By Mihir Shah
In early 2007, when the first production JF-17 “Thunder” fighter was unveiled to the Pakistani public, it failed to make much of an impression outside the Indian subcontinent. And for good reason. As a twenty-first century fighter aircraft, it appeared rather unremarkable; pedestrian, almost. It boasted neither the sleek lines of the F-16, nor the raw power of the MiG-29. Its capabilities could best be described as middle-of-the-road.
Ten years on, the aircraft has acquired a history that belies its purported mediocrity. It has performed at air shows in Paris and Dubai; flown ground-attack sorties against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Operation Rah-e-Nijat; and bid for export contracts to multiple nations, albeit unsuccessfully for the time being.
To the casual observer, these accomplishments might come across as modest. But given the backdrop of the jet’s humble origins and its troubled development, they stand out as anything but.
The popular narrative is that the JF-17 is a development of the 1980s-era Super 7 project—a collaborative effort between China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation and US-based Grumman Aerospace—aimed at equipping China’s air forces with a low-cost fighter outfitted with American avionics. The Super 7 was based on the J-7, which itself was a Chinese copy of the iconic MiG-21 interceptor. When the United States pulled out of the venture following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Chengdu pursued the programme on its own under the “Fighter China” label, swapping out its American components for Chinese and Russian ones.
However, there is also some reason to believe that it descended from a Soviet research initiative that never saw the light of day: the Izdeliye 33. The latter was conceived as an advanced single-engine counterpart to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and shared a limited degree of commonality with the twin-engine MiG-29. China is said to have purchased the design from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and incorporated many of its elements into its Fighter China project. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. There is no denying the similarity in appearances between it and the Izdeliye 33. The Super 7 and J-7 lineage, too, is unmistakable.
In the mid-1990s, the design was offered to Pakistan as a “joint project”, although Pakistan’s contribution was limited to funding its development and then manufacturing the final product at a state-owned facility in Kamra. Russia’s Mikoyan Design Bureau was also roped in as a consultant. Designated the FC-1 “Xiaolong” by China and JF-17 “Thunder” by Pakistan, the aircraft was initially intended to be equipped with Western avionics, weapons, and displays. However, efforts to procure these subsystems fell through, and they were replaced with their Chinese counterparts instead. The initial prototype undertook its first flight in May 2003. The first production aircraft arrived in Pakistan in March 2007, and series production commenced in June 2009.
Practical, not Perfect
From a cursory look at its performance specifications, the JF-17 appears to be a mediocre aircraft. It doesn’t fly particularly fast, or exhibit a spectacular turn rate, or possess an outstanding thrust-to-weight ratio. The Russian-made Klimov RD-93 engine that powers it is notorious for its short life and lack of reliability. The avionics package and weapons suite are austere by modern standards. It lacks a fly-by-wire flight control system: a vital piece of technology that is present on practically every modern fighter. So lacklustre is its performance that the country that led its development—China—isn’t inducting a single unit of the type.
And paradoxically, this lack of sophistication is probably what makes the Thunder a useful component of Pakistani air power. It is not a world-beater, but a moderately capable platform that could occupy an important position within a larger warfighting framework. In today’s networked battlefield, a flight of JF-17s—armed with a mix of medium and short range missiles, supported by an airborne early warning and control platform, and protected by land-based air defences—could conceivably hold its own against most offensive sorties launched against Pakistani airspace. In the ground attack role, the aircraft’s ability to drop precision-guided bombs on weakly defended targets could free up Pakistan’s more capable F-16 fleet to tackle more challenging assignments, at the very least.
More importantly, the aircraft’s affordability and relative simplicity allow a cash-strapped Pakistan to procure it in numbers (more than eighty airframes are already in service). While it is a Chinese design, it does give Pakistan some experience in fighter manufacture; and without intellectual property considerations weighing down further development, Pakistani engineers are free to modify and upgrade it in any way they see fit.
The Thunder’s unexceptional design, although more a product of circumstance than careful planning, does offer important lessons for India’s own aerospace development efforts. When its development appeared to be in trouble on account of the failure to procure avionics and weapons from Western suppliers, its managers quickly substituted them with their less-capable Chinese equivalents, even though immediate-term performance suffered. In doing so, they chose to prioritise what was truly important: low cost, reduced development risk, and the ability to quickly shore up numbers.
In contrast, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and scientific establishment took the opposite route with the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme. In chasing capability as an end in itself, they permitted the project scope to expand unchecked, thus transforming what started off as a modest, lightweight, point-defence interceptor into a fourth-generation multirole fighter. The Tejas is undoubtedly more capable than the Thunder, but it is also more complex, and that complexity has always been its Achilles Heel. The time and cost overruns born out of this complexity have brought the project under heavy criticism from government auditors, and inordinately delayed Final Operational Clearance—a crucial milestone that declares an aircraft fully ready for combat.
Thus, while the Tejas is yet to fully equip a single IAF unit, the Thunder has entered frontline service in Pakistan, equipping five operational squadrons. Chinese development agencies are also working on a slew of upgrades to enhance its combat potential. These include an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to serve as its primary sensor, a helmet mounted sight to cue short-range missiles, and a sea-skimming anti-ship missile intended for use in the maritime strike role.
The Thunder’s success offers useful insight into what India’s military and scientific leadership could have achieved had it limited its ambitions with the LCA, or chosen not to short-sightedly terminate the HF-24 Marut programme. No doubt the Marut had its share of issues, but so did its replacement—the Anglo-French Jaguar. Unlike the Marut though, it has, over its long service life, been steadily upgraded in-house by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Its most recent upgrade package, featuring an Israeli AESA radar, makes it a formidable fighter-bomber in its own right. Had the same been done with a Marut derivative, the aircraft could conceivably have formed the backbone of the IAF’s fighter fleet, and conferred it with more capability than the MiG-21 Bison does today. Furthermore, the effort would have dovetailed perfectly with the LCA and AMCA programmes; in the process spawning a knowledge base and industrial ecosystem capable of reducing many of the risks associated with developing a complex aeronautical product from scratch.
Mihir Shah is a mechanical engineer who tracks military and aerospace issues closely. He contributes to to LiveFist, Pragati Magazine, and Bharat Rakshak’s Security Research Review.