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Pakistan Using JF-17B for Training and Frontline Use

In 2019, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, revealed that the PAF was acquiring 26 JF-17Bs to serve as conversion aircraft to the JF-17 platform.[1] The PAF is reportedly moving towards raising a dedicated operational conversion unit (OCU) to host the new aircraft.[2] However, the PAF is also planning to allocate a number of its dual-seat JF-17Bs to front-line squadrons, which could suggest that the PAF will use some aircraft for various air combat tasks.[3]

The PAF’s plans for a JF-17 OCU squadron was expected. With a total of 188 aircraft (comprising of 50 JF-17 Block-I, 62 Block-II, 50 Block-III, and 26 JF-17Bs) joining the fleet, the JF-17 is fast becoming the PAF’s mainstay fighter. In fact, the JF-17 now makes up the majority of the PAF’s multi-role aircraft, so it serves a central role in supporting the PAF’s air-to-air and air-to-surface capabilities. However, as it added JF-17s to its fleet, the PAF found that it would need to adjust its training program to fully adapt to the aircraft.

Before the JF-17B became available, it seems that the PAF was assigning experienced pilots from existing F-7P/PG, Mirage III/5, and F-16 units to its JF-17 squadrons. Initially, this was a natural step because a key goal of the JF-17 program was to replace legacy aircraft, namely the F-7P/PG and A-5. In the early 2010s, it was inevitable that the majority of the JF-17’s pilots would come from existing units as those legacy jets formed the bulk of the PAF fleet. However, from 2015, the PAF’s fleet started to change in its composition.

Today, the situation of the PAF fleet is inverted. The multi-role fighters – i.e., the JF-17 and F-16 – and the dedicated attack assets – i.e., Mirage ROSE (Retrofit Strike Element) – form the majority of the PAF fighter fleet. Not only are these aircraft more sophisticated than the relatively ‘simpler’ F-7P, but the latter is now due to exit the PAF fleet. Besides a high-level look at the number of JF-17s in the PAF, the fact that long-established F-7P and Mirage III/5 bases, such as Minhas and Rafiqui, respectively, are now hosting JF-17 squadrons is a visible indication of the change. Thus, upcoming groups of JF-17 pilots will have to come from newly inducted – i.e., less experienced – pilots who have not yet flown an operational fighter.

The CAS noted that by raising a JF-17 OCU squadron, pilots will convert to the platform “after completing their advanced jet training.”[4] In other words, the next crop of JF-17 pilots will be “a lot younger than they are now.”[5] Scramble reported that the current F-7P/FT-7 OCU squadron, i.e., No. 18 Sharp Shooters could transition to the JF-17B and, in turn, operate from Minhas Air Base in Kamra.[6] In addition, each JF-17 unit is equipped with a full mission simulator suite, which are reportedly cross-linked across bases.[7] The only gap at this point is whether the PAF is still committed to acquiring a dedicated lead-in fighter-trainer (LIFT).

In 2019, the current CAS said that the PAF was seeking a dedicated LIFT in addition to the JF-17B. He said it would be a key addition ahead of the induction of a next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA). According to the CAS, the PAF had evaluated the Korea Aerospace Industries T-50, Leonardo M-346, and Hongdu L-15. However, the CAS did not hint towards a leading candidate, much less negotiations.

However, as of February 2021, the PAF is also marketing the JF-17B as a LIFT solution to air forces in the Middle East, especially Qatar. Thus, it would be strange for the PAF to promote the JF-17B as a LIFT while shying away from using the aircraft as a LIFT within its own fleet. In fact, the previous PAF CAS, ACM Sohail Aman, indicated that the PAF would use the JF-17B as a LIFT. The only scenario where the PAF would need a dedicated LIFT is if it requires a baseline amount of experience in pilots before they train on the JF-17.

The ‘baseline experience’ may be a genuine factor.

Firstly, the PAF is assigning a number of its JF-17Bs to front-line squadrons. The PAF’s OCU aircraft are generally available for combat when necessary. However, by assigning JF-17Bs to front-line units, it appears that the PAF is planning to use the dual-seat aircraft in combination with single-seat aircraft. In other words, the JF-17B may take on specialized tasks, such as a stand-off range radar jamming.

Secondly, the PAF is planning to eventually configure the JF-17Bs with the air-cooled version of the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET) KLJ-7A active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar.[8] This upgrade would basically transform the JF-17B into a Block-III, and, practically speaking, make the JF-17B a comparatively complex and high-cost asset. This factor is especially true if the PAF is looking to re-allocate JF-17B training aircraft to front-line units as specialized assets.

Thus, the PAF may still require its new pilots to have prior fast-jet experience before converting to the JF-17. In other words, a dedicated LIFT would enable new pilots to learn the basics of a multi-role fighter as well as accumulate flight hours on an advanced fast-jet platform before training for a front-line asset, be it the JF-17-series or even the F-16-series and strike-capable Mirage III/5s. Ultimately, the question boils down to whether there is an affordable-enough solution to the PAF.

In terms of assigning JF-17Bs to front-line squadrons, this is an interesting revelation because it confirms the PAF will use dual-seaters alongside single-seaters. This allocation may be a sign that the PAF is planning to use the JF-17B as a specialized asset within multi-role squadrons. So, for example, the PAF may assign its ASELPOD targeting pods to the JF-17B and, in turn, use them as its primary precision-strike aircraft. The PAF may also fit the JF-17B with several electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods for a dedicated stand-off range radar jamming role. Interestingly, the PAF also confirmed that it can optionally fit any of its JF-17Bs with air-to-air refueling (AAR) probes and implied it will distribute them across multiple squadrons.[9]

Using the JF-17B as a special mission asset could result in several outcomes. First, the PAF may seek new air-to-ground munitions and/or equipment. So, for example, the PAF could add a photo-reconnaissance pod (similar to the DB-110 it uses from the F-16s) to the JF-17B. The PAF could potentially seek to add the Mirage III/5’s manual-operation stand-off weapon (SOW) capability to the JF-17B. The H-2 and H-4 might not work from the JF-17B, but a new long-range weapon with a long-range data-link and TV-based seeker could be of interest. Though it may seem antiquated, this capability offers a back-up to GPS-aided SOWs as well as a complementary feature for more precise targeting. Finally, the JF-17B might also emerge as a primary carrier for the PAF’s Ra’ad-series air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM).

If the PAF can qualify the JF-17B across these three areas – i.e., photo-reconnaissance, a SOW deployment similar to the H-2 and H-4, and Ra’ad ALCM deployment – it can fully phase-out the Mirage III/5. Basically, the PAF would only require additional JF-17Bs, which it could allocate to existing squadrons (thus making them into all-mission-capable units) or to dedicated attack squadrons. This approach would also be a cost-effective way to continue retiring old aircraft while minimizing the need to acquire a totally new aircraft off-the-shelf. Instead, the PAF can devote more of its procurement funding to Project Azm.

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

[2] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Backs its Dark House for Training.” Arabian Aerospace. February 2021. URL:

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Pakistan JF-17 Thunder unit shuffles.” Scramble. 11 November 2020. URL:

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

[8] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Backs its Dark House for Training.” Arabian Aerospace. February 2021.

[9] Ibid.

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