Paris Air Show

JF-17 Thunder – Lightning Strikes Twice

 - June 15, 2019, 3:30 AM
The Pak-Sino JF-17 Thunder has flown over 40,000 hours in service with six squadrons, including 2 ‘Minhasians’ Sqn. The fighter is set to mature even more rapidly with the integration of an AESA radar in the Block 3 JF-17s. (Photos: Alan Warnes)

Three Pakistan Air Force (PAF) JF-17s are attending this year’s Paris Air Show. The type will be making a welcome visit after the Pak-Sino-developed Thunder visited the event in 2015, and a lot has happened to the program since then.

Right now the last three Block 2s are on the Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF) final assembly line at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra, which will eventually help to equip a seventh operational unit later this year. Meanwhile, the first JF-17 has undergone a major overhaul at PAC Kamra’s Aircraft Repair Factory, and there is a dual-seat JF-17B, 17-601, undergoing test and evaluation in Pakistan. A decision from the PAF leadership on a new AESA radar for the Block 3 JF-17s is pending and is expected by November, followed by its first operational sortie early next year. Then, in deals that were signed in late-2017, AMF will assemble 50 Block 3 JF-17s and 26 JF-17Bs. Next year Air Engineering Depot 102 at PAF Base Faisal will start overhauling the jet's Klimov RD93 powerplant. 

There is a lot going on to occupy the minds of the PAF leadership, and operationally the JF-17 is playing a major part in the defense of Pakistan’s skies, with six operational squadrons. During the PAF’s recent confrontation with the Indian Air Force, known in Pakistan as Operation Swift Retort, PAF Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan told AIN in mid-April, “The aircraft performed very well against the IAF Mirage 2000s and their Mica missiles, as well as the MiG-21 Bison and its R-73 Archer AAMs.”

On the export front, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has delivered six JF-17s (four single-seaters and two dual seaters) to the Myanmar Air Force, while PAC has sold three examples to Nigeria, and these should be delivered after the pilots are trained in Pakistan. Sales and marketing of the jet were split between PAC and China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) in 2015. CATIC is engaged in discussions with Egypt surrounding the Block 3s, while PAC continues to talk to Malaysia. 

Production Line

More than 100 JF-17s have now come off the AMF assembly line, where the wings, horizontal tail, vertical tail, and forward fuselage, representing 58 percent of the fighter, are built. They are matched with the remaining 42 percent built in Chengdu in China, including the mid- and rear- fuselages that are airfreighted to PAC Kamra. The three fuselage sections are mated at the JF-17 subassembly line and are pushed through on a large trolley to one of the four docks in the final assembly facility. 

That’s when the avionics, wiring, undercarriage, harnesses, and Klimov RD93 powerplant are added, while the Martin-Baker Mk16 ejection seat comes later. The aircraft’s air-to-air refueling probes are not necessarily fitted on the assembly line, although all the necessary plumbing has been put in place since the production of Block 2 13-129. 

After being towed down to the flight test shed, the newly built JF-17s are put through five functional check flights (FCFs) by one of the four qualified test pilots based at the co-located Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES). Three PAF pilots have qualified at the Boscombe Down-based Empire Test Pilot School for the JF-17, but now most of them go to Xian in China to get their qualifications. When the author met Squadron Leader Ali in April, he was about to test-fly the latest JF-17 to leave the assembly line. He went through a six months training program in China after flying with two operational JF-17 squadrons. Working alongside him in the flight test shed was Boscombe-qualified Group Captain Imran, who spent two years during the early days of the JF-17 test program at Chengdu flying the prototypes and was more recently the first JF-17 Combat Commanders School (CCS) commanding officer. He told AIN, “During the FCFs we push the aircraft to the limit, right through the complete envelope, to assess the handling qualities, checking the systems and aircraft performance.”

Once the FCFs are completed the PAF then puts the JF-17 through a further check flight and if there are no snags, the aircraft will be officially handed over.

PAC chairman Air Marshall Ahmer Shahzad told AIN, “Production of subassemblies has already started for the first two 50 Block 3 aircraft, to be assembled next year, and will be followed by another 12 in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024. We will assemble eight dual-seaters this year, followed by 14 in 2020, and the remaining four in 2021.”

Building the JF-17 since 2009 has catapulted PAC into the serious business of fighter production, a feat that not many countries can boast, particularly in Asia. The chairman said he is keen to build on this. The company has already built a high-speed aerial target and is close to the completion of an indigenous UAV.      

Having flown around 100 hours of test and evaluation sorties, the first JF-17B to be delivered to Pakistan was having an air-to-air refuelling system fitted in mid-April.

Block 3 Jets

The JF-17 Block 3 enhancements will involve new avionics, including a helmet-mounted display and a holographic wide-angle head-up display, better electronic warfare systems with integrated self-protection kit, as well as a missile approach and warning system, an increased payload, and more sophisticated weapons like a fifth-generation short-range air-to-air missile. It will be the ultimate JF-17, and with an AESA radar will have the capability to employ longer-range weapons and track multiple aircraft.    

A decision on a new AESA radar for the Block 3s is expected to be made by the end of the year. There are now three Chinese contenders, which were all shown at last year’s Zhuhai Air Show, while Leonardo’s Grifo-E is still on the table.

Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology's KLJ-7A is being marketed by China Electronics Technology Group Corporation in air- and liquid-cooling options. The second contender, which was displayed at the Zhuhai Air Show last November along with the two Nanjing examples, comes from Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (LETRI), another air-cooling AESA known as the LKF601E. AVIC has thrown its weight behind this option and claims it was the first air-cooling radar. Replacing the JF-17’s original KLJ-7 is simply a case of taking out the old system and inserting the new one. The PAF’s Flight Test Group is currently working the options.

Weapons Options

The PAF’s JF-17s are operational with the SD-10 beyond visual range air-to-air missile (AAM) with a data link and initial mid-course guidance, PL-5EII infrared short-range AAM, C-802 anti-shipping missile, and a stand-off capability courtesy of its Indigenous Range Extension Kit integrated with the Mk80 series of general-purpose bombs. The PAF chief of air staff recently told AIN that the JF-17 is better than many contemporary aircraft in three areas but would not provide any more details, although the air-to-sea mode is undoubtedly one of them.

JF-17 weapons
A large number of weapons that could be integrated on to the JF-17 by customers, were on view at Zhuhai Air show last November.

At IDEF 19, held in Istanbul in early May, an Aselsan source confirmed that deliveries of the first of 50 Aselsan targeting pods for the JF-17s will commence "within a few months," which will provide the JF-17 with a laser-designator capability, working with JTACs on the ground in the air-to-land integration role. 

Air Commodore Rashid Habib, JF-17 deputy chief project director, told the audience at the IDEAS 18 Air Power Conference in Karachi, that the JF-17 had flown 40,000 operational hours. He added that the JF-17B would be fitted with a missionized rear cockpit for combat training and operations, a three-axis fly-by-wire kit, and a fifth-generation advanced short-range air-to-air missile.