Usman Ansari

The JF-17 Thunder: A hefty punch at an affordable price.
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Usman Ansari gives a project update on the Sino-Pakistani JF-17, which will be entering full production next year.

The JF-17 ‘Thunder’ had until recently been under a cloud over controversies surrounding its Russian powerplant. However, cynics were proved wrong with the arrival in Pakistan of two small batch production (SBP) aircraft in March, and also assurances from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) that the issue has been resolved. The two SBP aircraft will be joined by six more by the end of the year for weapons and systems integration, and indigenous construction of the first batch (complete with in-flight refuelling capability) is slated to begin next year. With further improvements being made to the design, the JF-17 will be entering frontline service in 2009, and is on course to replace all the PAF A-5C, Mirage-III/IV, and F-7P/PG aircraft on a one-for-one basis by 2015, five years earlier than initially envisioned. Furthermore, efforts are already underway to find the first export customer with considerable interest already been shown by some countries. Whilst even at the beginning of the year the project appeared in trouble, it certainly appears on track now that aircraft are beginning to land in Pakistan.

 

Powerplant

The supply of the RD-93 powerplant is, according to the PAF, an issue between the Russians and the Chinese. This contract does not include Pakistan, but Russia appears to have given verbal assurances that it will not block the transfer of RD-93s destined for PAF aircraft. This comes as a blow to New Delhi which was vigorously lobbying Moscow to deny the RD-93 for the JF-17. However, it is unlikely that the Russians will sell engines directly to Pakistan, or begin regular weapons sales in an effort to placate India. Further engine developments are expected and the basic RD-93 may be replaced by the RD-93B, which boasts ten percent greater thrust, on production models. Also, China is currently developing an alternative engine, the WS-13 (perhaps a direct development of the RD-93, or possibly a Chinese produced RD-93B), so security of engine availability is likely to be guaranteed in the long term. According to available sources the WS-13 has an improved performance when compared to the RD-93, and this (along with more airframe composite materials) is likely to boost the thrust to weight ratio of the JF-17, and consequently its agility. In terms of export potential this will be a considerable benefit should the aircraft be competing against Russian fighters, particularly the MiG-29. The RD-93 is a development of the RD-33 engines powering the ‘Fulcrum’, and Moscow may be less willing to harm its own aviation industry by effectively supporting a competitor.

 

Avionics and airframe developments

Improvements in other areas have already been made. Aerodynamic changes have increased the manoeuvrability and versatility of the aircraft, and the SBP aircraft probably represent the final airframe configuration. The most notable of these has been the convex DSI (Divertless Supersonic Inlets) intakes. These have helped reduce the overall weight of the airframe, and after an internal redesign, freed up space for more stores, most notably fuel for slightly increased range. These weight saving changes have also allowed the maximum speed to be increased to Mach 1.8. Though this is still limited compared to current fighter aircraft, further changes, (most notably the powerplant), are likely to improve matters somewhat. Other internal changes include a full fly-by-wire set of controls, and more high tech avionics. The issue of the radar (which will probably be joined by an Infra Red Search Tracking - IRST - sensor), has also seen a number of potential developments. Since the design of the airframe was decoupled from the avionics set up in 1998, things have changed considerably. The PAF had initially hoped to have a full set of Western avionics in the JF-17, but the imposition of Western sanctions in 1998 scuttled this. However, increases made in Chinese avionics design, have resulted in a full glass cockpit, and for the first 51 production aircraft, installation of the Chinese Nanjing KLJ-7 radar. The PAF is said to be very impressed with this radar and sources say it has a comfortable advantage over the APG-66 radar fitted to the current PAF F-16 fleet. This in itself is no major breakthrough, as though still quite capable, the APG-66 is a fairly old design now in terms of modern radars. However, it does represent the advances the Chinese avionics industry has made in trying to bridge the gap between western radars and its own products. The KLJ-7 radar is actually a very important development for another reason, as it will mean the initial batch of aircraft will be fully able to fire the Chinese SD-10 BVRAAM. Such a capability has been a core requirement for the PAF for some time, so the first batch of JF-17s will be taking a huge load off the current interceptor fleet. However, there had been speculation that the Italian Grifo S-7 or the British Vixen 500E may be installed, but the PAF may yet be looking for an even more advanced AESA radar. No decision has yet been taken in this regard, but it is likely to be resolved with the induction of the second batch. Finally a data-link is to be incorporated allowing for secure data transmission between various platforms. This is an important capability with the impending arrival of the Saab-2000 EIRIYE AEW&C aircraft, and also the possibility that not every aircraft in the strike role will carry a targeting pod, for financial reasons. The JF-17 will also have an advanced electronic warfare system housed in the fin top fairing. This will be linked to the Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) sensors fitted fore and aft to give 360 degree coverage. In terms of electronic warfare capabilities, the JF-17 will be second only to the F-16C Block-52 in PAF service.

 

Indigenous production

Pakistani engineers are currently being trained in China in readiness for indigenous construction, and the assembly line itself is being ‘tooled up’. Indigenous construction will begin in 2008, and will start at 15 aircraft per year before being increased to 25 – 30. The number may well be boosted by Chinese built airframes in order to replace the existing legacy types sooner if the need arises. This probably entails the initial number of 150 JF-17s ordered being increased to 200 – 250 in order to equip up to 12 squadrons. It is hoped that within three years up to 50 percent of the airframe and avionics will be indigenously manufactured, and this percentage may well rise in the future. Some of the parts manufactured in Pakistan are likely to also feature in any potential export aircraft.

 

Armament

The JF-17 can carry a payload in the region of 3,800kg on seven hardpoints, three of which (centreline and inner pylons) are plumbed for fuel. However, in-flight refuelling capability will allow weapons to be carried in lieu of tanks if required. Furthermore, though prototype aircraft have been seen with multiple ejector racks fitted, it is not currently known if the JF-17/FC-1 can carry two BVRAAM missiles per under-wing station in a manner such as the F-18 can. The combat proven, Gsh-23-2 twin-barrelled cannon, is mounted on the underside in a pack between the port intake and fuselage. No targeting pod has been integrated onto the JF-17/FC-1 at present. However, in line with current generation fighters provision may be made on the starboard side opposite the gun-pack in due course. The only other alternative is to use up a weapons station, which seems unlikely at present. No specific type has been selected, but the Chinese ‘Blue Sky’ targeting pod may be a back-up choice if an alternative Western pod is not available. As stated the BVR engagement capability of the JF-17 is a key requirement. With the order of 500 Aim-120-C5 missiles for the expanding F-16 fleet, the AMRAAM may well be integrated onto the JF-17. This is by no means a certainty, and the PAF is rumoured to also be examining a further option from a western source, most likely the French MBDA Mica. Though the AMRAAM currently sets the standard for BVRAAMs, the Mica is highly capable with its ability to engage targets at BVR ranges, as well as during close-in dogfights. The PAF’s interest in the Mica is despite it being due for replacement by the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM. However, if all else fails then there is still the Sino SD-10/PL-12, China’s first successful BVRAAM, which as stated, can no doubt be easily integrated with the KLJ-7 radar. For the principal WVR missile the PAF is hoping to equip the JF-17 with an agile fifth generation dogfight missile (though the current Aim-9 Sidewinder will still be fitted), which will be integrated with a likely Chinese origin helmet mounted sight (HMS) similar to the Boeing Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) ordered for the new PAF F-16s. During IDEAS2006 in November last year, the Diehl BGT IRIS-T was being touted as the likely candidate. With its High Off Bore Sight (HOBS) engagement capability (including the ability to engage threats in the rear hemisphere), and incredible manoeuvrability, the IRIS-T may well be an effective counter to Thrust Vector Control (TVC) capable Indian fighters such as the Su-30MKI, a plane the JF-17s development was stretched out in order to counter. The integration on an affordable airframe of such potent missiles clearly makes the JF-17 a dangerous opponent for potential adversaries. Prototypes had a stated maximum G limit of +8.5, which is limited in modern terms. However, the ability of a fighter to quickly establish itself into a turn may be more important than its continued turning capability in some respects, and the use of HMS/HOBS missile capability may negate the need for such close in manoeuvrability even if proposed improvements do not increase the ‘G’ limits. Integration of air-to-ground weaponry will follow that of air-to-air weapons. This will include PGMs already in the PAF arsenal and used by the Mirage-III/IV fleet, such as the H-4 (thought to be a local production of the Denel Raptor-II MUPSOW – MUlti-Purpose Stand-Off Weapon). Pakistani, and especially Chinese, PGM design and manufacture are continuing a pace. Chinese air-to-ground weaponry is improving especially rapidly, with satellite guided weaponry becoming available; it is likely that such weapons will be integrated on the JF-17 in due course.

 

Export potential

For China the FC-1/JF-17 has primarily an export project. The PLAAF appears to favour inducting higher numbers of the J-10 (which FC-1 exports may help pay for), though it has a commitment for 150 under the joint contract. For Pakistan the export potential of the type is a way of possibly reducing the unit cost, and also recouping its investment and earning some foreign exchange, (which it can plough back into further development). Both therefore have much to gain from a successful export programme, and joint efforts in this regard are already underway. The aircraft compares very well with contemporary aircraft in terms of initial and operational cost, despite the cost increases associated with aerodynamic and avionics improvements. This may now be in the region of US$20 million or lower per unit, which is still far cheaper than any of its contemporaries. China and Pakistan have identified a key niche in the market they feel is not being catered for at present. Ironically, the roots of this go back to the 1980s, if not further. During the Cold War, America and Russia virtually gave away large numbers of F-5 Freedom Fighters and MiG-21s to allied and client states lacking the financial resources to purchase and operate more sophisticated types. The MiG-21 (including the Chinese F-7), and the F-5 are still in widespread use, but many states that operate them lack the financial resources to purchase modern replacements in suitable numbers. Similarly they could never hope to operate some of the more sophisticated aircraft that are presently available, due to high operational costs. This is because apart from the F-16 and Saab Gripen, most modern frontline combat types on offer are large twin-engined aircraft (Flanker, Fulcrum, Rafale, Typhoon, F-15, F-18), which have high operational costs even if the initial cost can be bargained down to an acceptable amount. Even the F-16 when offered for no cost, may be too much financially for these states due to operational, infrastructure and associated weaponry costs, not to mention the political strings that come attached. The Northrop F-20 Tigershark would have been an ideal option for many states, but it was killed off by politics; the Russians currently have no singled engined frontline fighter on the market; and the initial cost of the Gripen, plus the political costs that come with its American powerplant, are deemed unacceptable by many. Therefore, it is the market the F-20 should have captured that the JF-17/FC-1 is aimed at. The FC-1/JF-17 has low acquisition and operational costs and comes with few or no strings attached. It also has an increasingly sophisticated Chinese weapons package which includes the SD-10. It is therefore a very attractive option, and unless these nations in the developing world downgrade to an aircraft of lesser capabilities in the class of the Czech L-159 ALCA, or some of the LIFT aircraft coming onto the market, it may be the only choice available. The race is therefore on to capture as many foreign orders as possible before a serious rival emerges. Ironically, one of the biggest export competitors for the JF-17/FC-1 may be the Chinese J-10. An export version of the J-10 would interest a number of countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand, who may not be able to afford a western aircraft in the class, and do not favour buying a Russian platform. The J-10 is already of interest to Pakistan, and further export orders could fund more inductions or further development of the type for the PLAAF.

 

 

Whatever the future holds for FC-1/JF-17, for the PAF it brings to an end the search for an affordable ‘sanction proof’ frontline aircraft fully supportable by indigenous industry. Though it will not be in frontline service till 2009, it is already attracting much attention, and at initial glance, certainly provides ‘bang for buck’ for less financially capable air forces. Whether this will be transformed into export success remains to be seen. However, with China gaining ground diplomatically in Africa and elsewhere, it seems quite likely, and will therefore be of added benefit to the Pakistani aviation industry. What ever the critics say about the JF-17, Pakistan is rightly proud of its new fighter.

 

An edited version of the above article appeared in Vol:8 No.4 of Combat Aircraft

Characteristics

 

Length: 14.97 m (49 ft 1 in)

Wingspan: 9.46 m (31 ft 0 in)

Height: 4.77 m (15 ft 8 in)

Empty weight: 6,450 kg (14,220 lb)

Loaded weight: 9,100 kg (20,062 lb)

Max takeoff weight: 12,700 kg (27,999 lb)

Weapons payload: 3,800kg (8,378 lb)

Powerplant: 1 x RD-93 turbofan (81.3 kN), 8,290 kgf (18,277 lbf)

 

Maximum speed: Mach 1.8. (1,370 mph) at high altitude

Operational Radius: 1,355 km (842 miles)

Ferry range: 3,000 km (1,864 mi)

Service ceiling: 16,700 m (54,790 ft)

Take-Off Run: ~500 m

Landing Run: ~700 m

G limit: +8.5 / -3