for LiveFistOn March 23 2007, two JF-17 “Thunder” fighters took to the skies for the first time in Pakistan as a part of the Pakistan Day celebrations. Touted to be Pakistan’s first home made fighter, the JF-17 is expected to be the Pakistan Air Force’s frontline fighter well into the future. With this article, I’ve made an attempt to examine the JF-17 in the Indo-Pak context. But first, some background information on the program.
The program began in 1986 as the Super-7, when China signed a $550 million deal with Grumman to modernise its fleet of J-7 (MiG-21s manufactured in China under license) fighters. The United States ceased technical assistance following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and the project almost ground to a halt. However, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC) managed to keep the program alive with its own resources, as the FC-1. The project got a new lease of life in 1999, when Pakistan and China signed an agreement to “jointly” develop and produce the FC-1 with both countries contributing 50% of the funds. Russia’s Mikoyan Aero-Science Production Group provided technical assistance. The FC-1 (Designated JF-17 “Thunder” by Pakistan) was supposed to be a lightweight all-weather multi-role fighter, which would replace Pakistan’s fleet of Mirage-III, F-7, and A-5 aircraft, whose safety record is going downhill by the day. The Pakistani version would sport a Western avionics suite, which included the Italian Galileo Avionica Grifo S7 radar, a variant of which is already in service with the Pakistan Air Force on its F-7 fighters. It would be powered by one Russian Klimov RD-93 turbofan. The “Aviation Week & Space Technology” magazine reported in November 2006 that “Pakistani officials expect the first contract for 16 aircraft (split equally with China) to be awarded next year, with deliveries as early as 2007. A full-rate production contract would follow around 2009. Initially, Pakistan will provide 58% of the parts, but that is supposed to increase gradually to 100%.” The overall Pakistani requirement is expected to be around 150 fighters.
Although the Pakistanis tried to demonstrate with the Pakistan Day flypast that everything was tickety-boo, this is far from the truth. The Western avionics are nowhere to be seen, and supplier decisions do not appear to have been made. Radar integration, a challenging job under the best of circumstances, seems to have run into problems. The task is complicated in no small part by the lack of space available in the JF-17’s radome. It is now widely claimed that the first batch of Pakistani JF-17s will be equipped with Chinese avionics and radar. The weapons package is yet to be finalised. While China is expected to push its PL-9 dogfight missile and the yet untested SD-10 beyond visual range air to air missile, the South Africans have reportedly offered their A-Darter and T-Darter missiles. In January 2007, the head of the Russian Defence Ministry’s International Cooperation Department, Colonel-General Anatoly Mazurkevich, announced that Russia had “denied China the right to supply its JF-17 fighter aircraft powered by Russian RD-93 engines to third countries, asking it to sign an end-user certificate for the engines”. In Indian circles, this was taken to be a total Russian denial. Sinodefence.com, a Chinese military website reports that while five RD-93s have been purchased to power the prototypes, an agreement on the further purchase and re-export of the engine is still pending. To make things worse, the Chinese have yet to make any firm commitments, and appear to have lost interest in inducting the FC-1, preferring the more capable J-10 instead.
Given development time-frame and mission profile, comparisons between the JF-17 and India’s “Tejas” light combat aircraft are inevitable. But similarities, if any, are merely superficial. The Tejas, meant to replace India’s massive fleet of MiG-21s, is a wholly different project as far as technology is concerned. Its airframe, made of advanced carbon fibre composites, is light years ahead of the Thunder’s all-metal airframe. The ADA, HAL, and NAL invested considerable time, effort, and resources in its development, and came up with what is arguably one of the finest airframes in the world. The same goes for the Tejas’ aerodynamics which, because of the compound delta-wing, extensive wing-body blending, and low wing loading are superior to those of the Thunder, which has a more conventional layout along the lines of the F-16 and a rejected Soviet light fighter design. As far as flight dynamics and control go, the Tejas, with its relaxed static stability and quadruplex, full authority fly-by-wire digital flight control system, is far more advanced than the Thunder, which still features conventional controls (fly-by-wire exists only for pitch control). The Tejas then, is a state of the art combat aircraft which will be India’s first step towards self-reliance. Program wise, it is more comparable to the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale, considering not just the technology involved, but also the scope of the project. In the light of this argument, its longer timeline is hardly surprising. But the Thunder, despite Pakistan’s best efforts to package it as “indigenous”, is anything but. Pakistan’s contribution to the design and development of the project is close to nothing. Even today, it does not sport any Pakistani systems. It is at best a cheap and low-tech Chinese aircraft that Pakistan can mass produce. As Siva, a contributor on Bharat Rakshak points out, the JF-17 is more comparable to the HJT-36 Sitara intermediate jet trainer – since both have an all-metal airframe, conventional controls, and an externally sourced engine. And the Sitara was developed even faster than the Thunder.
This is not to say that the JF-17 is a bad aircraft. It will serve a very important purpose by giving Pakistan valuable experience in fighter aircraft manufacturing. It will help Pakistan rid itself of dependence on American weapons. It will give the Pakistan Air Force a shot in the arm by beefing up numbers and providing it with decent beyond visual range combat capability. Dismissing it as “worthless” would be nothing short of stupid. My friend and aviation enthusiast Kartik sums it up beautifully: “If the Pakistanis integrate even a medium performance radar and use the SD-10 with it, it is a big threat to the Indian Air Force – just look at the MiG-21 Bison to see what an underestimated fighter can turn out to be. The Sukhoi Su-30K was also found to be a poor aircraft when the IAF first evaluated it, and then after all sweat and toil put into getting its avionics in place and the thrust vector controls, the Su-30MKI is a completely different beast! I somehow fear that the JF-17 shouldn’t prove to be a fighter that makes the Fulcrums, Mirages, Bisons almost on-par or just a little superior. Which is why the IAF needs a true fourth generation fighter to stay ahead – both airframe wise as well as avionics wise.”
(Mihir Shah is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)