Procurement: The Moslem Jet Fighter


July 7, 2014: Burma is again looking for some new jet fighters and has decided that the Chinese JF-17 is the way to go, mainly because of low price ($20-25 million depending on version) and China has offered to set up an assembly operation in Burma to build the aircraft. That would enable Burma to more easily train maintenance personnel and at the same time create a more extensive and inexpensive maintenance capability. Burma is already familiar with the JF-17 because back in 2009 Burma bought 20 MiG-29 fighters from Russia, for $35 million each after also considering the JF-17. At the time China offered the similar JF-17 for less than half the price of the MiG-29. Yet Burma chose the more expensive aircraft. This may have been because the Russians offered higher bribes.

What was odd about this was that both aircraft have questionable reputations. After the 2009 sales Burma had 31 MiG-29s and, as expected, the MiG-29s proved difficult and expensive to maintain a keep operational. This time around China has promised to also supply smart bombs for use on the JF-17s.

This would be the first export sale for the JF-17, which is already used by Pakistan but only because Pakistan helped pay for development and produces some of the components. Although a Moslem country Pakistan is also eager to find the first export customer for the JF-17 and if Burma does buy then Pakistan would help reduce the hostility Burma is facing because of the violence Burmese nationalists have been inflicting on the Moslem minority in Burma.

The Chinese, like the Russians, are not bothered by criticism for selling to a country that was a military dictatorship until 2008 and still has a bad international reputation. What did hurt Russia after 2009 was news about the Mig-29 having maintenance and cost problems. Malaysia, for example, admitted that it got rid of its MiG-29 fighters because the aircraft were too expensive to maintain. It cost about $5 million a year, per aircraft, to keep them going. Most of the MiG-29s provided satisfactory service, but not at a price considered affordable. Malaysia switched to the more expensive, and cheaper to maintain. Su-30.

The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with about 900 of them exported. The 22 ton aircraft is roughly comparable to the F-16 but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Russia is making a lot of money upgrading MiG-29s. Not just adding new electronics but also making the airframe more robust. The MiG-29 was originally rated at 2,500 total flight hours. At that time (early 80s), Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, as did Malaysia. So now Russia offers to spiff up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This wasn't easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic) which the Russian upgrades have not solved.

Then there was the JF-17, another “F-16 replacement” that went for $15 million or in 2009. This was about what a second hand F-16 cost at the time. There were still hundreds of used F-16s available for $15 million each. The U.S. still has about 1,300 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units) out of over 4,200 produced and America has hundreds in storage. The end of the Cold War in 1991 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons and many F-16s were retired early. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all U.S. F-16s in the next decade. So the U.S. will continue to have plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and these remain a cheaper and more effective aircraft than new Chinese and Russian fighters. But if a country cannot buy F-16s (because of embargos or similar problems), MiG-29s, Su-27s or JF-17s provide a respectable, if more expensive, substitute.

 F-16s are still produced for export and these cost over $70 million each (the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. The 16 ton F-16 has an admirable combat record and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs it is a very effective bomber. The U.S. is reluctant to see Burma F-16s because the Burmese military still retains a lot of political power and has close military ties to China and North Korea.

The Chinese made JF-17 is exported to Pakistan and was initially offered to several countries (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Burma, Iran, and Sri Lanka) as inexpensive alternatives to American and Russian fighters. There were no takers. Meanwhile hundreds of JF-17s are also being built in Pakistan, mainly using Chinese parts.

When the first JF-17 fighter arrived in Pakistan during 2006 it ended over twenty years of development for what was originally 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 (because of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program), so they 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 considered the equal to earlier versions of the F-16 but only 80 percent as effective as more recent F-16 models. The JF-17 design is 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 a 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 has not yet decided on whether it will use the 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 but that's another matter.

Meanwhile Pakistan is trying to persuade Sri Lanka, Kuwait and Qatar to buy some JF-17s, largely because Pakistan uses them and it is the only high-performance jet fighter developed and built (assembled) in a Moslem country. Turkey has been assembling F-16s since the 1980s and produces components as well. But China plays up Pakistan’s minor role in developing the JF-17, which is a popular thing in the Moslem world.



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