Warplanes: Selling Illusions

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October 18, 2021: In late 2021 Pakistan and Iraq announced the sale of twelve Pakistani JF-17 fighters to Iraq for about $53 million each. These will be the first JF17s exported with Chinese engines. This means Russia no longer has a veto over who China or Pakistan can export the JF17 to. China is involved in this because since the 1990s China designed and built the JF17 as something of an F-16 clone but the Chinese air force was not impressed and refused to buy it. Pakistan was interested in taking over the JF-17 project. The deal was that initial production would gradually be in China but assembly would be gradually be transferred to Pakistan and Pakistan could supply some components and buy many others from other suppliers. Pakistan offered the JF17s at a big discount if Iraq would offer a dozen of its grounded F-16IQs as a trade-in. That offer never got very far because such a deal needs U.S. approval and the Americans are no longer supplying any military support to Pakistan.

This sale to Iraq is more a diplomatic than a military decision. Iraq already has F-16s but government corruption has left most of these aircraft grounded. In 2006 Iraq insisted on obtaining F-16s and paid about $112 million each for 36 F-16C Block 52 models they began receiving in 2015. Aircraft were ready for delivery in 2014 but then ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) happened because the Iraqi military was unable to stop this much smaller force of fanatics. This was typical because Iraq has long been the most corrupt nation in the Middle East and now most of the foreign aircraft maintainers are being withdrawn because of Iranian attacks on Balad, the Air Force Base where the F-16IQs are stationed. It was becoming too risky for the foreign maintenance contractors who are now being withdrawn. The contractors were willing to remain in Iraq if the remaining F-16IQs were transferred to an airbase in the Kurdish controlled north. That was unacceptable to the Iraq government. Currently only 21 of the 34 remaining F-16IQs are flyable because the corruption diverted money for needed spare parts and essentials like jet fuel for pilot training flights.

Part of the appeal for the JF17 is that Pakistani maintainers keep Pakistani F-16s operational, as well as the similar JF17 and can hire Chinese contractors as well. Pakistan can work out something to keep the Iraqi JF17s operational and get paid for their efforts. That won’t completely solve the Iraqi corruption problems when it comes to the air force budget and the cash that is supposed to be spent on F-16IQ maintenance but rarely is. This was a similar problem with the older Russian jets the Iraqi air force long used. Since 2015 Pakistan has been using its JF17s to carry out airstrikes against the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) in the northwest tribal territories. Pakistan has long used its F-16s for this but the Americans have ceased supporting these F-16s because of continued Pakistani support for Islamic terrorists and the Afghan drug cartels.

During early 2019 the first JF17 Block 1 aircraft completed a periodic overhaul in China. Pakistan had hoped to do these overhauls in Pakistan but Pakistani maintainers are still in China learning how to handle this sort of thing, which is more complicated that regular maintenance. Pakistanis have been less successful in learning how to manufacture many of the JF17 components but, because of years of maintaining the similar American F-16, Pakistan has expanded its ability to maintain and overhaul these modern jet fighters.

The first fifty JF17s were Block 1 models that were built in China starting in 2006 and most of the first ones were assembled there until 2013, while the transfer of assembly capability to Pakistan was carried out. The Block 1 entered service in 2007 but it was a year before the first squadron (12 aircraft) could enter service. China could have built and put into service fifty JF17s in less than a year but it took longer because the goal was to train Pakistani personnel to do the assembly of Chinese made components in Pakistan. A parallel effort transferred tech and expertise to Pakistani firms so they could manufacture more and more of the airframe, which is mostly metal, as well as wiring and electric motors. The Block 1s were, by Chinese standards, simple aircraft and cost about $15 million to build.

Fifty Block 2 aircraft, with inflight refueling, improved electronics and digital data link, began production in 2013 and twelve more were ordered and completed by 2017. The Block 2s cost about $25 million each.

Block 3 has an improved, Chinese-designed engine and much improved flight performance. Block 3 was supposed to begin production in 2016 but that has been delayed until 2019 because of problems with the engine. The Chinese designed engine was late in entering service because China is still developing its ability to build locally designed high-performance military jet engines. The fifty Block 3s are a major upgrade with AESA radar and a passive (does not broadcast signals) IRST (infrared search and track) system that detects aircraft via the heat they emit. There will be a new “glass cockpit” with more effective flight controls, including a helmet mounted sight, and a two-seater option. The Block 3s cost about $35 million each to build. These are the ones Iraq is buying for $53 million each.

In May 2017 the JF-17B, a two-seat version made its first flight. The B version is built to be either an advanced trainer, or when equipped with a few million dollars’ worth of additional sensors and upgraded fire control electronics, the B model becomes an advanced fighter-bomber. The B version is an option with the Block 3, which will have sufficiently improved electronics to operate as an advanced fighter-bomber like the F-15E or similar aircraft built by Russia and China. The Block 3 and B versions make the JF17 a better export aircraft and that is keeping Chinese sales teams busy discussing purchases by several interested nations like Algeria, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Qatar, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Uruguay. China is offering all three block versions because some potential buyers just want a cheap jet fighter. It is generally understood that China can not sell its other advanced aircraft because they are illegal copies of Russian designed aircraft China bought and “improved” and claimed they were Chinese designs. Russia was angry about that and there apparently an understanding that Russia will not press the matter for Chinese copies used only by China. Meanwhile China is trying to develop and produce their own designs but none of those efforts have been successful enough to compete in the export market, or acceptable to the Chinese military.

When the first JF-17 fighter arrived in Pakistan by 2007, it marked the completion of over twenty years of development for what was first called the Super 7 fighter. It became JF-17 after some further development by China in cooperation with Pakistan. Initially Pakistan only wanted to buy 150 of them. All this came about because Pakistan could not get modern fighters from anyone else, and turned to China. At the time, China had nothing comparable to the early model F-16s Pakistan already had. As of early 2019, Pakistan owns at least a hundred JF17s. These are Block 1 and 2 plus some pre-production Block 3 aircraft. Because of ongoing overhauls of Block 1 aircraft Pakistan had about fifteen percent of Pakistani JF17s are unavailable available for service. As of 2021 Pakistan had 138 JF17s with fifty more on order. The two export customers have received ten so far; seven (out of nine) to Burma and three to Nigeria, which may buy more. Pakistan now handles all JF17 overhauls and major repairs for itself and export customers.

Currently Chinese made components (the engine, electronics and nearly half the airframe components) are shipped to Pakistan where Pakistanis assemble them in a Pakistani owned and operated plant. The goal was always to shift production to Pakistan but that has not been achieved yet and probably never will be. That’s because the engine, either a Russian RD-93 license-built in China or a Chinese developed WS13 engine, is something Pakistan has no plans for trying to build, or even assemble, locally. Same situation with most of the electronics. Nevertheless, the final assembly has been established in Pakistan and that is sufficient for Pakistan to claim the aircraft is “built in Pakistan”. The WS13 engine was finally approved for use in the JF17 in 2020 after several JF17s were equipped with them and completed flight tests.

Some of the JF-17s are still assembled in China, where it is often referred to as the FC-1, because China is still trying to export it as an inexpensive alternative to American and Russian fighters. So far, there have been few takers. Myanmar (Burma) bought 16 and has received six so far. Nigeria also bought three in 2016 with possible sales of twenty or more. These two export sales were more diplomacy than just selling jet fighters. The Chinese Air Force has not shown any interest in obtaining the aircraft for its own use. Officially, the Chinese Air Force is still “evaluating” the JF-17/FC-1, but unofficially, Chinese air force commanders consider the JF-17 inferior to other fighters they are building. The Chinese developer and manufacturer consider the JF17 a financial success but mainly as an export item and mainly to Pakistan, which may ultimately buy more than 300. That plus export sales add up to a significant amount of business.

The low-end JF-17 is little more than a day time interceptor. The most capable F-16 model in service is the F-16I, used exclusively by Israel. It's basically a modified version of the F-16C/D Block 50/52 optimized to deliver smart bombs anywhere, at any time, in any weather and despite dense air defenses. The F-16I costs about $70 million each. The Block 3 will come close to the F-16I capabilities and the JF-17B Block 3 will cost less than half what the F-16I does while having some of the capabilities. What China is really touting here is the availability of a jet fighter that is cheap and performs somewhat like an F-16. For many countries, this is an attractive option. The only problem is that there are hundreds of second-hand (and very well maintained) F-16s on the market, selling for less than the bare-bones JF-17.

The JF-17 design is partly based on a canceled Russian project, the MiG-33. Originally, Pakistan wanted Western electronics in the JF-17, but because of the risk of Chinese technology theft, and pressure from the United States, who did not want China to steal more Western aviation electronics, the JF-17 uses Chinese and Pakistani electronics.

The 13-ton JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and uses radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has a max speed of nearly 2,000 kilometers an hour, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers and a max altitude of nearly 18,000 meters (55,000 feet). China says it does not want to use the JF-17 itself because its own J-10 (another local design) and J-11 (a license-built Russian Su-27) are adequate for their needs. The J-10, like the JF-17, did not work out as well as was hoped, but that's another matter. Meanwhile, Pakistan has several squadrons in service and more being formed. The JF-17, along with the American F-16s Pakistan has long used, were both used against Islamic terrorists in the tribal territories where both aircraft performed well using guided and unguided bombs.

 


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