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Pakistan Debuts JF-17 Block-3 at 2023 Dubai Air Show

In November, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) brought its newly inducted JF-17 Block-III to the 2023 Dubai Air Show, marking the latest Thunder variant’s international debut. The Block-III unit belonged to the No. 16 Squadron (“Black Panthers”) and was accompanied by a pair of Block-II aircraft.

The Block-III is the latest iteration of the JF-17. Not only does the Block-III introduce a number of new sub-systems to the Thunder fleet – such as active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) systems, and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suites – but it is also based on an improved platform. For example, the Block-III and twin-seat JF-17B introduced a three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system to replace the hybrid FBW in the Block-I and Block-II. There were also reports of the PAF even considering changing the engine from the Klimov RD-93 to a Chinese turbofan.[1] The PAF also revealed that the Block-III offers “superior maneuverability, extended range, and enhanced combat capabilities.”[2]

The Block-III’s static display included the commensurate set of SD-10 beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missiles (AAM), PL-5EII within-visual-range (WVR) AAMs, C-802A anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM), laser-guided bombs (LGB), and unguided bombs, the PAF also showcased the Aselsan ASELPOD targeting pod.

Today, the JF-17 is the PAF’s workhorse multirole fighter. Since its induction in 2010, the PAF procured 50 Block-Is, 62 Block-IIs, and 26 two-seat JF-17Bs. Currently, the PAF has 30 Block-Is on order.

An Advanced, Yet Accessible, ITAR-Free Option

Since its inception, the PAF’s intended aim for the JF-17 was to acquire an accessible platform to leverage contemporary technologies and weapons. In the 2000s, the PAF’s goal was to disseminate BVRAAMs across most of its fighter fleet, a capability that was, albeit up to that point, missing in Pakistan’s premier fighter at the time, the General Dynamics F-16A/B Block-15. Today, the PAF wants to configure a significant bulk of its fleet with AESA radars, HMD/S, ECM (either integrated or via a pod), and a wider assortment of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, especially stand-off range weapons (SOW) and smart munitions.

While not as technically sophisticated as the leading Western solutions, the JF-17 Block-III offers many of the same type of subsystems and capabilities, but without the same strings. Coupled with a more budget-conscious price tag and Chinese financing options, the PAF hoped that the JF-17 would secure more third-party sales. Besides modest wins in Myanmar and Nigeria, the JF-17 has yet to win a big-ticket deal outside of the PAF. China made a concerted effort to secure a contract in Argentina, but ultimately, that country’s closer geo-political and economic alignment with the United States will likely push it to acquire F-16s.

That said, it would be naïve to assume that big-ticket defence programs are evaluated, won, and executed on purely technical or budgetary merits alone. Perhaps more than any other conventional military system, a fighter sale represents a country’s geo-political alignments and preferences. If there is a market for the JF-17, it would be in countries that face comparable geo-political realities as Pakistan, i.e., states that are stuck in a hazy ‘no man’s land’ of geo-politics where they are aligned with the West, but not enough (due to either fiscal constraints or deeper political factors) to acquire American, British, or French solutions.

The likes of Myanmar and Nigeria fit this description. For a time, one might argue that Argentina was also a suitable fit, though it seems Washington is not too enthusiastic about giving the Chinese a strategic entry so close to its own shores. Azerbaijan and Algeria could potentially be viable customers, especially as their traditional seller, Russia, is encumbered with a full-scale war and an onslaught of sanctions.

However, as far as the PAF is concerned, what matters the most is that the JF-17 is available to Pakistan on both technical and budget/cost terms. Today, the PAF has significant trouble acquiring fighter aircraft from non-Chinese sources. Its only realistic route to acquire a non-Chinese platform is to basically participate in the Turkish KAAN program; otherwise, Pakistan lacks the economic weight and political clout to procure a solution from the United States, the European Consortium, France, or South Korea.

Currently, the PAF has 30 Block-3s on order. Originally, the PAF had planned on acquiring 50 Block-3s, but it likely split the initial requirement between the single-seat Block-3 and the dual-seat JF-17B (which, from a technical standpoint, is a Block-3-based platform). That said, the PAF will likely acquire additional Block-3-based fighters through the long-term, albeit in small, incremental batches to gradually supplant older F-7P/PG and Mirage III/5s as they age out. There is also the question of how the PAF would deal with older Block-I aircraft, especially since those fighters will start reaching the end of their airframe lives – i.e., 3,000 hours – soon (i.e., good for 15-20 years).[3] Thus, JF-17 production will likely continue for many years.

A Platform for Driving Indigenization?

Currently, the JF-17 Block-III is a capable platform. Its KLJ-7A AESA radar, sourced from Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET), provides a range of 170 km against “fighter-sized” targets, and its paired with the PL-15E BVRAAM, which offers a range of 145 km. The NRIET KLJ-7A can track 15 targets and, in turn, engage four targets simultaneously. For close range engagements, the Block-3 can leverage a HMD/S paired with the PL-10E high off-boresight (HOBS) AAM. It can also deploy a wide range of precision-guided bombs (PGB) and SOWs, including ASCMs, such as the C-802A.

However, there now seems to be a push to start indigenizing the subsystems and weapons of the JF-17. A few reports emerged of Pakistan veering into gallium nitride (GaN)-based AESA radar development across both S-band and X-band applications.[4] The X-band program would likely point to a radar for a fighter, such as the JF-17. Likewise, given the sensitivity and difficulty in sourcing the system, Pakistan may also push to have the JF-17’s HMD/S system locally manufactured, either by GIDS or a private sector company, such as Shibli (a rising Pakistani optronics company and supplier of equipment to the armed forces).

On the weapons front, Global Industrial & Defence Solutions (GIDS), the commercial entity representing many of Pakistan’s state-owned entities (SOE), revealed an ambitious development roadmap comprising of a new BVRAAM – i.e., the FAAZ-2 – with a stated range of 180 km. Likewise, GIDS also began marketing the Taimoor ALCM, which has a range of 280 km. In addition, Qaswa Industries is offering its AZB-series of PGBs, some of which can fit onto MK-84-class bombs (i.e., 907 kg) and offer ranges of 90-220 km.

Considering that Pakistan is investing in these new weapons, one would assume that the first platform for them is the JF-17. The PAF spent years building the internal capacity to learn how to integrate weapons to this platform, so it would make sense to leverage and extend that overhead by incorporating these locally developed and manufactured air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. While this approach may not improve the JF-17’s commercial prospects, it would at least help the PAF in making its workhorse asset resilient to external supply-side constraints (e.g., inadequate supply of AAMs, PGBs, and SOWs). Longer term, it would also equip Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the wider Pakistani industry with more expertise for designing, integrating, testing, and validating munitions to fighter platforms. This could translate over into a future program, such as a next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA).

[1] Alan Warnes. “Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder Fighter Will Fly in 2017.” Aviation Week & Space Technology. 13 February 2017.

[2] Akhil Kadidal. “Parting shot: PAF inducts JF-17 Block III aircraft.” Janes. 01 December 2023. URL:

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

[4] Arslan Khan. “Pakistan moves ahead with domestic AESA radar development.” Shephard News. 23 March 2022. URL:

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