The JF-17 Thunder is a lightweight, fourth-generation, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft jointly developed by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China. It is called FC-1 (Fighter China-1) Xiaolong ‘Fierce Dragon’ by China.
The aircraft is built to meet the primary needs of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). It replaces the aging fleet of Mirage III and Mirage V, Nanchang A-5, and Chengdu F-7P / PG fighter aircraft making it the backbone of the Pakistani Air Force.
“It possesses excellent air-to-air and air-to-surface combat capabilities…. This all-weather, multi-role light combat fighter has remarkable high combat maneuverability at medium and low altitudes.” According to the PAC Kamra official report on JF-17 Thunder.
The term JF-17 Thunder is short for “Joint Fighter-17” while it is known as FC-1 “Fighter China-1” Xiaolong in China.
Development History of JF-17:
In 1995, Pakistan and China signed a MoU to jointly develop a new fighter jet considering PAF as its primary operator.
The agreement came after the US put economic sanctions on Pakistan in 1989. The sanctions also blocked the delivery of 28 F-16 fighter jets which Pakistan ordered from the US with a total budget of around $658 million.
The economic sanctions and blockage of F-16 jets delivery came after the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan which is only possible with the help of Pakistan. Although Pakistan was the biggest ally of the USA during the 1980s era when the Soviets put their firm grip on Central Asia and entered Afghanistan. But Pakistan was the most sanctioned ally after the Russians were out of Afghanistan.
According to the former Army General and the President of Pakistan, Pervaiz Musharaf, the US told us that you have to buy wheat and soybeans from the $650 million that Pakistan already paid to get F-16 fighter jets.
These circumstances led Pakistan to develop its own fighter jet, the JF-17 Thunder that replaced its old fleet of aircraft and also fulfilled the need to modernize its air force.
The Pakistani air force couldn’t develop its own fighter jet due to the lack of resources and technology requirements. So they join hands with their neighbor Chinese friends to develop a Joint Fighter.
In the beginning, the PAF selected the western company for the avionics of the JF-17. After completing the design phase, the first aircraft went into production in 1999. A Russian-made RD-93 turbofan engine was selected for the aircraft.
The first JF-17 prototype was rolled out in May 2003 and made its maiden flight in August 2003. Later on, four more prototype aircraft were added from which two were used for basic structure, flight qualities, performance, and engine flight testing while the other two were involved in comprehensive avionics flight testing.
After completing the extensive testing phase, the JF-17 Thunder was formally added to the inventory of PAF on 23 March 2007. The aircraft replaced the A-5 aircraft of an operational squadron of PAF.
The JF-17 Thunder was first showcased at the Farnborough Air Show UK in 2010.
Production of JF-17:
Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) is produced and holds the exclusive rights of 58% of the airframe including its front fuselage, wings, and vertical stabilizer while 42% of the aircraft is produced in China. The final assembly and flight testing were established at PAC Kamra. The first PAC produced Thunder jet was handed over to Pakistan Air Force in November 2009.
According to Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), the co-production of sub-assemblies and structural parts of the aircraft has commenced and is sequentially attaining the sustained production status. “Besides upgrading the production system, PAC has also upgraded its quality, technology, and archive management systems to meet the production and management standards of a 3rd generation fighter aircraft.”
According to the Chief Project Director of the JF-17 Arshad Malik, “… It is making an excellent jell of the Chinese and the Western systems together on one aircraft.”
The JF-17 has a capacity of 100% avionics upgrade for future requirements.
The JF-17 aircraft is based on a block-building approach. This means every previous block has the capacity of 100% avionics upgrade for future requirements. Every airframe of JF-17 produced to date can be upgraded to the most current evolution.
Three blocks of JF-17 Thunder have been produced since the induction of the 1st aircraft into PAF.
The initially produced JF-17A’s were of Block I variants. The dual-seat variant of JF-17B is of Block II. While PAC has already started the serial production of Block III. The Block III variant of the aircraft is considered the most advanced fighter jet in the PAF’s inventory.
The No. 14 Squadron of Pakistan Air Force is the oldest and performs the role of air superiority.
A total of 70 Block-I aircraft were inducted in PAF. As of 2016, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex has the capacity to produce 20 JF-17s annually.
In 2017, China and Pakistan began developing a dual-seat variant of the aircraft known as JF-17B. The dual-seat variant was of the Block-II category. The upgraded jets have more advanced avionics, air-to-air refueling capability, enhanced electronic warfare capabilities, and have more load-carrying capacity.
The serial production of JF-17 Block-III was started in 2020. China also increased the production of earlier blocks of the aircraft in 2020 to meet the needs of the PAF.
The modern avionics suite makes the JF-17 an effective weapon platform. The glass cockpit and hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) control reduce pilot workload.
The multifunction displays provide information on the engine, fuel, hydraulics, electrical, flight control, and environmental control systems on a need-to-know basis along with basic flight and tactical information. The JF-17’s capability has been built around highly modern state-of-the-art avionics equipment.
The JF-17 has dual redundant mission computers and dual redundant 1553 Mux bus architecture. The navigation system includes ring laser gyro inertial navigation systems tied with GPS. Early versions of JF-17 carry the multi-mode Pulse Doppler Radar capable of tracking multiple targets with prioritized firing.
The JF-17 has a Smart Head-Up Display (SHUD) with a 25 Degrees field of view. Three smart multifunction color displays are also included to provide the pilot with the details during mission flight. Thunder also carries a color video recording camera and video recorder (for SMFCDs).
JF-17 weapon capability:
According to Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), the fighter jet is fitted with a modern Stores Management System incorporating accurate weapon delivery modes and solutions involving minimum pilot workload.
Thunder is capable of carrying some of the most modern as well as conventional weapons.
Weapon package includes;
- Highly agile Imaging infrared short-range missiles
- 70-100 Km range beyond visual range active missiles
- Air to sea missiles
- Anti-Radiation missiles
- Laser-guided weapons
- Runway penetration bombs
- General-purpose bombs
The aircraft is also fitted with a 23 mm double-barrel gun.
There are three blocks of JF-17 Thunder that have been produced to date.
JF-17A’s of Block-I and Block-II variants are single-seat aircraft. While JF-17B is the dual-seat variant of the jet.
The Block-II aircraft make use of composite materials in the airframe to reduce weight. Air-to-air refueling capability was also added in this block. The Block-II variants have enhanced radar and avionics, more load carrying capacity, and electronic warfare capabilities.
The first prototype of Block-III aircraft takes flight in December 2019 in China. This new aircraft has the features of the most modern fighter jet.
The latest block of the Thunder to integrate KLJ-7A Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar of the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET). The AESA radar is the centerpiece of the Block-III, which will be both the most advanced JF-17 variant in the PAF as well as the PAF’s sole fighter with that technology in the short term. According to Quwa.
In addition to the advanced radar, Block-III also carries one of the most advanced missiles produced by China including PL-10 and PL-15 missiles.
According to the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology (NRIET), the KLJ-7A was available in different versions. One with a fixed array, another with a mechanically steered panel, and with side-mounted panels. However, PAF chose the air-cooled version of the KLJ-7A.
The KLJ-7A with its 1000+ transmit/receive modules (TRM), offers strong electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM). It has also an improved target range and engagement capabilities than the previous versions.
According to NRIET, the KLJ-7A offers a maximum range of up to 170 km against a target with a radar cross-section (RCS) of 5m^2. The radar is capable of tracking a maximum of 15 targets simultaneously and engaging four at once.
The radar is one of the most advanced levels in the world, Hu Mingchun, the director of the No. 14 Research Institute at the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Co, told the Global Times at the 9th World Radar Expo in Nanjing.
The Block-III is also equipped with an integrated Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) suit to operate in contested environments as both a radar jamming and anti-jamming aircraft.
The JF-17 Block-III can also carry the PL-10 High-Off-Bore sight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM). It has a range of 20 km. This will greatly improve the No Escape Zone (NEZ) of the aircraft. The missile was originally designed for the Chinese stealth J-20 Mighty Dragon.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS, a world-leading authority on global security, political risk, and military conflict), the PL-10 is an air-to-air short-range guided missile produced by PLAAF that has placed China among the handful of nations with a defense-industrial base capable of producing such a weapon. The missile uses aerodynamic and thrust vector control and it works best with the helmet-mounted cueing system.
According to the PL-10’s chief engineer Liang Xiaogang, the PL-10 guided by infrared imaging has a strong anti-stealth fighter capability. Due to the use of the staring focal plane array guidance method, even the most advanced stealth aircraft at present cannot escape the lock of the missile. Reported by China-Arms website.
According to a Chinese source Global Times, the PL-10 missile represents the highest level of its kind. The PL-10E (the export variant of PL-10) is a fourth-generation and is one of the most advanced in the world. With the PL-10, the JF-17 Block-III will gain tremendous dogfight capability and have an edge even against its heavier opposing counterparts in homeland air defense.
The Block-III jet also carries the PL-15 missiles to counter beyond-visual-range air-to-air targets. This will make the JF-17 Block-III more lethal and hard to engage at longer distances.
The PL-15 is an active radar-guided long-range air-to-air missile developed by China. The missile features an active electronically scanned array radar seeker with a range of more than 145 km. The missile is 4m long and moves with a speed of Mach-4. It can counter manned and unmanned aircraft including cruise missiles.
The JF-17 Block-III also includes a new and larger holographic wide-angle head-up display and integrated cockpit display similar to the one used by the J-20 stealth fighter jet, in addition to an advanced infrared missile approach warning system used by the J-10, J-16, and J-20 aircraft.
The initial blocks of JF-17’s including Block-I and Block-II are powered by the Russian Klimov RD-93 afterburning turbofan engine. The engine can produce a maximum of 49.4kN dry thrust and its thrust after-burner is 84.4kN. The jet can fly with a maximum speed of 1.6 Mach.
The RD-93 is the variant of the Russian RD-33 engine and is designed specifically for the JF-17 with increased thrust and relocated gearbox. The RD-93 engine has more thrust than the RD-33 but the lifespan has been reduced to 2200 hours from RD-33’s 4000 hours.
The RD-93 has been upgraded to the RD-93MA variant for the JF-17 Block-III with an increased thrust of 9300 kgf compared to 8300 kgf of RD-93. The significant increase in power helps the aircraft to fly at higher speeds and carry more weapons. With the new engine variant, the aircraft can carry more armaments with increased hardpoints and can fly with a maximum speed of 1.8 Mach.
According to Airforce-Technology, an advanced Chinese homegrown WS-13 turbofan engine is currently being developed by Liyang Aero Engine Corporation, to replace the Russian RD-93. It is expected to produce more thrusts of 80kN to 86.36kN with a service life of 2200 hours.
The jet can carry 5130 lb (3000 liters) in an internal fuel tank. External fuel tanks include one centerline drop tank with a fuel capacity of 800 liters and two underwing drop tanks 800/1100 liters.
The per-unit cost of JF-17 aircraft is $25 million. The price of Block-III is not yet officially disclosed but is expected to go up as a result of the new subsystems, sensor suits, and advanced AESA radar.
JF-17 Operators and Potential Customers:
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the primary operator of the JF-17 Thunder. Besides Pakistan, Myanmar and Nigeria are also using Thunder for quite some years. Myanmar has seven and Nigeria has three JF-17s currently in service.
Potential customers of JF-17 include Argentina, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Bolivia, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Iran. Some other countries also showed interest in aircraft in different air shows around the world.
Officials from Argentine aerospace Fábrica Argentina de Aviones (FAdeA) held multiple discussions with Chinese officials at the 2013 Paris Air Show for the JF-17 aircraft. The matter of co-production of the jet was also discussed. According to the FAdeA officials, the co-produced aircraft could be named as Pulqui-II fighter which will be Latin America’s first swept-wing fighter jet. Argentina’s purchase of JF-17s is likely because the FAdeA is unable to procure any aircraft or equipment of Western origin due to the ban of military equipment from the UK ever since the UK-Argentine Falklands war. Reportedly Argentina has made many efforts in the past to acquire new aircraft like the French Mirage, Swedish Gripen, and Korean FA-50. But the deals were canceled due to diplomatic pressure from the UK. As the JF-17 is of Chinese origin so it will be easy for Argentina to procure the deal without any hurdle. The Argentine government has presented $664 million in the 2022 budget for the acquisition of future fighter aircraft but the fighter jet is not yet selected for acquisition.
The JF-17 Thunder is no doubt an advanced multi-role, light combat aircraft and a jewel in the crown for PAF.
The Block-III variant of the JF-17 has the features of the modern 4.5 generation aircraft and it integrates some core technologies from the Chinese 5th generation stealth J-20 Mighty Dragon. This greatly enhances the information-based warfare capabilities of the aircraft.
According to the Chinese military experts, the JF-17 Block-III will be one of the world’s most powerful light fighter jets.
But despite all these features, it is yet to compete against other advanced fighter jets on the battlefield and in the international market.
- Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Kamra official website
- The Diplomat
- Global Times