Skip to content Skip to footer

Pakistan’s Quest for a Domestic Fighter: The JF-17 Emerges as Pakistan’s Mainstay Fighter (Part 2)

This is a continuation of Quwa’s series, “Pakistan’s Quest for a Domestic Fighter.” In Part 1, we examined the events that lead to the eventual development of the JF-17, particularly in the late 1980s when Pakistan had studied using an extensively modified F-7M as a complement to the F-16.

In 2010, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) inducted its first squadron equipped with the JF-17 Thunder, its new, mainstay multi-role fighter that is developed in collaboration with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). Since its entry, the JF-17 is now in use with six PAF squadrons located across Pakistan. Be it the country’s maritime operations environment, the plains and deserts of interior Punjab and Sindh or the mountains of Baluchistan, Northern Areas and the Himalayas, the JF-17 is the PAF’s workhorse.

Thus far, it appears Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) has (with AVIC’s support) rolled-out more than 100 JF-17 Block-I and Block-IIs; the next phase of the program is the highly anticipated JF-17 Block-III. At this stage, it is evident that the JF-17 has fulfilled the PAF’s longstanding need for an affordable, versatile and, not least, sanction-free backbone fighter. The Block-III included, the intent is to build a fleet of more than 150 (i.e. 162) fighters, potentially up to 200 (or more).[1][2]

Granted, the PAF’s efforts to procure larger multi-role fighters – specifically, additional Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block-52+ or (in lieu of F-16s) a Russian or Chinese fighter – overshadowed the inherently strong attributes of the JF-17. It is not just a matter of supplanting the PAF’s legacy Chengdu F-7P, but delivering – and that too in sizable numbers – contemporary air warfare capabilities across the entire PAF fleet. From beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) to stand-off weapons (SOW), the JF-17 has delivered.

Consider the impact of more than doubling the PAF’s ability to deliver active radar-guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) from 74 F-16 Block-52+/MLU to 174+ F-16s and JF-17s; or doubling the number of squadrons capable of anti-ship warfare (AShW) stationed at Masroor Air Base; or enlarging the number of precision-strike-capable, ground-attack fighters through the ASELPOD; and adding to the PAF’s fleet of network-enabled combat platforms through tactical data-links (TDL) are credible gains.

However, when coupled with the fact that the PAF has flexibility to configure the JF-17 at-will (albeit within its financial and technical confines), the JF-17 offers advancement. Strict end-user controls on the F-16 – and most other imported fighters – leaves the JF-17 as the PAF’s sole means of readily using new weapon technologies. Be it active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radars, SOWs, electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suites, new Air Staff Requirements (ASR) have less of a barrier.

Combine the PAF’s freedom to configure its platform alongside its ability to fully support the JF-17’s long-term maintenance, manufacture aerostructures for overhaul and repair, and supplant old airframes with new ones, the JF-17 is a vital asset. However, this control has also opened the PAF’s door to explore new or specialist roles it would not consider if strictly tied to imports. Be it through newbuild airframes or by re-allocating – but retrofitting – older Block-Is, the PAF can explore a number of options.

For example, the PAF could look at upgrading the Block-I to Block-III standards through a new AESA radar. However, instead of returning them to multi-role duties, perhaps it can allocate these Block-Is as advanced close air support (CAS) aircraft for conventional operations. The AESA radar certainly provides much better defensibility against the EW/ECM one might expect in such situations. Moreover, the Block-I’s short range can be offset by using temporary airfields in Sindh and Punjab (for recovery after forward operations).

In terms of munitions, this improved Block-I could, plausibly, be equipped with the YJ-9E radar-guided air-to-ground missile (AGM), enabling it to attack moving armour (and using its AESA radar for targeting). The LD-10, which is the anti-radiation missile (ARM) variant of the SD-10 (i.e. with a different seeker). This can be loaded to the same dual-ejector rack as the SD-10 BVRAAM, enabling this JF-17 to spot for mobile low-level air defence and high-altitude threats to the Army’s helicopters and tanks, respectively.

The PAF’s barrier (in terms of cost, integration work, access to munitions, etc) to acquiring specialized JF-17s is much lower than trying to modify an import or finding an analogous platform off-the-shelf. This is not confined to old, retrofitted airframes. The JF-17B could, in theory, be modified into a new single-seat variant with more range, payload and endurance. This can be done by emulating the model of the Czech L-159, i.e swapping the rear-seat with an extension of the aircraft spine (ostensibly to increase fuel-load).

Alternatively, the second-seat could be retained, but other measures explored to add valuable capabilities to the PAF. For example in 2017, Belarus’ Belspetsvneshtechnika (BSVT) revealed its Veresk EW/ECM pod.[3] Interestingly, this pod is actually two units, each weighing 80 kg and intended for a hardpoint under each wing. However, with Russian hardpoints, the Versek will sit atop of a live munition, thereby enabling the end-user to use weapons and EW/ECM from the same hardpoint.[4]

Consider the notion of BSVT developing a variant of the Versek, but compatible with the JF-17B or Block-III. The PAF could deploy an electronic attack (EA) variant of the JF-17B and/or Block-III, but still deploy an air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons package at the same time. Likewise, the PAF could also apply a Versek-like system to retrofitted Block-Is, thus providing its CAS fighter with EW/ECM along with its AESA radar’s electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) capability.

Overall, the scope to modify or continually develop the JF-17 is only limited by financial constraints, access to the essential technologies and the PAF’s school-of-thought at any given period of time. However, if the PAF is serious about the goals it had outlined for Project Azm – i.e. its flagship initiative to domestically develop and manufacture a long-range drone and a next-generation fighter – then developing upon the JF-17 in the aforementioned manner (perhaps not in the direction of those specific forms) is prudent.[5]

Besides facilitating the necessary capacity building and experience for Project Azm, later variants of the JF-17 – which will have scaled the development overhead of the program – can complement Project Azm. Not every role (especially in South Asia) will require a solution as capable (and costly) as Azm. The JF-17, especially if it (via upgrades) incorporates the subsystems of Project Azm, could emerge as a low-cost, but relatively potent workhorse fighter that complements next-generation platforms.

This lends to a second, but – at least for the near-term – significant advantage of the JF-17. The PAF has a reliable mainstay fighter which distributes the burden from its marquee platforms. The JF-17 – especially through versatile, upgraded variants – can be the lynchpin of the PAF’s requirements; the marquee (e.g. imported) fighter can focus on a few specific roles that cannot be done through the JF-17.

For example, the off-the-shelf fighter and/or Project Azm can be slotted for specific offensive counter air (OCA) and/or deep-strike missions. The heavy use of the JF-17 (for other roles) would save precious airframe hours on the imported fighters while also reducing their exposure to attrition. This can also enable the PAF to preserve more of its spare parts and munitions for those other fighters. In fact, where the JF-17 can react to threats, the PAF can restrict its heavier fighters to designated roles.

Besides wartime preservation, the resulting impact can also provide the PAF with flexibility when it deals with the supplier. Hypothetically, if the PAF is still pursuing the Su-35, it can settle with the maintenance and weapons package on offer by Russia provided that package fulfills the designated need for which the PAF is seeking the Su-35. There is no pressure to acquire the Su-35 other than the need to fulfill a specific set of roles; the JF-17 (with its aforementioned advantages) is in place to manage threats.

Yes, there is a major caveat to that last point, i.e. ‘managing threats.’ It is evident that the threats that are to come from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Navy (IN) will push the technology boundaries of South Asia. One might argue its utility as the PAF’s threat-counter today, but there is no doubt that in the future, it would not be tenable to rely solely on the JF-17. The PAF must replicate the JF-17’s value as a credible backbone fighter through a markedly superior platform.

That platform will, ultimately, be Project Azm. It is unclear if Azm would be the PAF’s sole next-generation fighter; seeing how there are now several such fighters in development globally, a complementary aircraft is plausible. But it has the implicit objective of becoming an assuredly (i.e. without doubt) credible system for the PAF’s long-term combat aircraft needs.[6] In fact, the previous PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, outlined that Azm’s goal was to end the need for imports.[7]

The implication in the former CAS’ statement is that Azm must be able to handle all ASR-mandated roles and, presumably, preclude any need for importing a fighter. We examine this idea alongside PAC’s stated goals for Project Azm and its supporting elements, such as the Kamra Aviation City initiative, in Part 3.

[1] Alan Warnes. “Dubai Airshow: Pakistan JF-17 returns to Dubai.” Arabian Aerospace. 13 November 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 September 2018).

[2] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.” Note: a special publication released by the Pakistan Air Force during the Paris Air Show of 2015.

[3] James Bingham. “MILEX 2017: BSVT unveils new airborne active jamming system.” IHS Jane’s International Defence Review. 23 May 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 September 2018).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Promotional Information. “Aviation Research, Indigenization and Development.” Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 July 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Naveed Siddiqui. “Intruders traced on radar won’t be able to go back, warns air chief.” Dawn News. 07 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 September 2018).

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment