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Pakistan Selects KLJ-7A AESA Radar for JF-17 Block-III

According to a recent report by aviation journalist Alan Warnes, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) selected the KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for the JF-17 Block-III.[1] The Block-III is the newest variant of the PAF’s mainstay fighters, of which it operates over 120 aircraft in multiple variants.

Developed by the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET), the KLJ-7A was revealed in 2016 as a potential option for the JF-17. NRIET was competing against the Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (LETRI), which was offering its LKF601E air-cooled AESA radar.

Though the KLJ-7A was available in multiple versions, one with a fixed-array, another with a mechanically steered panel, and a form with side-mounted panels.[2] However, Warnes’ noted that the PAF opted for an air-cooled version of the KLJ-7A, potentially indicating the existence of a fourth variant.[3]

In 2016, NRIET reportedly said that the KLJ-7A offers a maximum range of 170 km against a target with a radar cross-section (RCS) of 5m2.[4] NRIET added that the KLJ-7A uses over 1,000 transmit/receive modules (TRM), and is capable of tracking 15 targets and simultaneously engaging four.[5] It also has over 11 modes for operation, including synthetic aperture radar (SAR).[6]

It is unclear how the air-cooled configuration would impact the KLJ-7A’s performance, but the competing LKF601E (also air-cooled) offered near-identical results. So, like the KLJ-7A, the LKF601E offers a range of 170 km for ‘fighter-sized’ targets, with the ability to track 15 of them simultaneously, and engage four at once.[7] However, LETRI did not disclose how many TRMs it is using in the LKF601E.[8]

Thus, an air-cooled variant of the KLJ-7A should at least be as capable of the LKF601E. However, compared to the liquid-cooled version of the KLJ-7A, the air-cooled variant could be lighter in weight, and smaller in size. The benefit of this choice could be that it would be easier to retrofit to earlier JF-17 models.

In fact, the LKF601E was integrated to FC-1 Unit 06, an older prototype.[9] Not only that, but LETRI officials had claimed that the LKF601E could be added to existing JF-17/FC-1s on an in-situ basis, i.e., one can swap in the LKF601E without the need any major modifications to the aircraft.[10] Thus, a fleet-wide retrofit need not be high-cost, nor intensive enough to keep the aircraft out of service for a long period of time.

It would not be feasible to upgrade the Block-I and Block-II with the internal structural changes and three-axis fly-by-wire flight control system of the JF-17B and Block-III. However, it is beginning to seem that the older JF-17s should be able to take on the majority of the Block-III’s subsystem additions.

So, that would include the new AESA radar, weapons compatibility, and other key additions, such as the helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system. It is likely that the HMD/S will also be Chinese, mainly due to the fact that AVIC is developing at least one system, and the supply market for this product is very limited. However, the PAF may acquire other inputs, such as radar warning receiver (RWR) and electronic countermeasures (ECM), from a variety of sources, just as it had for the Block-II (which uses the ALR-400).

New Munitions

The selection of the KLJ-7A also means, by default, that the PAF has selected a new Chinese beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM) to accompany the new radar.

The PAF did not confirm which missile it is procuring, but the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) purportedly made the PL-15 available for export as the PL-15E.[11] Chinese aviation observers claim that the PL-15 is equipped with an AESA seeker, and offers a range of up to 200 km.[12]

If the PL-15E’s features and specifications are accurate, the missile would allow the PAF to extend its air-to-air coverage/reach against the Indian Air Force (IAF). Moreover, the PL-15’s AESA-based seeker would offer it credible electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM), a vital feature in a dense electronic warfare (EW) environment, which will involve considerable jamming/spoofing against radar-guided AAMs.

However, one cannot discount the possibility of the PAF procuring new variants of the PL-12/SD-10-series of BVR AAM, either in addition to the PL-15, or in lieu of it. It seems that AVIC is continually improving the PL-12’s electronics (including seeker), and potentially, testing new propulsion systems (e.g., ramjet). If the PL-15 is not available for export, then new PL-12/SD-10 variants are likely to accompany the KLJ-7A.

Selecting the KLJ-7A would also enable the PAF to deploy its stock of SD-10 BVR AAM and C-802 anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM) from the Block-III. Thus, the JF-17s (regardless of variant) should be able to use the same munitions inventory. Granted, using longer-ranged AAMs may not be efficient in light of the older blocks’ shorter-ranged radars, but it offers the PAF added flexibility.

Finally, the PAF may be interested in new air-to-surface weaponry as well. During the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar, the Guangdong-based HongDa Blasting Company Limited showcased its new HD-1A supersonic-cruising ASCM. With a cruising speed of Mach 2.2 to Mach 3.5, and ability to fly as low as 5 m to 10 m, the HD-1A could offer the PAF an analogous solution to India’s BrahMos. Furthermore, the HD-1A weighs 1,200 kg, so the JF-17 should be able to carry at least one missile (possibly two).

The End of the F-7P?

In the same interview with Alan Warnes, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan outlined that with the twin-seat JF-17B, PAF pilots will proceed towards converting to the JF-17 straight after their “advanced jet training.” In other words, the PAF will start assigning its junior pilots to the JF-17, which could indicate it will fully retire the Chengdu F-7P from its fighter fleet.

Since the 1990s, the PAF has been assigning its new pilots to the F-7P, which served as both the mainstay fighter and a ‘starter’ aircraft. The PAF has 26 JF-17Bs in the procurement pipeline, but it is unclear how it will allocate them. It could opt for either a dedicated operational conversion unit (OCU) – like it has with the F-16B – or as mixed single-seat and dual-seat squadrons, like No.5’s F-16C/Ds.

Currently, the main role of the JF-17B will be OCU. It is not known if the PAF has any special mission roles in mind for the JF-17B, such as EW (akin to the Growler). The PAF may not have plans for a dedicated EW aircraft like the Growler, but that does not mean it will leave its fleet bereft of key capabilities.

In terms of EW, the PAF could allocate a large number of dedicated EW pods, such as the KG600 or KG700, to its JF-17 squadrons. In effect, it could ensure that each mission sortie benefits from EW. Moreover, the PAF can further support its JF-17s with its dedicated EW aircraft, the Falcon DA-20.

However, by phasing out the F-7P and having the JF-17 serve as a ‘starter’ aircraft (albeit alongside the F-7PG, the competency/skill expectations for new pilots will rise. In contrast to the F-7P, the JF-17 involves a large number of capability additions, including BVR, EW/ECM, and others. For the PAF to maximize the value of each JF-17 unit, it will need to fully train all of its pilots across each new capability.

The JF-17B OCU could provide some of that training, but in 2018-2019, the PAF CAS had outlined the need for a separate lead-in-fighter trainer (LIFT).[13] Moreover, the CAS announced the 26 JF-17B order while still reiterating the need for a distinct LIFT aircraft.[14] For the PAF, a LIFT could be a solution for familiarizing its new pilots on complex missions (e.g., BVR) before the OCU stage.

Thus far, the PAF did not specify a leading candidate, though it did evaluate the Leonardo M-346, AVIC L-15, and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50.[15] In any case, the PAF raised a dedicated LIFT unit (“Shooter Squadron”) in 2017, so its pilots will progress through an intermediary step between FCU and OCU. If not an imported trainer, the PAF could simply acquire additional JF-17Bs to equip its LIFT unit.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Air Force to receive first 12 JF-17B combat aircraft ‘in near future’.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 04 February 2020. URL: https://www.janes.com/article/94094/pakistan-air-force-to-receive-first-12-jf-17b-combat-aircraft-in-near-future

[2] Greg Waldron. “​VIDEO: China intent on AESA radar upgrades.” Flight Global. 07 November 2018. URL: https://www.flightglobal.com/video-china-intent-on-aesa-radar-upgrades/130211.article

[3] Warnes. Jane’s Defence Weekly. February 2020.

[4] Henri Kenhmann. “Airshow China 2016: KLJ-7A, le radar à radar.” East Pendulum. 01 November 2016. URL: http://www.eastpendulum.com/airshow-china-2016-radar-aesa-klj-7a

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Henri Kenhmann. “LKF601E, KLJ-7A… Qui sera le prochain radar AESA du JF-17?” East Pendulum. 19 November 2018. URL: http://www.eastpendulum.com/lkf601e-klj-7a-qui-sera-le-prochain-radar-aesa-du-jf-17

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Huitong. PL-15. URL: http://chinese-military-aviation.blogspot.com/p/missiles-iii.html

[12] Ibid.

[13] Alan Warnes. Interview with Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan. Jane’s Defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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