Warplanes: J-10s For Pakistan

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November 12, 2009: China has agreed to sell Pakistan it's domestically designed J-10 fighter. China and Pakistan have also jointly developed the JF-17, and Pakistan is buying up to 300 of these. The J-10 is, on paper, superior to the JF-17. Pakistan would like to buy up to a hundred J-10s, but that will depend on whether the cash will be available. The first 36 J-10s bought will cost close to $39 million each (with spare parts and maintenance support.)

China only publicly announced the J-10s status in January, 2007. What was not mentioned in the press releases was that only one J-10 squadron was stationed where it might encounter Taiwanese F-16s or Mirage jet fighters. That squadron is sitting at a base just out of range (560 kilometers) of the F-16s and Mirages. The Taiwanese believe that their pilots are much better trained than their Chinese counterparts. Moreover, the word out of China is that the J-10 is a maintenance nightmare, and that the Chinese are having a hard time keeping the aircraft operational in reasonable numbers.

The J-10 is the first modern jet fighter designed and built in China. The aircraft is an attempt to create a modern fighter-bomber that could compete with foreign designs. The experiment was not completely successful. Work on the J-10 began over twenty years ago, in an attempt to develop an aircraft that could compete with the Russian MiG-29s and Su-27s, and the American F-16. But the first prototype did not fly until 1998. There were problems, and it wasn't until 2000 that the basic design flaws were fixed. By 2002, nine prototypes had been built, and flight testing was going forward to find, and fix, hundreds of smaller problems. It was a great learning experience for Chinese engineers, but it was becoming apparent that the J-10 was not going to be competitive with the Su-27s/30s China was buying from Russia.

The J-10 looks something like the American F-16, and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16, and unlike the Su-27, the J-10 has only one engine. Originally, the J-10 used a Russian AL-31FN engine, but China has been working for a decade to manufacture their own version of this, the WS10A. The WS10A is something of an acid test for them, as it is a powerful military engine, and a complex piece of work. Russia refused to license China to produce the AL-31FN, so the Chinese stole as much of the technology as they could and designed the WS10A. This engine has been tested, and officially approved for production, but apparently still has quality control and performance problems.

It's no accident that the J-10 resembles the F-16, because Israel apparently sold them technology for the Israeli Lavi jet fighter. Israel abandoned the Lavi project, because of the high cost and availability of cheaper alternatives (buying F-16s and F-15s from the United States.) But the Lavi was meant to be a super F-16, and incorporated a lot of design ideas from the F-16 (which the Israelis were very familiar with, as they used them, and had developed new components for them.)

Pakistan already has eight JF-17 fighters, which it has received over the last two years. Earlier this year, 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.

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 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 J-10 and JF-17 more lethal by using more experienced pilots. That often works.

 

 


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