Skip to content Skip to footer

Pakistan Positioning JF-17 for Ground Attack Role

The Turkish defence electronics supplier Aselsan reportedly said that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has 50 ASELPOD targeting pods on order. The PAF ordered its first batch of eight ASELPODs in 2016, with reports of follow-on orders of unknown quantities. In 2018, Aselsan confirmed that it and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) successfully integrated the ASELPOD to the JF-17 Thunder.

This recent news would confirm that the PAF is not only committed to inducting the ASELPOD, but that it will position the JF-17, its mainstay fighter, as a prominent ground attack asset.

Currently, the PAF has equipped the JF-17 to deploy the 60-100 km Range Extension Kit (REK) or Takbir – i.e., a precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit for MK-80-series general purpose bombs (GPB) – and C-802 anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM). A laser-guided bomb (LGB) should follow the integration of the ASELPOD. In March 2019, the PAF also test-fired a new precision-guided munition of an unknown typev.

With the ASELPOD, the JF-17 can hit fixed and moving ground targets. In terms of the latter, it can use the ASELPOD to designate – or “lase” – a target for its LGBs, even if the target is moving. Similarly, the JF-17 could also, potentially, use laser-guided air-to-ground missiles (AGM) – though it is not known if the PAF is seeking an AGM (akin to the AGM-65 Maverick).

The Case for Repurposing Older JF-17s for Ground Attack Missions

On first thought, it would make sense for the PAF to equip the upcoming JF-17 Block 3s with the ASELPOD. The JF-17 Block 3 will reportedly have a greater payload and, potentially, a dedicated hardpoint for special mission equipment, such as targeting pods, reconnaissance pods, and others.

However, the Block 3 will also be a high-tech asset with more qualities suitable for operating in contested air space, such as an integrated electronic warfare (EW) suite, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and helmet mounted display and sight (HMD/S) with high off-boresight air-to-air missile.

The Block 3’s main purpose will likely be to shore-up the PAF’s ability to fend-off high-tech threats, such as the Dassault Rafale (albeit, with the need of greater numbers and other supporting assets). However, for ground attack missions, especially in a low-intensity, counterinsurgency (COIN) context, the PAF may rely more heavily on the JF-17 Block 1 and/or Block 2.

There is a limit to the Block 1 and Block-2’s upgrade potential – i.e., they cannot reach true Block 3 levels – and they are, at this stage, older airframes. It could also be the case that the Block 3 has a higher upgrade ceiling or potential due to its structural changes, which the designers likely made to ensure that the fighter could carry an AESA radar, integrated EW suite, and other subsystems from the onset.

Given the PAF’s turn on the JF-17B – i.e., a platform it had intended for only export, and now expanding the PAF’s new JF-17 orders to 76 aircraft – the likely route for additional “high-tech” JF-17s would be to order more of them. In other words, the future mainstay of the PAF fleet (especially if the PAF is unable to acquire another off-the-shelf fighter) would be the JF-17 Block 3/JF-17B and its direct evolutions.

However, moving to the Block 3 does not mean that the Block 1 and Block 2 are any less valuable. To the contrary, they could amount to a significant upgrade for ground attack missions. Having retired the A-5, the PAF lacks a close air support (CAS) asset analogous to the Jaguar. Thus, there may be an opportunity to repurpose older JF-17s for this role, and not only for COIN, but for conventional CAS operations as well.

For example, with the LD-10 anti-radiation missile (ARM) – i.e., the SD-10 beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM) with a passive seeker – the JF-17 can attack enemy radars. With the YL-14, which is a 100 kg satellite-guided PGB — analogous to the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) – the JF-17 can engage more individual ground targets than with 250 kg or 500 kg PGBs and LGBs.

The JF-17 could also support an anti-tank role through the YJ-9E. The YJ-9E is a 105 kg AGM, but it offers multiple seeker options, including semi-active laser-homing (SALH), which could work with the ASELPOD, electro-optical (EO), and active radar-homing (ARH). The ARH-equipped YJ-9E has the potential to operate like a fire-and-forget weapon, especially when paired to a synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

Finally, the PAF could also acquire a Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW)-like munition in the YJ-6. The YJ-6 has a 500 kg payload, which the PAF could equip with cluster bomblets, such as the Top Attack Submunitions Dispenser, which Pakistan manufactures locally. With the YJ-6, the JF-17 can attack armoured formations away from enemy air defence coverage (stand-off range), i.e., making it a credible anti-armour threat.

In terms of ground attack missions, the JF-17 Block 1/Block 2 can emerge as the PAF’s most comprehensive solution to-date. Granted, the F-16s could offer the same, but in light of Pakistan’s tenuous ties with the US, it may not be able to secure as many different types of ground attack munitions from the US as it could from China, Turkey, and other countries for the JF-17.

The transition would only involve integrating additional air-to-surface weapons, such as the LD-10, YJ-9E, YL-6 and YL-14. This would be a significant step up from the A-5, which the PAF retired with the Block 1 JF-17s in the early 2010s. However, the PAF could take an additional step by upgrading the Block 1 or the Block 2 with the KLJ-7A or LKF601E. The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is strongly implying that it could upgrade at least the Block 2 with the LKF601E.

If it is feasible to upgrade the Block 2 and/or the Block 1 with the LKF601E, then the PAF could extend the air-to-air detection and engagement range of its older JF-17s. Switching to the LKF601E would also keep the older JF-17s’ compatibility with existing SD-10 and C-802 stocks. However, in terms of ground attack missions, the LKF601E’s biggest benefit would come from its synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

With the LKF601E’s SAR, which also has ground-moving target indication (GMTI) capability, the PAF could pair the LKF601E with the ARH-equipped YJ-9E. Basically, the JF-17 could use the LKF601E to identify and track moving armoured vehicles and, in turn, use the YJ-9E against those targets.

Overall, the main bottleneck is payload. These variants can only make use of seven hardpoints. If the PAF is using ASELPODs, the JF-17 would be down to six hardpoints. In 2015, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) said it was looking at incorporating “chin stations under the intakes” in the Block 2.[1] In addition, the PAF could also deploy lightweight munitions – e.g., LD-10, YJ-9E, and YL-14 – through multiple-ejector racks. Finally, with forward operating bases in proximity with the combat area, and in-flight refueling, the JF-17s could also minimize their use of external fuel tanks.

The primary beneficiary of a ground attack optimized JF-17 would be the Pakistan Army. As a whole, the PAF’s primary responsibility is to leverage air power as a strategic asset, i.e., to deny the enemy the room to employ its air power over Pakistan, and to undertake long-range strikes.

Thus, the notion of a ground attack optimized JF-17 ties closer to the Army’s need for CAS coverage that it does for the PAF’s needs. However, the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) use of the Jaguar DARIN III – i.e., a vastly upgraded Jaguar with an AESA radar and capacity to use the Sensor-Fuzed Weapon (SFW) – has put the Pakistan Army in a vulnerable state. The SFW is a highly capable anti-armour weapon, so it stands that the Army needs both a means to defend against its launch aircraft and a solution for putting India’s armour under threat. The PAF can provide that capability in relatively short order with the JF-17 Block 1/Block 2.

[1] Defence Industry Bulletin interview with Pakistan Aeronautical Complex’s (PAC) then Vice-Director and JF-17 Sales & Marketing Manager, Air Commodore Mahmoud Khalid. June 2015.

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment