Pakistan is one step closer to becoming a recognizable player in aerial combat after showing off its JF-17 “Thunder at this year’s Paris Air Show. Officials proudly announced that the aircraft, the result of a Sino-Pakistani collaboration, scored its first (unidentified) customer with another eleven nations interested in acquisitions.
The concept of a Sino-Pakistani warplane dates back to 1974 when the two governments considered collaborating on an updated variant of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 “Fishbed.” The effort didn’t materialize, but the two countries revived collaboration on an all-new aircraft in the 1990s. The collaboration produced the JF-17 and its Chinese counterpart, the FC-1 “Fierce Dragon.”
The makings and history of the JF-17 fighter plane
The first JF-17 left the factory in spring 2003 and made its public debut in China that fall. Mechanical problems pushed its service entry to 2010.
Pakistan hopes the JF-17 will make up the backbone of its air force, made up of approximately thirty squadrons. Currently, the Chengdu F-7 “Skybolt” (a MiG-21 variant), Dassault Mirage III and V, and General Dynamics F-16 “Fighting Falcon” serve as the air force’s mainstays.
The single-seat Thunder measures forty-nine feet in length and thirty-one in wingspan. Empty, the plane’s weight is roughly 7.2 tons. The Russian Klimov RD-33 engine, found in the Mikoyan MiG-29 “Fulcrum,” drives the craft to a top speed of Mach 1.6 and a ceiling of around 55,000 ft. A 23 or 30 mm cannon and eight hardpoints serve as the arsenal. The Thunder also uses a Nanjing Research Institute of Electronic Technology (NRIET) radar system with twenty-two operational modes, a laser tracker, signal jammer and infra-red. Analysts are uncertain about the plane’s cost, with estimates veering from $15,000,000 to $30,000,000 per unit. While estimates fluctuate, analysts seem to agree that the plane will be about half the price of a comparable Western aircraft.
How the JF-17 performs in battle is another matter. Current operations have been limited to counterinsurgency strikes in Waziristan, not against capable air forces. While the Thunder’s cost is reasonable, it competes with the likes of the proven MiG-29 and F-16. Furthermore, those jets’ home nations are known to provide substantial discounts that a country like Pakistan is unlikely to afford. Similar aircraft, such as the Italo-Brazilian AMX and Yugo-Romanian J-22 “Eagle,” struggled to find export customers.
Another problem is Pakistan’s inexperience with large-scale aircraft manufacturing. Despite being the only user of the JF-17, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) has been unable to meet the country’s demand. The Chengdu Aircraft Corporation has had to make up the difference.
The effort in developing an indigenous warplane is understandable, as it gives the developing nation more control over a critical aspect of its national defense. Pakistan in particular had the misfortune of being caught up in two wars with India during US arms embargoes.
Whatever one makes of it, the JF-17 makes Pakistan one step closer to self-reliance. How much of a step remains to be seen.