Leadership: Unaffordable Ambitions


December 28, 2019: The Pakistani government, prompted by its powerful (especially politically) military is seeking to become a major arms exporter. Currently (2018) the top ten exporters of weapons are; United States $10.5 billion, Russia $6.4 billion, France $1.76 billion, Germany $1.27 billion, Spain $1.18 billion, South Korea $1.08 billion, China $1.04 billion, Britain $741 million, Israel $707 million, Italy $611 million. Pakistan sold about $300 million worth in 2019, up from $100 million in 2017 and $60 million in 2014. Before that Pakistan was a steady exporter of basic infantry weapons and ammunition, plus the occasional sale of trainer aircraft that are manufactured locally. The weapons and ammo were manufactured largely for local consumption by the Pakistani military, which is large for a nation with its population and GDP.

Pakistan made an expensive effort to create a local heavy weapons industry. It produced local versions of Chinese tanks which were, in turn, based on Russian designs. This turned out to be more expensive than it was worth as Pakistan recently realized that it was cheaper to purchase similar Chinese tanks than to keep building their own designs in Pakistan. Same problem with warships. Pakistan made deals with China and France to build, under license, a few frigates and submarines in Pakistan. These were part of deals where most of the ships purchased were built by the nation selling them, and during that process Pakistani shipyard workers participated to learn how to handle unique aspects of building these ships. The problem is that there is a lot of competition for building ships like that and it is a difficult market to break into. One Asian competitor, South Korea, has a much smaller population than Pakistan but a larger GDP and fifty years ago had a smaller GDP than Pakistan. In the last two decades, South Korea has succeeded in building, for its own consumption, tanks and other armored vehicles and exporting more and more of them. Same for warplanes and warships.

Pakistan is hoping that its JF-17 jet fighter, developed by China but built, or rather, assembled in Pakistan mainly for the Pakistani air force, will become an export item. The JF-17 was a less successful Chinese effort to build something similar to the American F-16. China went with another design but agreed to let Pakistan build JF-17s in Pakistan and call them Pakistani products. By value (of components) most of the JF-17 is Chinese and Russian (the engine). China will soon replace Russia as the engine supplier and, at that point, most of the money received for any JF-17 exported will flow back to China to pay for expensive key components. This sums up any Pakistani dreams of becoming a major weapons exporter; it will have to be done by importing the most expensive components, assembling them and reselling them at a competitive price that often means little or no profit.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is turning the JF-17 into a major part of its defense industry. For example, the first JF17 Block 1 aircraft completed a periodic overhaul, in China, during March 2019. Pakistan had hoped to do these overhauls in Pakistan but Pakistani maintainers are still in China learning how to handle this sort of thing. 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 Block 1 JF17 aircraft were built in China starting in 2006 and completed in 2013. Meanwhile, 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 components. A parallel effort transferred tech and expertise to Pakistani firms so they could manufacture more and more of the airframe, which is mostly metal but also 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 will have 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. The Chinese designed engine may not be available for the first Block 3s. 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 and most of those new electronics are imported.

In May 2017 the two-seat JF-17B 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, an advanced fighter-bomber. The B version is meant to be 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 a number of 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.

When the first JF-17 fighter arrived in Pakistan during 2007, it marked the completion of over twenty years of development for what was first called the Super 7 fighter. The JF-17 was developed by China in cooperation with Pakistan, which originally 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 aircraft. Because of ongoing overhauls of Block 1 aircraft Pakistan had about 85 JF17s available for service during early 2019. Pakistan expects to handle overhauls and major repairs itself by 2020.

Because the JF-17 was a joint effort with China, the first JF-17s were manufactured and assembled in China. This began to change with Block 2. Now 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 (Russian RD-93 license-built in China) 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 Chinese designed JF-17 (also known as FC-1) is still manufactured in China, which also tried to export it as an inexpensive alternative to American and Russian fighters. So far, there have been few takers. Myanmar (Burma) bought 16 from Pakistan and has received six so far. Nigeria also bought three in 2016 with a possible sales of twenty or more. Both of these export sales were more diplomacy than just selling jet fighters. The JF-17s built in Pakistan are mainly composed of Chinese parts but 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, 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 and much less capable than the late model F-16s. 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. At the moment the two-seat JF17 Block 3 will come close to the F-16I capabilities and the single-seat 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.

The JF-17 is the prime example of what Pakistan will have to do to even try to boost weapons exports into the big league. In short, Pakistan could do it if it was willing to suffer enough financial losses in the process. At the moment that is not possible because the Pakistani economy is in very bad shape and surviving via large loans from foreign sources. Many of those loans are contingent on Pakistan eliminating spending on items it cannot afford and halting its support of Islamic terrorists. These two restrictions are in addition to the difficulties in building competitive weapons production capabilities. Moreover, the largest arms exporters actually export as much value, if not more than for the weapons in “military services”, in spare parts, plus construction and logistical support to keep the exported weapons working. In short, Pakistan faces more obstacles than most foreigners, and Pakistanis, realize when it comes to becoming a top ten arms exporter.




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