubai”. Arabian Aerospace. 13 November 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[57] PTV interview with Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, the Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air Force, on 23 March 2017.

[58] Promotional Material. “Elettronica Group at Dubai Airshow”. Analisi Difesa. November 2017. URL:

[59] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Navy ATR72MPA to fly in October.” Warney’s World. 28 June 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 08 February 2018).

[60] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.” Note: a special publication released by the Pakistan Air Force during the Paris Air Show of 2015.

[61] Ibid.

[62] “Denel has secured R5 billion export order book over the last year”. DefenceWeb. 23 July 2013. URL: (Last Accessed: 18 February 2018).

[63] Joy Nonzukiso Peter. “A memorandum of understanding on Defence and Defence Industrial Cooperation with Pakistan”. 29 March 2017. Department of Defence of the Republic of South Africa. URL: (Last Accessed: 18 February 2018).

[64] Denel Financial Report 2016-2017. p.10 URL: (Last Accessed: 18 February 2018).

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