On 15 December 2019, the first two JF-17B Thunder fighter trainer aircraft was officially handed over to the Myanmar Defence Force at Mandalay-Meiktila airport during the celebration of the 72nd Defence Force Day.
This year’s celebration saw the introduction of two JF-17B Thunders (serials 1706 and 1707), two unknown Mi-35P attack helicopters and six Yak-130 training aircraft (serials 1810 to 1814 plus one unidentified).
Regarding the JF-17B Thunders, serial 1707 was seen at the CAC factory airfield in Chengdu (China) in March 2019.
Myanmar is currently one of just two confirmed export clients for the JF-17 alongside the Nigerian Air Force and has received over a dozen fighters.
Orders for the JF-17 have come alongside an order placed in early 2018 for Su-30 air superiority fighters from Russia – the first high-end heavy fighter jets in the history of Myanmar’s Air Force.
The JF-17 is likely intended to provide a lighter complement to the Su-30 and is highly prized for its ease of maintenance, high sortie rate and compatibility with a wide array of high end Chinese munitions such as the PL-12 and YJ-12 missiles.
Myanmar’s Air Force has long been a major client for Chinese arms and currently deploys approximately 30 J-7 fighter jets alongside almost two dozen Q-5 heavy attack jets.
Complimentary air defence assets include the Kai Shan and HQ-12 intermediate and short-range surface to air missile systems. The JF-17 is likely intended to replace the J-7 and is intended to also replace J-7 fighters in the Nigerian and Pakistani fleets. The JF-17’s RD-93 turbofan engines, closely derived from the Russian RD-33 used by Myanmar’s existing fleet of MiG-29 fighters, will likely allow the JF-17 to use much of the infrastructure already in place in Myanmar’s to service the jets.
The JF-17B’s design incorporates a number of changes over the original JF-17 Block 2 fighter, which alongside the addition of a second seat include modified flight control systems, a three-axel fly-by-wire control system, an extended nose, a changed vertical stabiliser, altered material proportions and a greater wingspan.
The aircraft is also reported to house a more powerful radar than the original JF-17, though this remains to be confirmed, which would grant a greater degree of situational awareness. The fighter’s twin-seat configuration also allows it to serve as a trainer for future JF-17 pilots – and will potentially allow it to serve as a more effective electronic warfare platform in which the second seat can accommodate a weapons systems officer to carry out electronic attacks while the pilot flies the plane and deploys munitions. The future of Myanmar’s Air Force, and whether it will purchase the enhanced ‘4+ generation’ JF-17 Block 3 to eventually replace its MiG-29 fleet – or else opt for the more costly Russian MiG-35 – remains uncertain.