Pakistan Air Force speeds up fighter force modernisation with JF-17 Block III

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Pakistan Air Force JF-17B Thunder - Photo by SalmanFalconsPK

By Sana Jamal

ISLAMABAD: The year 2022 will be the most significant for Pakistan Air Force as it is set to replace its ageing fleet and modernise its fighter force to maintain superiority in air combat.

The most anticipated news is the rollout of JF-17 Thunder Block III fighter jets built at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra, which will become the backbone of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) fleet. The rollout ceremony of Block III was held in December and the first of the 50 jets will officially join PAF in early 2022.

Another noteworthy development is the reported induction of the advanced Chengdu J-10C aircraft in the coming months. Experts say that modern and more powerful aircraft would bolster Pakistan’s air power, meet future requirements, and balance power in the region.

JF-17 Block III packs a big punch

JF-17 Thunder is a single-engine, lightweight, multirole combat aircraft, jointly developed by China and Pakistan. PAC Kamra has delivered nearly 120 JF-17 Block I and II fighter jets to the PAF since 2009. “JF-17 fighter jet program is continuing at a startling speed as Pakistan achieved the development to operational capability to the launch of upgraded versions in a short span of 20 years.

The progress has been spectacular as more than 100 aircraft have already joined the PAF,” said retired Air Marshal Farhat Hussain Khan who is currently serving as President of Islamabad-based Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). He served for 36 years with the PAF retiring as Vice Chief of Air Staff and also worked as chief project director of the JF-17 program.

Pakistan’s first 4.5-generation aircraft

The Block III variant of JF-17 will be the country’s first 4.5-generation aircraft and most advanced jet equipped with a modern radar system, upgraded sensors, software, and engine to adapt to rapidly evolving technologies. “One of the key features will be the world’s most advanced Airborne Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar” which is the gold standard in modern aircraft, Khan told Gulf News.

Block III will see “massive upgrades in the airframe and systems which will significantly improve the aircraft’s performance and allow it to carry additional armaments.” The new variant of the combat and battle-proven JF-17 fighter jet “will attract international interest as it will be the only aircraft of its type packing advanced features but is also affordable,” he added. Nigeria and Myanmar are the first export customers for the JF-17 while Malaysia, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iraq have expressed interest.

What makes JF-17 Block III versatile?

Pakistan’s JF-17 Block III version is considered to be in the same league as Sweden’s next-generation JAS 39 Gripen NG – both featuring cutting-edge avionics and high performance while maintaining increased levels of operational readiness. Defence analyst Shahid Raza considers the more capable AESA radar one of the major features in Block III. “This radar provides detection of fighter-sized targets at 170 kilometres away, include multimode look-down, shoot-down capability, and can also engage over the horizon threats, making this lightweight aircraft a great asset,” Raza told Gulf News.

Other key features include a wide-angle holographic heads-up display which offers a field of view larger than that of F-16, three-axis fly-by-wire digital flight control system, integrated cockpit with single piece man-machine interface, helmet mounted display (HMD) to take full advantage of the PL-10 imaging infrared-guided (IIR) missile’s high-off boresight (HOBS) abilities as well as electronic warfare suite.

Block III weapon payload

“Block III includes one additional hardpoint, making a total of eight, to carry extra pods, weapons, smart munitions, sensors. It will carry IIR-guided PL-10 HOBS air-to-air missiles which is of the same class as American AIM-9x Sidewinder, French MICA ER and IRIS-T German missiles,” Raza explained.

What makes JF-17 Block III more powerful is the access to the “Extended range beyond-visual-range (BVR) PL-15 missiles with 200 km range, which outranges the American AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).” It can also carry two CM-400AKG anti-ship missiles, laser and GPS guided weapons and cruise missiles.

Is Pakistan acquiring J-10C from China?

Although there is no official confirmation or denial from the air force yet, however, insiders say the country will soon acquire 25 Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ multirole fighters. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed has announced that J-10C would take part in the Pakistan Day event on March 23, adding that the jets are a “counter to India’s Dassault Rafale jets.”

J-10C to help PAF achieve air dominance

Pakistan has long expressed interest in the advanced J-10 as part of ongoing efforts to replace its ageing fleet of F-7, and Mirages as PAF continues to adapt and modernise warfighting capabilities. If confirmed, the acquisition would mark “a major milestone,” making it the most modern and capable fighter in the Pakistani fleet.

“J-10C is a capable platform with advanced avionics and able to conduct multiple air-to-air and air-to-ground operations, making it a valuable addition to PAF’s inventory. The induction will also help regain the balance of power in the region, which had been adversely affected with the induction of Rafale jets by the Indian Air Force,” said retired Air Marshal Ashfaque Arain, director at CASS.

J-10C – ‘True swing-role aircraft’

Pakistan is expected to buy the latest J-10C model, which has Chinese-built WS-10 engines and features AESA radar and compatibility with extended range PL-15 BVR missiles. The J-10C can help PAF “achieve air dominance and conduct Suppression and Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD/DEAD) missions to disrupt and destroy adversary air defence systems” said Shahid Raza. “J-10C features a true swing-role capability as it is able to swing between air to air combat, anti-surface and ground attack roles.”

PAF rethinking high-low mix

The news of possible induction of J-10C has prompted debate whether Pakistan requires another advanced jet along with the rollout of the locally developed capable JF-17 Block III fighter jet. Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail, a former pilot who has flown all PAF fighter jets until 2005 when he retired after 30 years of service, explained the reason for acquiring both aircraft.

“There’s a concept in air force called ‘high-low mix’ which means a mix of a smaller number of expensive and extremely capable aircraft (high) along with a large number of cheaper yet lethal fighter jets (low).” The low-cost and lightweight fighter JF-17 “is the workhorse of Pakistan Air Force which we will have in large numbers. But PAF would also require a smaller fleet of high-end fighters like J-10C which is the most capable yet affordable,” he said, citing the example of the US Air Force that considered the F-16 as a low-end aircraft to augment the F-15 air superiority.

J-10C vs Rafale

Many Pakistani commentators including the interior minister have described the J-10 acquisition as a “counter” to the Rafale jets acquired by India. The J-10C is considered Chinese equivalent to the American F-16s but it will be a significant leap for Pakistan, which relies on older F-16s that have not received upgrades. Comparing the J-10C with Dassault Rafale, Tufail said that “Rafale is one of the world’s most advanced non-stealthy fighters.

One of its key features is the next generation Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) weapon called ‘Meteor’ which has an estimated range of over 150 kilometres. J-10C will fill this gap as it boasts the capable AESA radar and long-range PL-15 missiles that can outrange the missile on Rafale,” he said. The “J-10 is currently the best option for PAF in terms of capability and affordability” to modernize its fleet as well as to achieve and maintain air dominance.