Warplanes: A Tale Of Two Turkeys


April 20, 2009:    Pakistan is forming its first JF-17 fighter squadron, and will station it at their airbase outside Peshawar (the largest city in the tribal territories near the Afghan border.) The squadron, with at least twelve aircraft and twenty pilots, will be fully operational by the end of the year. Pakistan already has eight JF-17 fighters, which it has received over the last two years. Last month, it signed a deal to buy the next 42, of 300, of these jets from China. These 42 will cost $14.3 million per aircraft. The final 250 will cost $12 million each. The aircraft is assembled in both Pakistan and China, with the engines coming from Russia, and most of the other components from China (which calls the aircraft the FC-1). Azerbaijan, Sudan and Zimbabwe have ordered the aircraft, or are negotiating to. Pakistan will replace its MiG-21s and Mirage IIIs with the low cost JF-17s.

When the first JF-17 fighter arrived in Pakistan two years ago, it ended over twenty years of development for what was first called the Super 7 fighter. The JF-17 was developed by China in cooperation with Pakistan, which originally only wanted to buy 150 of them. All this came about because Pakistan could not get modern fighters from anyone else, and turned to China. At the time, China had nothing comparable to the early model F-16s Pakistan already had.

The 13 ton JF-17 is meant to be a low cost alternative to the American F-16. The JF-17 is considered the equal to earlier versions of the F-16, but only 80 percent as effective as more recent F16 models. The JF-17 uses the same Russian engine, the RD-93, that is used in the MiG-29. The JF-17 design is based on a cancelled Russian project, the MiG-33. Most of the JF-17 electronics are Western, with Italian firms being major suppliers. At one time, there was a serious a snag because the Russians did not want to allow the JF-17s to go to Pakistan with Russian engines. Negotiations resolved this problem, aided by the current peace talks between India (a long time Russian customer) and Pakistan.

The JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and use radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has max speed of nearly 2,000 kilometers an hour, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers and a max altitude of 55,000 feet. China has not yet decided on whether it will use the FC-1/JF-17 itself. This is apparently because China believes its own J-10 (another local design) and J-11 (a license built Russian Su-27) are adequate for their needs. The J-10, like the JF-17, did not work out as well as was hoped. China is still relatively new to aircraft design and development. To further complicate things, China is trying to keep up with aircraft technology that continues to advance, year by year. Thus both the J-10 and JF-17s are difficult and expensive to maintain, and do not function as effectively as the designers hoped. But both aircraft work, and can probably be more useful for ground support, than air superiority. Pakistan hopes to make the JF-17 more lethal by using more experienced pilots. That often works.