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Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Delivers New JF-17B Batch

On 30 December 2020, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) rolled out 14 JF-17B twin-seat fighters for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). These aircraft will join the eight JF-17Bs PAC rolled out in December 2019 – they are part of a wider PAF order of 26 aircraft. It seems that the JF-17B program is on-schedule as the PAF had intended to acquire 22 aircraft by the end of 2020. The remaining four are due in 2021.

The PAF ordered the JF-17B as an add-on to its original plan of 150 JF-17s. The PAF will primarily use the JF-17B as an operational conversion unit (OCU) asset to support pilot transition to the JF-17, which is now the PAF’s mainstay combat aircraft. The F-7P’s OCU squadron – i.e., No. 18 Sharp Shooters – will switch to the JF-17B and operate as the JF-17’s OCU unit from Minhas Air Base in Kamra.[1]

Like its other multirole OCU assets, the JF-17B will also be combat capable. However, it is unclear if JF-17B units will offer additional capabilities above the standard features of the Block-II.

The PAF also announced that PAC will also start the production of JF-17 Block-3s. The PAF reportedly did confirm that the COVID-19 pandemic “inflicted serious impacts” on PAC, but it still seems that the Block-3 project is running on schedule.[2] PAC is aiming to roll out 12 JF-17 Block-3s a year from 2021 to 2024.[3]

The JF-17 Block-3 first flew at the end of 2019. The PAF is positioning the Block-3 as its primary counter to the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) induction of Dassault Rafale fighters. In addition to equipping the Block-3 with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, the PAF is also adding “air dominance” and “enhanced EW [electronic warfare] suite and BVR [beyond-visual-range) capability” to its messaging.

Besides selecting the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) KLJ-7A AESA radar, the PAF did not confirm the specific make or model of the subsystems it will add to the JF-17. However, there have been rumours of the PAF seeking the PL-15 from China, though Quwa was told by a PAF official back in 2018 that several Chinese air-to-air missiles were under consideration.

In general terms, the KLJ-7A reportedly offers a maximum range of 170 km against a fighter-sized aircraft – thus, the PAF will certainly seek a BVR air-to-air missile with a range of in-excess of 100 km. Besides the overall range of the missile, the PAF will likely look to emulate some of the key features of MBDA’s Meteor, which the IAF is using from its Rafale fighters. A key capability would be a long-range ‘no-escape zone.’

In terms of ‘enhanced EW,’ the PAF is likely referring to both enhanced situational awareness capabilities (e.g., radar warning receiver) as well as an onboard jamming suite. The PAF can opt for a range of onboard EW and electronic countermeasures (ECM) subsystems from the market, including from Europe.

The PAF did not disclose any additional changes to the Block-3 compared to the preceding variants. At this time, it does not appear that the Block-3 houses a new turbofan engine (e.g., RD-93MA). Finally, the PAF did not confirm any plans for follow-up JF-17 batches on top of the 188 it already has in the pipeline.

Glimpses of Project AZM’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

The PAF also showed brief glimpses of its in-house unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). PAC has been working on a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV since 2017. Observers have noted that the PAC UAV’s vertical stabilizers do not bear identical similarities with the Wing Loong II, CH-4 or CH-5.[4] This follows the UAV’s early design concepts which – while broadly similar to other UAVs – showed an original design.

The type of engine onboard the PAC UAV is unclear, though it is likely a piston powerplant (which mirrors the development track of comparable Chinese and Turkish programs). Based on an illustration from 2019, it appears that the PAF will weaponize its in-house drone. Thus, the UAV could have dimensions similar to the Chinese CH-4 and Turkish Anka, i.e., a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 900 kg to 1,200 kg.

This would be a realistic starting point considering it is Pakistan’s first serious foray into UAVs of this size and capability. However, if PAC is owning the development process of the design, then it may be several years until the PAF inducts this drone. It would also preclude the possibility of the Pakistan Navy choosing this drone for its own MALE UAV requirement (which it finalized in 2020).

Once in production, this UAV could potentially supplant the PAF’s Burraq and Shahpar drones in both the armed/attack and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roles. This could involve at least 100 UAVs based on current PAF inventory estimates and, potentially, climb to over 200 aircraft if PAC secures orders from the Army and Navy as well as overseas users.

PAC may not be taking shortcuts in UAV design or development, nor is it taking any risks by leapfrogging the steps other countries had taken. In other words, rather than skipping to a larger turboprop-powered design, PAC seems to have started with a smaller piston-equipped drone. In a way, PAC may be trying to learn UAV development from a starting point similar to other countries.

In addition to building tangible research and development capacities, this approach could also help PAC reach out to other countries for collaborative projects. For example, Indonesia appears to be at a similar stage to PAC in its drone development.[5] So, at some point, PAC can work with Indonesia’s PTDI to design and develop larger and more complex systems with meaningful co-development responsibilities.

If not collaborate with others, PAC is at least setting up a comparable foundation to other drone builders (like Turkey), which could set it up to develop larger drones (similar to the CH-5 or Aksungur) in the future.

First Export Deliveries

The background of the above photo shows the three JF-17s earmarked for Nigeria. Nigeria ordered three JF-17 Block-IIs in 2016 under a $184 million US contract. The JF-17 would make Nigeria the second country in Sub-Saharan Africa to operate a modern fourth-generation fighter with long-range air-to-air, anti-ship, and precision-strike capabilities (following South Africa). These three aircraft are likely an initial order, and Nigeria will order more once it has organizes the funds (or secures a loan from China).

In the photo below, one can see the tail of Turkey’s first Super Mushshak basic trainers. Turkey ordered 52 aircraft in 2016. These were scheduled for delivery in June 2020, but due to the pandemic, the program got delayed. However, it appears that Turkey will receive its first aircraft in the coming months.

Finally, the PAF also highlighted a number of wide-level initiatives, such as “digital manufacturing” under the JF-17 Block-III program. PAC was already using 3D models as part of its manufacturing process for the JF-17, so the ‘digital manufacturing’ aspect could point to more advanced applications.

With the PAF promoting ‘digital manufacturing’ with the JF-17 Block-3, it is possible that it is already using these concepts towards Project AZM and other forthcoming programs. It may not be at the design level, but potentially be a key aspect of the manufacturing and support phases.

[1] “Pakistan JF-17 Thunder unit shuffles.” Scramble. 11 November 2020. URL: https://www.scramble.nl/military-news/pakistan-jf-17-thunder-unit-shuffles

[2] “PAF launches serial production of latest JF-17 Thunder Block III.” The News International. 31 December 2020. URL: https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/767018-paf-launches-serial-production-of-latest-jf-17-thunder-block-iii

[3] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder – Lightning Strikes Twice.” AIN Online. 15 June 2019. URL: https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/defense/2019-06-15/jf-17-thunder-lightning-strikes-twice

[4] Andreas Rupprecht. Twitter. 01 January 2021. URL: https://twitter.com/RupprechtDeino/status/1344919351456124928

[5] Greg Waldron. “Indonesia rolls out indigenous MALE UAV.” FlightGlobal. 02 January 2020. URL: https://www.flightglobal.com/military-uavs/indonesia-rolls-out-indigenous-male-uav/135989.article

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