More 'Thunder' in China's Air

 - January 2, 2020, 1:12 PM
The Block III JF-17, which incorporates numerous enhancements, made its first flight at Chengdu in mid-December.

December saw the ceremonial rollout of the first batch of eight two-seat, dual-control JF-17B Thunder fighters and also marked the inaugural flight of the first prototype of the new generation Block III JF-17.

The JF-17 Thunder is a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role fighter that was jointly developed by China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and that is in production at PAC's Kamra facility. The JF-17 has not been procured by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force but does also use the alternate FC-1 designation and the Chinese name Xiāo Lóng (Fierce Dragon).

In Pakistan Air Force (PAF) service, the JF-17 Thunder has accumulated about 20,000 operational flying hours since its official introduction to service in 2011. Fifty Block I aircraft were delivered before production switched to the improved Block II in December 2013. The 62 Block II aircraft introduced improved avionics, a new datalink, and improved electronic warfare capabilities as well as increased weapons-carrying capacity. All but the first 24 or so also incorporated an air-to-air refueling capability. Deliveries of the Block II variant ended in June 2019, by which time the PAF had equipped five front-line JF-17 squadrons.

The PAF will also receive 50 more single-seat JF-17s, to be delivered in a new Block III configuration. The Block III prototype made its first flight on December 15, 2019, at Chengdu, and the first two production aircraft are already “in build” at Kamra. The remainder will follow at a rate of 12 per year from 2021 onwards.

The Block III features an Aurora EHUD-2 wide-angle holographic head-up display as used in the new J-20, and a new electronic warfare system incorporating an S740 Airborne Missile Approach Warning System from the J-10C, with relocated infrared missile approach warning sensors. An air-to-air refueling probe light is fitted, and the aircraft has new LED landing lights. Some sources suggest that the airframe is strengthened and that there are further cockpit and avionics improvements (possibly including a single, large-area head-down display), but this cannot be confirmed. The aircraft may have a revised flight management system and a new fly-by-wire flight control system.

Early reports predicted that the aircraft would have a new Chinese-made active electronically scanned array radar to replace the mechanically-scanned KLJ-7V2 X-band multifunction pulse-Doppler radar. There are two options: the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology’s KLJ-7A and the Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute’s LKF601E. Reports that the aircraft might be fitted with a Leonardo (Selex) Vixen 1000E seem unlikely.

The aircraft is expected to incorporate a helmet-mounted display (possibly of South African origin, and perhaps to be used in association with the Denel A-Darter high off-boresight within visual range air-to-air missile). It is also expected to be fitted with an additional fuselage hardpoint intended to carry a WMD-7 targeting pod (a Chinese equivalent to the Lockheed Martin sniper pod).

The Thunder has already been used operationally by the PAF, participating in operations against militants in North Waziristan. The PAF also claims that its JF-17s shot down an Indian Air Force MiG-21 and a Su-30MKI on February 27, 2019.

The JF-17 secured its first export contract from Myanmar in June 2015. The first of 16 JF-17Ms (to Block II standard) made its first flight at Chengdu on June 13, 2017, and the type entered service in 2018. The Myanmar order included at least two two-seat JF-17Bs. The prototype JF-17B made its first flight from Chengdu on April 27, 2017, and the Myanmar trainers were delivered by late March 2019.

PAC completed eight two-seat JF-17Bs at Kamra in 2019 and it will produce 14 more in 2020 and four in 2021 to meet PAF requirements. The first batch of eight JF-17Bs was ceremonially rolled out at Kamra on December 27, 2019, in the presence of Air Chief Marshall Mujahid Anwar Khan.