Warplanes: Cheap Competition For The F-16

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November 25, 2011: Pakistan is aggressively seeking customers for its JF-17 jet fighter. During the last two years, Pakistan has manufactured about 30 JF-17. The first JF-17s were manufactured in China. But the plan was always to shift production to Pakistan, with the original goal of 25 a year being produced by 2011. This goal was not achieved, but production has been established in Pakistan, and it is growing.

Pakistan is offering the JF-17 for a low price ($25 million in the cheapest configuration) and touts the fact that this is a third the price of an F-16. But this is comparing apples and oranges. The low end JF-17 is little more than a day time interceptor. The most capable F-16 model in service is the F-16I, used exclusively by Israel. It's basically a modified version of the F-16C/D Block 50/52, equipped with more advanced radar (the APG-68(X)) and the ability to carry Israeli weapons like the Python 4 air-to-air missile and the Popeye 2 air-to-surface missile. Costing $70 million each, the F-16I has an excellent navigation system, which allows it to fly on the deck (a few hundred feet from the ground), without working the pilot to death. The aircraft can do this at night or in any weather. The F-16I can carry enough fuel to hit targets 1,600 kilometers away (meaning Iran is within range). The aircraft uses the latest short and long range air-to-air missiles, as well as smart bombs. Electronic countermeasures are carried, as is a powerful computer system, which records the details of each sortie in great detail. This is a big help for training. The F-16I is basically optimized to deliver smart bombs anywhere, at any time, in any weather and despite dense air defenses. This further increases Israel's military power versus its neighbors. In combat, one F-16I is worth more than three JF-17s. But what Pakistan is really touting here is the availability of a jet fighter that is cheap and performs somewhat like an F-16. For many countries, this is an attractive option. The only problem is that there are hundreds of second-hand (and very well maintained) F-16s on the market, selling for less than the bare-bones JF-17.

The Chinese designed JF-17 (also known as FC-1) is also manufactured in China, which is trying to export it to Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Burma, Iran and Sri Lanka as an inexpensive alternative to American and Russian fighters. So far, no takers. The hundreds of JF-17s to be built in Pakistan are mainly composed of Chinese parts, and the Chinese Air Force has not shown any interest in obtaining the aircraft for its own use. Officially, the Chinese Air Force is still “evaluating” the JF-17, but unofficially, Chinese air force commanders consider the JF-17 a failed design.

Last year, Pakistan 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).

When the first JF-17 fighter arrived in Pakistan four 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 much less effective than more recent F16 models. The JF-17 design is also based on a cancelled Russian project, the MiG-33. Originally, Pakistan wanted Western electronics in the JF-17, but because of the risk of Chinese technology theft, and pressure from the United States (who did not want China to steal more Western aviation electronics), the JF-17 uses Chinese and Pakistani electronics.

The JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and uses 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 nearly 18,000 meters (55,000 feet). China says it does not want to use the JF-17 itself because 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, but that's another matter. Meanwhile, Pakistan has one squadron in service, and another being formed.

 

 


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