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Why is the Pakistan Air Force Procuring 26 JF-17Bs?

On 27 December 2019, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) rolled out the first eight of 26 twin-seat JF-17B fighter aircraft for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). PAC will manufacture an additional 14 aircraft in 2020, and conclude the PAF’s orders in 2021 with the remaining four JF-17Bs.

The PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, revealed the PAF’s plans to procure 26 JF-17Bs in an interview in May 2019.[1] According to the CAS, the primary purpose of inducting the JF-17B was to train new pilots on the JF-17 “without first putting them through the F-16, Mirage or F-7P/PG” as they are currently. In other words, as the JF-17 becomes the PAF’s most numerous aircraft, the PAF is adding twin-seat variants to convert pilots with limited prior fighter flying experience to the JF-17.

However, with the JF-17B acquisition amounting to essentially an expansion of the slated JF-17 plan (for 150 fighters, now 188 through 26 JF-17Bs and 12 additional JF-17 Block-IIs), observers are asking whether the JF-17B could play other roles with the PAF. The most oft-heard scenario is the potential use of the JF-17B as a dedicated, stand-off electronic warfare (EW) aircraft, or as a supporting strike fighter.

Practically, the twin-seat fighter aircraft of the PAF – i.e., operational conversion unit (OCU) platforms – can technically double as an active combat asset. So, at the minimum, the capabilities of the Block-I and Block-II should translate over to the JF-17B should the PAF require it. However, in lieu of those situations, the PAF will (as it does every OCU asset) use the JF-17B as principally a training asset.

Does the JF-17B’s Design Allow for Niche or Specialized Roles?

The JF-17B introduced multiple design changes to the Thunder. In addition to the second seat, the JF-17B boasts a swept-back vertical stabilizer, a dorsal spine, and by some reports, a slightly longer airframe and enlarged wingspan (9.465 m) compared to the single-seat variant (8.5 m).[2]

The designers may have added the spine so as to create more room for internal fuel (and compensate for the space taken by the second seat). In addition, and perhaps most significantly (both for the JF-17B and the newer single-seat JF-17 Block-III), the JF-17B also introduced a new three-axis fly-by-wire flight control system to the Thunder.[3] The JF-17B’s nose is also technically capable of carrying an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, though the PAF opted to retain the pulse-Doppler KLJ-7 for its own fleet.[4]

The JF-17 Block-III was slotted to have the new flight control system alongside an increased payload and a number of other subsystem additions, most notably the AESA radar.[5] It is not known how many of those additions the JF-17B has gotten from a structural standpoint (e.g., additional payload), nor is it clear if the JF-17B will adopt any of the Block-III’s new subsystems. However, these limitations are likely a by-product of the PAF’s planning and decisions more so than a technical constraint in the JF-17B.

The PAF likely needed the JF-17Bs in short-order (which one can see with its rapid production schedule – 22 of the 26 fighters will be in hand by the end of 2020) to fulfill urgent operational needs. While in theory the PAF could have taken the JF-17Bs with fewer subsystems (e.g., no radar), it would have left the fighters underequipped for the intended training role and, as importantly, combat operations if required. The PAF already had a frozen and tested configuration suite in the Block-II, so it opted to apply it to the JF-17B.

This decision should inform us of two facts: First, it appears that the process of configuring the Block-III is still in its infancy (relative to the maturity of the Block-II). Second, it may take at least two years from this point for the PAF to induct its first Block-III squadron – it will have its first 14 aircraft by the end of 2021, and in the meantime, will integrate, test, and qualify its subsystems (e.g., radar) and munitions.[6] Thus, any expectation of the JF-17B being functionally more than the Block-II is unrealistic.

However, after the PAF acquires its first tranche of 50 Block-IIIs (by the end of 2024 based on the current production schedule),[7] it could exercise the option to acquire a more advanced JF-17B. In this scenario, a markedly different use of the JF-17B from OCU and contingency operations could be plausible.

Practically, this induction (if pursued) would occur from 2024 to the late 2020s and early 2030s, by which point the PAF expects its next-generation fighter under Project Azm to become a factor.[8] In this scenario, the later tranche of JF-17Bs could be equipped along similar lines to the Block-III, i.e., using an AESA radar plus new integrated EW suite, avionics, and munitions compatibility. Likewise, these new JF-17Bs can work as both OCU and contingency and/or niche/specialized combat units with the Block-III.

There is no indication (from the designers) that the JF-17B’s unique qualities make it more suitable for the niche or specialized roles some observers expect. Logically, a twin-seater could make it easier to deploy certain kinds of stand-off weapons (SOW), like a remote-operated electro-optical (EO) SOW similar to the H-2/H-4 from one platform. One of the JF-17B’s aircrew can manage the munition launch and guidance as the other flies the aircraft and defends it from air-to-air and surface-to-air threats.

But it is not known if the PAF will use the JF-17B to develop its own Growler-like dedicated, stand-off EW or Wild Weasel-like SEAD/DEAD (suppression/destruction of enemy air defence) platform.

One of the key benefits of the JF-17 is being able to flexibly pursue specialized platforms. The PAF possess a mainstay multi-role platform upon which it can freely configure and deploy different mission capabilities provided it can source the necessary subsystems and munitions. Moreover, the PAF can recover from the risk of attrition by freely being able to replenish its JF-17 fleet (at least more so than a costlier American or Western European fighter, which are also saddled with political constraints).

Finally, South Asia’s evolving air warfare realities might require more robust EW and SEAD/DEAD – India is heavily investing in its air defence, and credible EW helped the PAF through Operation Swift Retort. The ingredients for specialized variants of the JF-17B are in place, but the PAF may not pursue them.

This conclusion may sound surprising, but in terms of its core design, the JF-17 was meant to fulfil a very specific function: be an affordable, but modern, fleet-builder. To achieve the goal, the PAF wanted the JF-17 to carry the core capabilities of other fighters (e.g., an AESA) radar, but niche roles may not matter.

In contrast to the Gripen, the PAF never saw the JF-17 as the “sole” asset, it was always meant to operate alongside another platform – i.e., the F-16, and for a brief time (before those plans were cancelled), the FC-20/J-10A. In a sense, the JF-17 was to guarantee the essentials and, in turn, safeguard its own air space while a larger platform carries the offensive load and assumes niche roles, such as SEAD/DEAD or EW.

Seeing how the PAF is unable to readily secure another fighter, it might sound odd that it may still refuse to expand the JF-17’s role. However, instead of importing that supplementary fighter, the PAF decided to pursue it domestically through Project Azm. The next-generation fighter will be larger than the JF-17 – i.e., a twin-engine design – and is likely (by virtue of both its increased internal space and the new subsystem configuration platform) better suited for those specialized roles.

Yes, the JF-17B may be capable of delivering on EW or SEAD/DEAD at a baseline level (up to the extent its airframe can handle in terms of payload, range and endurance), but Project Azm may be poised to deliver on such roles fully, and efficiently (especially from an offensive standpoint). The drawback of this approach is that it would, at best, materialize later in the 2030s, while the JF-17B can (even in its existing Block-II-based variant) could be deployed sooner. Moreover, South Asia’s evolving situation will continue.

In effect, the PAF’s plans could change based on the challenges or delays it faces with Project Azm as well as the technology advances of the future. In terms of the latter, if electronics become even lighter in terms of weight and more energy efficient, using the JF-17B for specialized roles could be more tenable. And if the situation requires it, the PAF could pursue those variants as an option.

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

[2] Richard D. Fisher Jr. “Twin-seat JF-17B/FC-1B fighter makes first flight. Jane’s Defence Weekly. 28 April 2017.

[3] Alan Warnes. “Two-seat JF-17B progresses.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder – Lightning Strikes Twice.” AIN Online. 15 June 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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

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