By Haris Bilal Malik
Over the past few years, India has been pursuing an offensive military modernization program. This is mainly inspired by its hegemonic designs that are aimed at dominating the South Asian region. Along with various other components, in pursuit of this, India has significantly enhanced its air capabilities. However, in this regard, the major bulk of the most advanced fighter jets and combat aircrafts for the Indian Air Force (IAF) still comes from countries like the US, France, and Russia. This implies that India continues to rely on foreign acquired military hardware to fulfill the requirements of its armed forces. In July 2020, India received the first batch of five Rafale jets out of a total of 36 it had ordered back in 2016. The Rafale jet is believed to be one of the most advanced and sophisticated combat jets that are currently operational in the world. The acquisition of Rafael jets has appeared quite obsessive for India. This is further evident from the way India has been portraying it as a breakthrough and a strategic win against both of its regional rivals China and Pakistan. Moreover, security experts around the world are keen to analyze its prospective combat capabilities and the nuclear role vis-à-vis the future aerial combats in the region. This has become more significant since the most recent induction of locally built dual-seat variant and the commencement of the local production of 4.5-generation Block-III variant of the JF-17 multirole fighter jet by Pakistan.
On December 30, 2020, Pakistan inducted 14 JF-17Bs which are a dual-seat variant of the Block-II of this fighter aircraft. This has marked the end of production of Block –II and commenced the local production of the most advanced Block-III variant of the JF-17 thunder multirole fighter aircraft. The forthcoming indigenous Block-III variant is nearly equivalent to the French origin Rafale jets which India has recently acquired. Furthermore, it would serve as an important milestone for Pakistan towards self-reliance to address the emergent regional aerial threats in the form of advanced fighter jets and multi-layered air defence shields. In this regard, there has been an ongoing debate within the discourse surrounding the strategic communities of the world about the prospective role of the forthcoming Block-III variant of JF-17 thunder as a direct competitor for the Rafale jets of India. Some experts also believe that the advanced technology of this variant would make it far superior to the Indian Rafales. Regardless of this, it has become more obvious that the Block-III of JF-17 would significantly enhance the combat capabilities of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).
It is notably important to mention that the Block-III variant of JF-17 would be the first 4.5-generation combat aircraft in the PAF’s inventory. The jet would have an advanced radar system AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) Radar, advanced infrared missile approach system, helmet-mounted display for the pilots, an upgraded targeting pod for better strikes, and electronic warfare capabilities. This would make it a near to 5th generation combat jet and on paper, it would likely provide Pakistan a significant boost in its existing air warfare capabilities vis-à-vis India. Similarly, the combination of sophisticated weapons that can be integrated with the Block-III variant would significantly enhance its role with a better strike role. These include; air to air, and air to ground missiles, laser guided bombs, and guided and unguided missiles. Along with these, the most important weapon that would likely provide an edge to Pakistan over India regardless of the latter’s acquisition of Rafale is the PL-15 missile which is one of the world’s most advanced (BVR) ‘beyond visual range’ air-to-air missiles having a range of 200 kilometers. It is an active electronically scanned radar-guided missile that would likely outrange the forthcoming Meteor air-to-air- missiles for the Indian Rafales having a reported range of 150 kilometers. This implies that with the acquisition of JF-17 thunder Block-III that is equipped with AESA radar and PL-15 missiles, Pakistan would be in a much stronger position to carry a beyond visual range deep strike inside India in case of any conflict in the future.
Likewise, the JF-17 Thunder Block-III would also be capable of delivering nuclear warheads. This would likely embolden Pakistan to employ a credible air-based nuclear deterrence capability which till now has been ensured by the PAF’s Mirage-III jets. Furthermore, it cannot be entirely ruled out that Pakistan might integrate its stealth capable Ra’ad-II Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) having a reported range of 600 kilometers with the Block-III variant. The Ra’ad-II missile has a guided navigation system that makes its strike pinpoint accurate. In addition to this, it is a terrain hugging and highly maneuverable missile. Once integrated, it would further add to the standoff capability of the PAF with enhanced nuclear-capable missiles within the ambit of credible minimum deterrence.
Hence, the induction of dual seats and the start of local production of the JF-17 Block-III variant have significantly added to the credibility and reliability of this aerial platform for Pakistan. JF-17 is a combat-proven jet that the PAF has been considerably relying upon over the years. This is further evident from the combat role it had played during the 2019 Pulwama-Balakot crisis. While the security environment of the South Asian region remains under continuous stress primarily because of the Indian offensive military strategies and acquisition of advanced fighter jets. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s JF-17 jet, with its upgraded variants and equipped with advanced systems and weapons would likely emerge as a decisive factor for the prevalent regional dynamics of air combat. Pakistan needs to remain compliant with its existing doctrine of minimum credible deterrence against the wide spectrum of threats coming from India. Last but not the least, the Block-III variant of the JF-17 fighter jet appears to be at par with the Indian self-hyped Rafale jet.
*The writer currently works as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) in Islamabad, Pakistan.