The PAC JF-17 Thunder, or CAC FC-1 Xiaolong, is a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft developed jointly by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China.
The JF-17 can be used for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack, and aircraft interception. Its designation “JF-17” by Pakistan is short for “Joint Fighter-17”, while the designation and name “FC-1 Xiaolong” by China means “Fighter China-1 Fierce Dragon”.
The Pakistani Air Force’s JF-17 Thunder single-engine light fighter played a key role in clashes with the Indian Air Force in late February 2019.
Pakistan dispatched what it claimed to be twenty-five JF-17s to launch a lightning strike across the Line of Control on targets in Kashmir, in retaliation for an Indian air raid.
The PAF claimed its JF-17s had shot down two Indian fighters pursuing strike planes into Pakistani airspace. However, while the loss of one upgraded Indian MiG-21 Bison was confirmed and its pilot captured, India subsequently displayed fragments of American-made AIM-120 missiles only compatible with Pakistan’s F-16s, casting some doubt on whether the PAF’s Thunders were responsible for the kill.
Pakistan currently operate around 100 Thunders in five operational squadrons. The Pakistani Air Force currently deploys two major variants of the fighter, the Block I variant which entered service from 2007 and the Block II variant which entered production in 2013.
Approximately 25 Block II variants of the JF-17 are currently being manufactured in Pakistan annually, with plans to terminate production in favour of the upcoming JF-17 Block III in the early 2020s. A twin-seat variant of the Block II fighter, the JF-17B, entered service in December 2017. Single engine variants, however, compromise the vast majority of the fleet at present.
The PAF now plans to procure fifty more JF-17s of an improved Block III standard by 2024—with airframes produced jointly by Pakistan and China in a 58/42 percent split—as well as procure 26 two-seat JF-17Bs with additional fuel stored in a dorsal fin and enhanced application to training and possibly strike missions. Extant JF-17s may also be upgraded to the Block III variant, which should make its first flight later in 2019.
Islamabad also confirmed in 2018 a $184 million deal to sell three JF-17s to the Nigerian Air Force in 2018 (which currently operates J-7s and Alpha Jets), and has delivered at least six out of an order of eighteen JF-17Ms to Myanmar.
Why IAF Shouldn’t Underestimate The PAF JF-17 Thunder Fighter Jet
Much like the Indian MIG-21 Bison, an upgraded variant of the venerated design which according to Indian reports was highly successful against a Pakistani F-16 – likely due to its high end avionics, electronic warfare, jamming and missile systems which are all of the fourth generation, the JF-17 has long been underestimated for a number of reasons. The airframe is loosely based on that of the MiG-21 – an evolution of the Chinese J-7 design – but is considerably more capable than that of any other variant or derivative.
The fighter’s engines produce little over half the thrust of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-29 – one third that of the elite Su-30MKI – giving it an inferior thrust/weight ratio when fully armed. These are compensated for by a number of factors, including its access to state of the art sensors and munitions – including the Chinese PL-12 long-range air to air missile – an analogue to the American AIM-120C – and the YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile. The latter makes the aircraft a potentially highly lethal ship hunter, in some ways comparable to India’s Brahmos cruise missile, and its deployment is an effective asymmetric asset against the large Indian surface fleet.
The JF-17 is relatively simple both to operate and maintain, far more so that the F-16 or MiG-29, and the costs of doing so are also extremely low.
The while the aircraft is slower and less manoeuvrable than the F-16, it compensates with a higher altitude and arguably far superior options for its weapons loadout. Block II variants deploy data links and high-end electronic capabilities which early F-16 and MiG-29 variants both lacked, while their avionics are also considerably more sophisticated.
The fighters’ NRIET KLJ-7 X band fire control radars are also highly capable – variants of the Chengdu J-10’s formidable KLJ-10 – and are capable of tracking up to ten targets at ranges of over 105km.
Data links allow the aircraft to potentially make use of longer-ranged munitions, particularly when operating alongside AWACS platforms capable of guiding missiles beyond the range of the fighters’ onboard radars. As a key strength of the JF-17 is its compatibility with high-end Chinese munitions, it is highly possible that Block II variants could in future receive longer-range munitions which would benefit from such guidance – with more advanced variants of the PL-12 reportedly also planned for deployment by the upcoming JF-17 Block III.
Ultimately the JF-17 remains a highly capable fourth-generation fighter – more than a match for India’s MiG-21 and Mirage 2000 single-engine light fighters and potentially capable of posing a threat to medium weight platforms such as the MiG-29 and Rafale – though likely still struggling against the Su-30MKI. The design is set to be enhanced considerably in the near future with the induction of the Block III variant, which will reportedly deploy a new radar, an infrared search and tracking system (IRST), helmet-mounted display, new electronic warfare and jamming systems, and potentially even PL-15 air to air missiles – which considerably outrange anything currently in the Indian arsenal.