Skip to content Skip to footer

Pakistan Reveals ‘JF-17 PFX’ Program

In a recent promotional video commemorating Operation Swift Retort, Pakistan’s retaliatory response to India’s airstrikes in Balakot, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) revealed a new program in relation to the JF-17 Thunder, the “JF-17 PFX.”

The “PFX” seems to be an acronym for “Pakistan Fighter Experimental.” According to the PAF press release, the JF-17 PFX is part of the PAF’s wider long-term modernization strategy. But it is currently unclear what the JF-17 PFX program specifically entails.

However, the announcement of the JF-17 PFX confirms that the PAF does have a plan for the program once it completes the induction of the Block-III.

Next Steps for the JF-17?

The JF-17 Thunder is one of the workhorse multirole fighter aircraft of the PAF. Since inducting the fighter in 2010, the PAF acquired 50 Block-Is, 62 Block-IIs, 26 two-seat JF-17Bs, and is on track to adding 30 Block-III or JF-17Cs to its fleet. This is a total of 168 aircraft, which is in line with the PAF’s original plan to acquire between 150 and 200 units.

However, the PAF also invested in raising a production site at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) for the JF-17. Under a workshare agreement with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), PAC manufactures 58% of the JF-17’s airframe, specifically the front fuselage, vertical stabilizer, and wings. The remaining 42% is imported from AVIC, but fully assembled at PAC. PAC is also carrying out the maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) of the Thunder.

Being a major overhead, the PAF had expected that the JF-17 would generate overseas orders as well. But aside from modest purchases from Nigeria and Myanmar, the JF-17 did not dent the global fighter market as much the PAF hoped. Moreover, with the PAF also non-committal to acquiring additional aircraft (at least for now), PAC could be at risk of going dormant and, in turn, AVIC may consider permanently winding down JF-17 production on its end.

In commercial terms, the JF-17 did not generate return-on-investment (ROI) the PAF sought when it originally signed onto the program. However, from an operational perspective, the JF-17 has been a valuable asset, giving the PAF a go-to fighter solution that it can afford and use to induct new technologies, such as active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, to its fleet at scale, especially when it cannot afford importing a new fighter type.

Though the PAF inducted the Chengdu J-10CE and is planning to acquire the Shenyang J-31, these big-ticket programs will always be at risk of falling through or slowing due to Pakistan’s perennially troubling economic conditions. Thus, the need for the JF-17 – or a similar fighter in the next generation – will remain; the PAF needs a go-to solution it can afford to phase out its older fighters while also introducing new air warfare technologies as they emerge.

What is the JF-17 PFX?

The airframe life of the JF-17 is reportedly 3,000 hours.[1] If the PAF flies each fighter for 150 to 200 hours per year, then the JF-17 would have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years. The first Block-Is will reach 20 years of age in 2030 and, potentially, reach the end of their lifecycles.

This situation leaves the PAF with two potential options: First, it could opt to entirely replace the Block-Is with new-built fighters. Second, it could design a comprehensive upgrade path for the Block-I comprising of new-built aerostructures, thus extending its lifespan.

If not for funding constraints, one could see the PAF acquire large numbers of J-10CE and/or J-31 to replace the Block-Is. However, given Pakistan’s longstanding economic issues, this is unlikely, especially given how the JF-17 comprises of the bulk of the PAF’s multirole fighter fleet. It is unlikely that larger aircraft – especially twin-engine platforms like the J-31 – would feasibly replace the JF-17. Thus, the solution to aging JF-17s will involve JF-17s.

The ‘JF-17 PFX’ could be the first step towards resolving the JF-17’s end-of-life situation. The starting point could involve creating a long-term upgrade plan for the PAF’s older JF-17s, i.e., the Block-Is and Block-IIs, aimed at extending the airframe life and advancing the system.

In the first stage, the PAF could focus domestically integrating the sensors, electronics, and munitions. By first building this capability, the PAF would have the groundwork to customize the JF-17 with the inputs it genuinely wants to use, not forced to choose. In fact, the lack of technical capacity to carry out integration resulted in the PAF limiting its AESA radar options to Chinese solutions only. The PFX is likely aimed at rectifying this problem and, in turn, bring the JF-17 closer to the original vision of having a fighter free of external pressures. Thus, the PAF may try integrating the JF-17 with Turkish, European, and locally developed subsystems.

However, the long-term viability of the JF-17 PFX would be limited unless the PAF succeeds in fully manufacturing the fighter at PAC. Currently, the PAF needs AVIC to supply 42% of the subassemblies. If AVIC closes its side of production, then the PAF would not have the means to structurally extend the lifespan of the JF-17 or manufacture new-built fighters. It may even lose the ability to support its existing fleet by losing some of the spare parts supply chain.

In fact, AVIC may have more an incentive to focus on marketing the J-10CE for export. The J-10CE benefits from greater economies-of-scale thanks to domestic Chinese orders. It is also a more capable and sophisticated asset comparable to the newest F-16 variants. Basically, AVIC likely has limited interest in continuing with the JF-17, much less upgrading the design when it already has a high-performance single-engine fighter in the J-10CE.

For AVIC, it is an unnecessary use of its resources, which it could otherwise more efficiently by focusing on the J-10CE and J-31. Thus, the PAF may have an opportunity to acquire the JF-17 program from AVIC. AVIC will not lose much as the PAF will still procure J-10CEs and J-31s for its own requirements. Moreover, the JF-17 serves a niche requirement, hence it is unlikely that it would eat into AVIC’s own export efforts.

Thus, for the JF-17 PFX to be a long-term solution, PAC will need to manufacture the JF-17 on a turnkey basis. Though costly, it would not be as expensive as completely shifting to a new fighter design; it would extend existing infrastructure and leverage existing expertise. The fact that the PAF is seemingly working to deepen its knowledge about the JF-17 such that it could fully customize it suggests that turnkey production is on the roadmap.

This would result in a true ‘made in Pakistan’ JF-17 – i.e., independent of AVIC and truly open-ended in its configurability and customization options. Not only would the JF-17 PFX provide the PAF a go-to, low-cost fighter it can acquire at scale to replace older JF-17s, but it can also take full ownership of marketing and exporting the fighter. Given Pakistan’s weaker financial and industrial fundamentals, this may present its own set of problems, but ultimately, selling the fighter would be a secondary priority. For the PAF, the goal should be to have an in-house fighter that it could rely on in lieu of inaccessible imports.

Moreover, a turnkey approach to the JF-17 PFX could help set up the necessary fundamentals for Pakistan to build its aerospace capabilities. By owning the complete design of the JF-17, the PAF – via PAC and National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP) – can gain a complete understanding of the fighter and, in turn, embark on growth programs.

These could include enlarging the design (like the Gripen E/F and Tejas Mk2), incorporating more composite materials, developing key inputs like a flight control system, and changing the turbofan engine. The knowledge gained from these initiatives can later be used to design and develop a true ‘made in Pakistan’ next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA).

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

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment