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Pakistan Inches Closer to Inducting the JF-17 Block 3

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) sent three of its JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter aircraft to the 2019 Paris Air Show, which took place from 17 to 23 June. Though the JF-17 flew at the event, much attention had gone into outlining the JF-17 Block 3, i.e., the JF-17’s first major iterative update.

Currently, the PAF has slated the JF-17 Block 3’s maiden flight for the end of 2019. It then expects to fly the fighter operationally in 2020. In an interview, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, said that the PAF will also procure 26 twin-seat JF-17Bs alongside the 50 Block 3s.[1]

Considering how the JF-17B employs the same core technologies as the Block 3, e.g., the three-axis digital fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system – the PAF is procuring 76 new model JF-17s in the 2020s. The PAF is aiming to induct all of the 50 Block 3s by 2024, while the 26 JF-17Bs are due by 2021 (AIN Online). These will join 112 JF-17 Block 1 and Block 2 fighters, crossing the PAF’s original roadmap of having 150 JF-17s.

However, according to recent reports, the PAF is still finalizing the radar, electronics, and air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons package of the JF-17B and Block 3.

Radar Options

The centerpiece of the Block 3 will be its active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Though the PAF CAS stated that the selection is now down to “one of two new Chinese AESA radars,” (i.e., the KLJ-7A and the LKF601E) Alan Warns reported that the Leonardo Grifo-E “is still on the table.”

Leonardo unveiled the Grifo-E in 2018 as a low-cost AESA radar solution for lightweight combat aircraft. However, the Grifo-E uses gallium-nitride (GaN)-based transmit/receive modules (TRM), which are more efficient in terms of power consumption than older gallium-arsenide (GaA)-based TRMs.

The Grifo-E can simultaneously track up to 24 targets (the LKF601E can track 15), but its range for picking up “fighter-sized targets” are 139 km to 157 km (Leonardo). The LKF601E can track “fighter-sized targets” at up to 170 km. Otherwise, the Grifo-E, KLJ-7A, and LKF601E appear to have similar features, though the Grifo-E also includes an “inverse synthetic aperture radar” (ISAR) for “seaborne and airborne targets.”

Seeing how Leonardo opened an office in Islamabad, the company’s willingness to sell the Grifo-E is not a concern. Rather, the main constraint with selecting any Western radar is that the PAF will have trouble in integrating Chinese radar-guided munitions – i.e., the SD-10 beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM) and the C-802 anti-ship missile (AShM) – to the radar. The PAF’s Chinese and Western partners will not share their respective source-codes to enable for such integration.

If the PAF intends to re-use its SD-10 and C-802 stocks on the Block 3, and potentially induct a newer and longer-ranged Chinese BVRAAM, it will need to select the KLJ-7A or LKF601E.

Munitions

Aside from procuring Western European weapons, the only other way for the PAF to use the Grifo-E is to work with an amenable third-party. In this case, it has two realistic options: Turkey and South Africa.

The most realistic of these is Turkey. In fact, the country’s main munitions manufacturer, Roketsan, inked a serial production contract with the Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) to put the locally developed Atmaca AShM in full production (MSI Turkish Defence Review).

TUBITAK-SAGE (Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey and Defense Industries Research and Development Institute) is also developing a new BVRAAM under the “Bozdoğan” designation. It is due for completion by 2020, i.e., the timeframe the PAF will test and qualify new weapons on the Block 3.

The alternative is collaborating with South Africa’s Denel Dynamics on the Marlin, which is slated to have a maximum range of 100 km. However, considering Denel Group’s precarious fiscal situation (and that of Pakistan as well), the Turkish BVRAAM is more likely to materialize as an option.

A disadvantage of switching to the Grifo-E – and a new weapons suite – is that it would break compatibility with the PAF’s existing stock of SD-10 and C-802 missiles. However, if the PAF limited its procurement of those missiles for use on the Block 1 and Block 2, then it may be able to start a new chain with the Block 3. The PAF would basically treat the Block 3 as a new fighter, which it actually is in many key respects.

Airframe Modifications?

Though comparatively minimal, the JF-17 Block 3 will reportedly carry several airframe changes.

First, it will deliver a heavier payload than the Block 1 and Block 2. Second, it will reportedly also have “widened” intakes, potentially to support a new engine (Flight Global). Third, a source told Quwa that the Block 3 could potentially retain the JF-17B’s tail fin, internal fuel space cells, and slightly longer wingspan.

Thus, while the Block 1 and Block 2 could potentially get some of the Block 3’s improvements, notably the electronics, they will not be able to take on the Block 3’s key structural changes. It is unclear if additional weight reduction measures are also on the roadmap, though it is plausible.

Avionics, EW/ECM & HMD/S

In 2017, Quwa was told that the Block 3 will have a single large multi-functional display (MFD), three-axis digital FBW, and a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system.

Recently, Alan Warnes confirmed that the Block 3 will use a “holographic wide-angle head-up display” and an integrated electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite.

In terms of the avionics and EW/ECM suite, the PAF is not short of options. It can procure everything from a new cockpit to ITAR-free EW/ECM technology from China or Europe. However, the source of the HMD/S is still unclear. Aside from Israel’s Elbit, the only direct manufacturers of proven HMD/S solutions on the market are France’s Thales (TopOwl-F) and the UK’s BAE Systems (Striker II).

Besides China, an alternative solution could be to try sourcing the Elbit Targo II through an intermediary, such as Leonardo, or to fund a new solution entirely with an optronics company (e.g., Hensoldt). The PAF also intends to equip the JF-17 with a high off-boresight (HOBS) AAM to make use of the HMD/S.

The High-Tech Solution

Today, the JF-17 Block 3 is the only solution bringing new generation technologies – e.g., AESA radars — to the PAF fleet. Seeing how there is no roadmap at present for an off-the-shelf fighter, the JF-17 Block 3 is the PAF’s high-tech solution for the near-term. In other words, it is the PAF’s counter to the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) forthcoming Rafales, Tejas Mk1A, and – potentially – new medium-weight fighter.

In an earlier Quwa Premium article, we argued that the PAF’s next steps should be to surround the JF-17 – especially the Block 3 – with new supporting assets. These could range from additional airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft, dedicated stand-off EW/ECM aircraft, and more effective munitions (e.g., longer-ranged AAM and AShM, a new land-attack cruise missile, etc).

The idea is to leverage the JF-17 Block 3’s biggest advantage – i.e., relative affordability and accessibility – to the maximum extent possible. First, invest in building a sizable fleet of these fighters from a numerical standpoint. Second, enable them to look and strike farther through supporting assets and longer-ranged munitions, respectively. Third, overcome any inherent limitations in range and payload by constructing a large number of forward airfields to receive and deploy fighters, and in-flight refueling (IFR) tankers.

Though costly, building out support assets would not be as costly as procuring an advanced off-the-shelf fighter, especially from Europe. For reference, the Qatari purchase of 24 Eurofighter Typhoons was priced at $6.4 billion US. Though a loan and extended payment plan can, in theory, make such a purchase tenable, the PAF might be better served as a whole putting such funds (if available) in other areas than tying them up in a costly import. In fact, in such a race, India will always be able to purchase more.

This will not make the JF-17 Block 3 as capable as the Rafale, but it could amount to enough of a collective threat, i.e., a deterrence. It increasingly appears as though the PAF will shelve any plans for off-the-shelf fighters and, instead, invest in the JF-17 and the fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) program. Thus, it would not be surprising if the Block 3 airframe spawns a Block 4 or Block 5 in the lead-up to the FGFA. A Block 4 could also be related to Project Azm (if the previous CAS’ timeframe estimates are still valid).

[1] 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.

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