When the time came to replace its large, obsolete fleet with modern, lightweight, multi-role combat aircraft, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) opted for a low-cost solution and not pricier Western designs. The result was an aircraft that could be manufactured in Pakistan in collaboration with the People’s Republic of China – the lightweight fighter bomber JF-17 Thunder.
Developed by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and Chengdu Aircraft Industry, China, production is being undertaken at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra.
The PAF officially inducted its first JF-17 squadron on 18 February this year. Initially, about 10 to12 squadrons are to be produced, but the PAF will ultimately acquire up to 250 pieces. From 2011, 15-16 aircraft will be produced annually, which may eventually be increased to 25 per year.
It is hoped the JF-17 will provide a low-cost replacement for a number of developing countries currently operating ageing MiG-21/F-7 and F-5 aircraft, such as Azerbaijan, Algeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nigeria. Some of these nations have already confirmed orders.
The JF-17 is powered by a single Russian RD-93 turbofan engine, a widely used model known to be reliable. The turbofan design gives more thrust and significantly lower specific fuel consumption than a turbojet engine. The engine has gained attention for its acceleration and quick response, with test pilots describing reactions as "virtually instantaneous". Using a single engine also significantly reduces both maintenance time and cost.
The aircraft can be armed with up to 3,629kg (8,000lb) of air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance along with other equipment mounted externally on the aircraft. The glass cockpit, meanwhile, incorporates an electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) and a wide-angle head-up display (HUD), and it has a minimum total field of view of 25 degrees. The EFIS provides basic flight information, as well as tactical, engine, fuel, electrical, hydraulics, flight control and environment control systems information. The HUD and multi-function display (MFD) are ‘smart’ (meaning they can be configured by the pilot to show any of the available information), the avionics system is all-digital and fully integrated, and the solid state avionics is of a modular design.
Several radars were tested onboard prototypes of the JF-17, including Israel’s Elta EL/M-2032, Russia’s Phazotron Super Komar, Italy’s FIAR Grifo-S7, Brittain’s GEC-Marconi Blue Hawk and France’s Thomson-CSF RC-400. However, a Chinese radar was selected for the first batch of craft, although Italy and France are in the running for future contracts, according to reports.
The software written for the avionics comprises more than one million lines of instructions, making use of the concept of open architecture. This software is written using the popular civilian C++ programming language, rather than a military language such as Ada, to better utilise the large number of civilian software programmers available in the market.
The production of JF-17 parts and components begun as far back as 2005 and manufacture of its sub-assemblies started in 2008. The production of major assemblies is undertaken by Pakistan’s large public sector units (PSUs), while parts and components are provided by private-sector suppliers.
Pakistan has a highly skilled and trained technical workforce – a prerequisite for the manufacture of an indigenous aircraft – that can be cheaper to employ when compared with other areas around the world. For example, some of the workforce deployed for the production of the JF-17 are retired personnel from the Pakistan Air Force. This manpower is available at a rate of $10 per hour whereas the international market can charge up to $45 per hour.
It is this cost-effectiveness that led the PAF to take on the task of making its own aircraft. The unit production cost of a JF-17 translates into approximately US$15 million apiece whereas a multi-role aircraft in the international market is available for US$50m a piece. Overall, the total cost of the JF-17 programme is US$500m, divided equally between China and Pakistan.
Furthermore, Pakistan will earn a good exchange rate through the sale of this aircraft and its associated spares to other countries, keep its retired aircraft workers employed, and provide the country’s internal market with new opportunities to build technologies and develop new innovations.