The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was established with the creation of the country in 1947, and was immediately made responsible for the defence of the country’s airspace. Since then, it has formed an aerial bulwark against any aggressive designs by other nation states.
PAF has the distinct and rare honour of scoring multiple air-to-air kills against some of the most competent or numerically superior forces. The air force displayed superior martial skill during the Indo-Pak wars; volunteers from the PAF were credited with shooting down a large number of Israeli jets in aerial combat during the Arab-Israeli wars and multiple Red Air Force and Afghan Air Force aircraft during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The Joint Fighter-17 (JF-17) Thunder multi-role fighter was jointly developed by China and Pakistan. Development on the aircraft started in 1999, and the maiden flight was conducted in 2003.
The aircraft was developed in collaboration between the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China. Most of the development was done by Chendu in China, but costs were split evenly between the two nations. It was reported that the Russian Mikoyan design bureau provided some assistance in development of this aircraft.
Pakistan Air Force’s thunder
JF-17 is a single-engine multi-role fighter,capable of performing interception roles, ground attack and aerial reconnaissance. The fighter was inducted as a replacement for the ageing fleet A-5C, F-7P, Mirage 3 and Mirage 5 aircraft that were due to be replaced.
The initial Block 1 JF-17s were received in 2007, with production of the upgraded Block 2 JF-17s started in 2013. The upgraded models have upgraded avionics, air-to-air refuelling capability, data link, enhanced electronic warfare capability and enhanced load carrying ability.
The JF-17 is powered by a Russian RD-93 afterburning turbofan, which has a top speed for Mach 1.6. The engine is a derivative of the engine that powers the MIG-29 Fulcrum. With the recent improvement in Pakistan-Russia relations, it might be possible to source the engines directly from Russia, rather than through China. In November it was reported that PAF will stick with using the RD-93, and not opt for a Chinese-made engine.
It was also reported recently that PAF is interested in joint engine development with Russia. The air force for years has wanted to expand its technical capabilities in engine development, as they have lacked the capability in this highly-technical field.
Splash one bandit
The JF-17 can be equipped with air-to-air and air-to-ground ordinance, and has a 23 mm GSh-23-2 twin-barrel cannon mounted under the port side air intake.
The aircraft can carry 8,000lbs of ordinance on seven external hardpoints, which is an adequate amount of ordinance for any mission profile. The JF-17 enhances the much needed capability of the air force in beyond visual range (BVR) engagements.
JF-17 mounts both short-range infra-red air to air missiles along with longer ranged radar-guided BVR missiles, an essential capability for a frontline interceptor. Missiles used on the aircraft come from a variety of different nations.
Apart from a capable air-to-air mix, the aircraft can be fitted with laser-guided, satellite-guided and dumb iron bombs. The precision-guided weapons are paired with a targeting pod, mounted on the centreline hardpoint. JF-17's are also capable of carrying anti-runway munitions, specifically the Durandal, which crater a runway, denying its use to enemy aircraft.
The JF-17 Thunder, when equipped for an anti-maritime mission profile, can be equipped with the C-802 anti-ship missile (ASM) and the hypersonic CM-400AKG, often referred to as a ‘carrier-killer’ ASM. It hits the target at Mach 4 or above and its kinetic impact alone is enough to destroy any high-value target.
For Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) missions, the Thunder can be equipped with anti-radiation missiles for neutralising the enemy's air defence radars, allowing the PAF to operate in a less restrictive airspace.
Overall, the varying ordinance carried by the JF-17 makes it a capable aircraft for multiple mission profiles.
The JF-17 fighter incorporates a fly-by-wire system, through which the aircraft’s pitch axis is controlled, with leading edge slats/flaps and trailing edge flaps automatically adjusted during maneuvering to increase turning performance. The performance of the jet reportedly is similar to the F-16.
Incorporating a defensive aids system (DAS), sensors such as radar warning receivers (RWR) and missile approach warning (MAW) enable the pilot to have a clear picture of the threats in an operational area. The electronic warfare (EW) suite of the aircraft is mounted in the tail of the JF-17.
It is reported that the pilots can be equipped helmet mounted sights, which gives the pilots a distinct advantage in visual-range air combat, as they can simply look at and guide the missile onto their intended target.
The JF-17 is a capable platform, and is on its way to form the backbone of the PAF. It was reported that between 250 and 300 aircraft will be inducted into the air force in order to phase out the ageing fleet of some other aircraft models that are still in operation.
The JF-17 has gained valuable combat experience during the counter-insurgency operations in the tribal areas, and has contributed to the aerial blitz against the militants, but the experience gained is limited to air-to-ground operations.
The aircraft has not yet engaged any enemy air threats.
With support provided from the airborne early warning aircraft and airborne refuellers, the JF-17 is capable of defending the skies at all times of the day and weather conditions.
Plans are afoot to introduce a Block 3 upgrade too, but that is a few years in the future. For the Pakistan Air Force, the JF-17 fills the gap that had arisen due to an ageing inventory, which was further impacted by sanctions placed on the country following the nuclear tests in 1998.