Contrary to popular belief the JF-17 owes its orign to a Soviet era proposed Mikoyan design known as the MiG-33 which was essentially a single engined MiG-29. This was summarily rejected by the Soviets as it had the more capable MiG-29 and Su-27 entering service and a single engine fighter was not desired. This design was sold to the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation of China in 1995. In 1998 China purchased the design and test data from Russia to aid in expediting the development of the Chengdu JF-17/FC-1. Thanks to the comprehensive design obtained of the MiG-33, the Chinese had sufficient lead time to complete the design phase quickly and modify it to suite their needs and conduct the first flight in 2003. Therefore, the development of the JF-17 did not begin in China.
A Computer generated imagery of the Mikoyan MiG-33
IDN ran a story on the chintzy (pun unintended) Chinese fighter jet the CAC FC-1 Xiaolong which was developed with partial funding from Pakistan. When the fighter was under development, Pakistani online communities were going gaga with excitement comparing it with its arch rival India’s modern combatants LCA Tejas, Su-30MKI, MiG-29B & Mirage-2000H. There were claims of it featuring western Radars and long range missiles, & Chinese ordering some due to its superior capabilities. But the reality is far from it.
China having spent significant amount of money into a fighter which it is never going to use, most probably forced Pakistan to accept it to offset some its development costs. Chinese who are known for their self reliance first and quality next, have further downgraded JF-17s capabilities with their poorly copy-pirated avionics. Along with their dubious weapons, any chance of JF-17 maintaining BVR edge over its adversary’s front-line combatants, for the most part, is unlikely.
Despite is ancient ancestry which goes back to the 40 year old Soviet designed MiG-33, the Thunder is just about a modern bird and can carry some Chinese missiles, like the CM-400AKG anti-ship system, which is specifically designed to target American aircraft carriers & other vessels. Pakistan is the first export customer. In addition to the CM-400, the JF-17 can carry a wide array of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons.
Malaysian Prospect Goes Kaput
Despite the seemingly hyped-up bang-for-buck unique selling proposition roll by the Pakistanis, the JF-17 has had a hard time finding committed buyers. The first potential buyer for the JF-17 surfaced a couple of months back as Malaysian officials previously indicated that they were considering the JF-17 as a contender to its fighter replacement program. Kuala Lumpur’s interest was triggered by its High Commissioner to Pakistan, Dr. Hasrul Sani, who, said “I think the Malaysians might be genuinely interested because Pakistan has a respectable defense industry, with the products being considerably cheaper compared to the West due to cheap labor.”
Later, the Malaysian Defense Minister publicly denied media reports his country is considering the JF-17 as part of its Air Force modernization program to replace its ageing fleet of Israeli made Kfir fighters. One possibility of the denial could be that China must have coerced Pakistan withdraw its offer to Malaysia, due to tensions in the South China Sea.
The Sri Lankan Flip-Flop
But the most intriguing part of the story emerged when rumors of Sri Lanka evincing interest in buying the fighter. However, every time the Pakistanis appear to have locked down on a buyer, problems have ostensibly cropped up. Colombo was expected to sign a multi-million dollar deal to purchase up to 12 units of the JF-17 during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s state visit there. But, the intention to purchase JF-17s did not figure in the joint statements between the two countries despite a range of other bilateral deals were announced.
According to The Indian Express
, the Sri Lankan government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, canceled its plans to purchase the JF-17s after a “diplomatic missive” from New Delhi suggesting that Colombo should refrain from adding these aircraft to its fleet. The report adds that New Delhi included a negative technical assessment of the JF-17 and “pointed out that Sri Lanka’s defense requirements did not need fighters.” According to the report, the Indian government delivered a “non-paper” described as a “white sheet of paper without a letterhead of signature” to the Sri Lankan government weeks ahead of Sharif’s planned visit. If true, Sri Lanka’s decision to hold back on the purchase of JF-17 fighters demonstrates that the Sirisena government in Colombo is far more deferential to Indian interests than its predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Factors leading to the reluctance of the JF-17 attracting foreign buyers:
1. The FC-1 is as old as the Pyramids, since it shares its lineage to a 40 year old design.
2. The conceptualization of the fighter by the Chinese was emphasized on budget constraints and that does not augur well for a frontline fighter as the JF-17 is turning out for Pakistan.
3. Pakistan’s contribution to the design and development of the JF-17 is next to nothing, so the much needed learning curve is clearly absent and the repeated hoopla of the JF-17 as “indigenously made” is just mere hot air and doesn’t add any credibility to the sales pitch.
4. Pakistan’s lack of industrial base to support maintenance and training clients is another key element which is keeping away foreign buyers.
5. Apart from the addition of LERX on the intake design and clipped delta wings, there’s not much of an improvement.
6. The JF-17 sports an all-metal aluminium alloy airframe which leads to inefficient leading edge blending for smooth handling at higher Angle of Attack and generally hampers the agility of the aircraft.
7. Avionics involve a basic “glass” cockpit of digital screens, using Chinese technologies which are reverse engineered from Western sources.
8. Equally noticeable difference is the Flight control architecture, the Thunder has only pitch axis conventional controls instead of the more modern and sophisticated relaxed static stability FBW controls for all three axes.
9. It has a Maximum G loading of only 8G, as claimed by PAC.
10. When it comes to Radar signature JF-17 has a larger foot print because of its all-metal body structure.
11. JF-17 are equipped with the NRIET KLJ-7 radar, which is a scaled down version of the KLJ-10 equipped in the J-10 series. It has a rnage of 75 kms (modern fighter range is 150 km) in look-up mode and 35 km for look-down mode for 3M2 RCS. The radar is obsolete by modern standards and it would need serious augmentation by AWACS.
12. The weapons integrated is of Chinese origin which is widely known for its dubious quality.
13. The Russian RD-93 engines are the only non-Chinese component, which is notorious for its unclean combustion, enormous gas guzzling qualities and poor maintainability.
14. Another Achilles heal is that the JF-17’s speed is only Mach 1.6, for good interception, speed is an important criteria.
15. The flight software has been coded on the developer friendly C++ instead of a more robust & military-optimized operating system such as ADA programing language.
16. Chinese attempt to reverse engineer the Klimov RD-93 engine as the Guizhou WS-13 Taishan was a failure, thus leaving the Pakistanis to completely rely on the Russians. There are reports about the licence built Klimov RD-93 engines not being allowed by the Russians to be sold to other countries, which might stop export of the JF-17.
17. JF-17 would only be ideal for interception and air strikes roles in insurgency hit areas.
18. Defence experts believe that the aircraft are more or less only assembled at Kamra from readymade Chinese kits.
19. Lastly, the JF-17 was hastily certified by the Chinese without proper testing & data evaluation, this in the long run could lead to reliability and safety issues.
Though the JF-17 might be a descendent of a 40 year-old design, is still a thoroughly modern warplane by any yardstick and an affordable one too. It has been also visible internationally over the last 5 years. However, a potential client despite its economic status and willing to shell out $25 million or upwards would prefer to buy an aircraft which is at least fourth generation or at best 4+ old in its design and technology and it is for this precise reason the JF-17 is still tottering in the combat fighter marketplace.
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