Warplanes: Improving Failure


June 7, 2017: In May 2017 the JF-17B, a two-seat version of the Sino-Pakistani JF-17, made its first flight. The B version is built to be either an advanced trainer or, when equipped with a few million dollars’ worth of additional sensors and upgraded fire control electronics, an advanced fighter-bomber. The B version is also an effort to generate more export sales, the lack of which threatens the entire program. Since the JF-17A entered service in 2007 Pakistan has been aggressively seeking customers for its new jet fighter. By 2017 there were only 90 JF-17s built, all of them for Pakistan. There are orders from Burma for 16 and Nigeria for three but these two sales are more about diplomacy (and bribes) than military necessity.

Pakistan is offering the basic JF-17A 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 optimized to deliver smart bombs anywhere, at any time, in any weather and despite dense air defenses. The F-16I costs about $70 million each. At the moment there are no plans to upgrade the JF-17 to match that but the JF-17B will be less than half the price of the F-16I and have some of the capabilities. 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.

Because the JF-17 was a joint effort with China the first JF-17s were manufactured in China. But the goal 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. 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 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.

In 2010 Pakistan signed a deal to buy the next 42, of 300, of these jets from China. These 42 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.

The first JF-17 fighter arrived in Pakistan by 2007. That marked the completion of 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 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 13 ton 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.