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Why the JF-17 Block-III Matters to the Pakistan Air Force

The outgoing Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman – succeeded by ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan – announced that the JF-17 Block-III design had been finalized following a period of “two-and-a-half-years”. Though a low-key statement, it represents a very important milestone, not just for the JF-17 program, the for the PAF’s as a whole as well.

Fundamentally, the reality of the Block-III not only advances the JF-17 by imbuing it with contemporary – and emerging – subsystems and capabilities, but it unquestionably establishes the JF-17 as the PAF’s sole (and foreseeable) means of bringing modern air warfare capabilities to its fighter fleet. This outcome can, to a great extent, be attributed to a lack of accessible fighter platforms from abroad. However, once the JF-17 Block-III materializes into a serviceable fighter, it could force an organizational shift in how cutting-edge solutions are sought in the future – i.e. favouring bespoke/custom solutions with China’s support.

The JF-17 Block-III is the first major iterative upgrade to the JF-17: it will introduce an active-electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an integrated electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, updated avionics suite, three-axis/all-digital fly-by-wire (FBW) flight-control system, a single-panel multi-function display (MFD)-based cockpit and helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system.[1] As per the previous PAF CAS, the JF-17 Block-III is slated to enter production in 2019 or 2020.[2]

Speaking to Quwa, retired PAF officer and now historian and commentator Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail views the Block-III as a promising qualitative boost for the PAF fighter fleet:

“With AESA radar, the JF-17 should be able to resist enemy jamming [via its] many small transmit-receive modules (TRM), making it a much more survivable platform. The aircraft’s BVR capability is also expected to be greatly enhanced, especially in an environment increasingly beset with EW advances. Assuming the AESA radar works as expected, the JF-17 would have a more advanced radar than that of the F-16, thus becoming the PAF’s preferred platform in the air-to-air role.”

Indeed, the implication of the JF-17 assuming the leading qualitative position ahead of the F-16, especially as the ‘preferred’ air-to-air platform, would be significant. Frankly, a cursory look of the facts on paper in terms of what the Block-III will include compared to what the PAF’s F-16s have will aptly illustrate that the Block-III will be the qualitatively superior platform. Note: this is all in reference to the F-16s in PAF service, for which there is no tangible upgrade path – e.g. F-16V – due to end-user restrictions from the US.

Returning to the Block-III’s AESA radar. Generally speaking, the availability of multiple TRMs for tracking and scanning (wherein each can do so through a different frequency) enables the JF-17 to continue its air-to-air operations in dense EW/ECM environments. In practical terms, this is important of the PAF seeing the growth of EW/ECM-equipped assets in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Navy (IN). Should these manifest as threats over Pakistani airspace, the PAF will have to rely on its best – in terms of defensibility and capability – to counter them, and the Block-III would be the best equipped to do so (notwithstanding the inclusion of another platform, though increasingly unlikely to occur prior to Project Azm).

Practically, the PAF will continue using its F-16s and JF-17 Block-I and Block-IIs, but it is now difficult to see any defensive scenario where the Block-III would not be present. Currently, the PAF is expecting to acquire 50 Block-IIIs – i.e. completing the initial allotment of 150 aircraft. However, with the previous CAS stating the need to maintain a 400-strong fighter fleet, coupled with the reality of not having the pipeline include an alternate fighter (especially for specialized roles such as deep-strike), additional JF-17s of the Block-III and beyond variety could be prudent. In fact, Dr. Richard D. Fisher Jr., a prominent analyst of Chinese defence development and procurement, believed the PAF could figure for as many as 275 JF-17s.[3] Through its own self-published article (written by Alan Warnes), the PAF said it could procure 150-200 JF-17s.[4]

The PAF has yet to disclose its specific selections for the Block-III. However, Tufail noted that the design-freeze establishes that the PAF has chosen what it intends to configure into the Block-III. Of these, Tufail believes that the HMD/S and high off-boresight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM) are also on the roadmap:

“One can also deduce from the CAS’ speech that the HMD/S system, an important feature of the Block-III, has been short-listed. Such a system would expand the employment options for Within Visual Range (WVR) scenarios and minimise the need for hard aircraft maneuvering, as the HOBS AAM will do the needful much more efficiently.”

Though the PAF is not short of HOBS AAM options for the JF-17, with the PAF even highlighting the Denel Dynamics A-Darter as an option in 2015.[5] Given the upswing of South African-Pakistani defence relations in 2017, it would be surprising if the A-Darter is not ultimately selected.[6] In fact, it would likely require a Chinese alternative with an assured Chinese HMD/S to displace the A-Darter.

This lends to another point, the HMD/S selection. On the surface, the PAF does not appear to have many off-the-shelf HMD/S options available on the market. Of the suppliers (BAE Systems, Elbit and Thales), it appears that only Thales is a plausible option. Pakistan is a customer of Thales Optronique through the al-Khalid, for which Thales supplies its Catherine-FC thermal imaging system.[7]

Thales’ principal HMD/S on offer to the market is the TopOwl-F. One advantage of the TopOwl-F is that Thales has experience integrating the HMD/S to a variety of platforms, including France’s Mirage 2000-5s and India’s MiG-29Ks. Thus, Thales has integration experience with Eastern and Western aircraft alike, so on the surface, the Block-III would not be strange. Second, it is a tested HMD/S system, one that has also been adapted for use onboard helicopters (the Pakistan Army included it in its AH-1Z order).

Pairing the A-Darter to the TopOwl-F would seem like a natural fit, the companies involved would be in a position to cooperate and could mutually promote the solution to many prospective markets. However, the question is whether the PAF itself is actually procuring the TopOwl-F. This will not be known until the Block-III is flying with an HMD/S, but the TopOwl-F is plausible. In contrast to the massive $1.2 billion US deal attempted with France to equip the JF-17 Block-I/II with the RC400 and MICA, the TopOwl-F is a very specific input, something that can be bought with limited scrutiny and fare, much like the Catherine-FC.[8]

The alternative would likely be a Chinese HMD/S and HOBS AAM. This would not be surprising considering China’s technology advances and ability to scale, thereby reducing cost and spurring more development. In fact, it is likely – not least due to the fact that the JF-17 relies on the SD-10 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) and C-802 anti-ship missile (AShM) – that China will fulfill the AESA radar need, and that, in turn, will likely inform the integrated EW/ECM package (i.e. TRMs from one supplier).

For the PAF, the Block-III affirms several facts. First, it has fully entered an age where procuring cutting-edge systems from the US or Western Europe – at least as complete and integrated suites such as fighter aircraft – is effectively over. Second, China will be at the center of the PAF’s long-term procurement plans, with the Chinese industry, the sole avenue through which the PAF can explore solutions that are free from US or European restrictions and, in many cases, cost issues. Third, India’s procurement tract has also filled Pakistan’s threat-outlook with cutting-edge Western solutions, which – while not new – now must factor with the PAF not procuring those very same solutions as it had in the past.

Each of these aforementioned aspects will effectively leave the PAF to rely on China. However, the PAF is also reluctant to simply become a ‘buyer’, rather, it wants to utilize China’s strengths to tailor customized solutions leveraging Chinese and non-Chinese strengths. The PAF still wants to control an element of the chain, such as the flexibility and technical ability to integrate weapons and subsystems of its choice on the fighter. This could be in place simply ensuring that a route exists to still bring some Western technology, but through specific subsystems (e.g. TopOwl-F) instead of committing to a full and costly package.

However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that this would only be limited to customizing an existing Chinese design. Rather, the pattern of the PAF, i.e. to leverage Chinese strengths to design new solutions tailored to PAF requirements, suggests that original or new designs are the preferred option. In case of the JF-17, it was to acquire a low-cost platform while still having the space for continued upgrades, which was an area the Chinese were not interested in at the time. However, with Project Azm, i.e. the next-generation fighter, the PAF may seek emerging research and development work from China to create a new or greatly revised design to handle all future anticipated threats, which the Pakistan and China could perceive as sharing seeing their respective tensions with India.

[1] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s multi-role fighter.” 2015. Note: a special publication released by the Pakistan Air Force during the Paris Air Show of 2015. Note: the inclusion of a single-panel MFD and three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) was directly revealed to Quwa by a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) official.

[2] PTV interview with Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, the Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air Force, on 23 March 2017.

[3] Richard D Fisher Jr. “Paris Air Show 2015: JF-17 fighter flying with indigenous Chinese turbofan”. HIS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 17 June 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160421064512/http://www.janes.com/article/52308/paris-air-show-2015-jf-17-fighter-flying-with-indigenous-chinese-turbofan (Last Accessed: 22 March 2018).

[4] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder: Pakistan’s Multi-Role Fighter”. 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joy Nonzukiso Peter. “A memorandum of understanding on Defence and Defence Industrial Cooperation with Pakistan”. 29 March 2017. Department of Defence of the Republic of South Africa. URL: http://www.dod.mil.za/news/2017/03/mou_pakistan.htm (Last Accessed: 22 March 2018).

[7] “Pakistan Defence Review: Procurement Updates”. Quwa Premium. 12 February 2018. URL: https://quwa.org/2018/02/12/pakistan-defence-review-procurement-updates/

[8] “France says arms sale to Pakistan held up”. Reuters. 02 April 2010. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-47413220100402 (Last Accessed: 22 March 2018).

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