Warplanes: Offering More Fighter For The Buck


May 9, 2007: Pakistan has finally put JF-17 fighter into service, ending what has been over twenty years of development for the Super 7 fighter. This aircraft is, in one sense, the ultimate development of the MiG-21, which first flew in 1956, and still serves around the world. In a sense, it is to the MiG-21 what the F-20 would have been to the F-5 had it been able to be deployed. Why is this plane worth discussing? The reason is simple: While it is currently seen as a fighter that will serve with China and Pakistan, the JF-17 has a lot to offer a country that is in need of a new fighter and is on a tight budget.

The JF-17 is a low-end fighter, roughly equivalent to an early F-16. It cannot carry much more than a MiG-21, with only a pair of wingtip rails for air-to-air missiles added. It carries about four tons of weapons, and has a twin-barreled 23mm gun. The real edge it has over competitors is its price - about $20 million per airplane. The development was also cheap - about $150 million, with Pakistan paying half the costs. To put that into perspective, that is about $40 million more than the fly-off cost of a new F-22, or about what it takes to buy three F-15Es. This is a bargain-basement price for a new combat aircraft. While it might seem cheaper to upgrade MiG-21s or other planes currently in service or buy second-hand planes, the JF-17 gives countries an option to buy a new plane, which can be more cost-effective down the road than constantly refurbishing older planes.

Why would that be the case? The answer is that the MiG-21s (and similar planes) still in service are getting old, as are the second-hand fighters one might buy cheap from a country like the United States or France. After decades of training fights (never mind actual combat), the planes suffer from wear and tear. This can do things like make parts fall off - which is not a good thing when you are flying at over 800 kilometers per hour. These accidents also tend to get pilots killed or injured so bad that they can no longer fly - which means that more money and effort has to be spent training a replacement. That's money many countries trying to get by with older combat planes don't have. Sending up poorly-trained pilots is not an option, either, unless one wants to be on the receiving end of a turkey shoot like those over the Mariana Islands in 1944 and the Bekaa Valley in 1982.

Adding to its marketability will be the fact that it can operate a variety of other countries' weapons, including air-to-air missiles from South Africa and the United States. Unlike the MiG-21, it is also capable of carrying anti-ship missiles like the C-801. This is not a small matter. If a single plane can do the job of two or three airframes currently in service with a country like Nigeria (which currently uses a mix of aging Jaguars, J-7s, and MiG-21s), then that country will get the benefits from having simplified logistics. This includes saving money - which the bean-counters will love.

In a real sense, Pakistan could be just the beginning for the JF-17. A lot of countries have older fighter aircraft that they need to replace, particularly in Africa and Latin America. In addition to Pakistan, which is now planning on buying at least 300, a number of other countries are reportedly looking into it, including Malaysia, Egypt, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Algeria. Given that many of these countries do not have the resources to buy or maintain a plane like the F-35 or Su-30, the JF-17's price would make it a very attractive option for them. China and Pakistan would also make a mint by exporting the JF-17 as well. It's a win-win all around. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)


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