JF-17: Ageing Gracefully or Falling Behind?

JF-17 is a lightweight single-engine, all-weather multirole aircraft developed under the joint venture of “Pakistan Aeronautical Complex” and “Chengdu Aircraft Corporation”. JF-17 was initially designed to replace ageing fleets of third-generation fighter jets and a successor to the US-made F-16 in the Pakistan Air Force. JF-17 can carry various ordinances, including air-to-air, air-to-surface, anti-ship, guided, and unguided bombs. The Chinese designation for the jet was FC-1 for “Fighter China-1”, which later was changed to “Joint Fighter – 17”. Additionally, the design of the JF-17 has similarities to the US-made F-16 and Soviet Made Mig-21. JF-17 is one of the cheapest aircraft in its segment and is operated by the Air Forces of Pakistan, Myanmar, and Nigeria.

What lies in JF-17?

JF-17 specifications and media reports speak two different stories about the aircraft. Per Pakistan’s Aeronautical Complex Kamra and Pakistan’s government, the JF-17 is an advanced, lightweight, all-weather multirole aircraft developed to replace the ageing US-made F-16 fleet of the Pakistan Air Force(PAF). This aircraft contains Beyond Visual Range (BVR) strike capability, is highly manoeuvrable, and is suitable for all operations. State-of-the-art avionics, integrated sub-systems, and computerised flight control give an upper edge to the aircraft. At the same time, worldwide media reports go in the opposite direction. With time, the JF-17 has raised attention and debate regarding its reliability and capability. Myanmar, one of the operators of the JF-17 in recent years, has expressed concerns regarding the JF-17’s reliability.

Myanmar signed a deal with Pakistan to purchase 16 JF-17 in 2015 for approximately $560 mission and became the first foreign customer of JF-17. In 2018, Myanmar started to receive its JF-17. Myanmar was forced to ground its fleet of 11 JF-17s four years after commissioning due to technical glitches, airframe cracks, and engine maintenance issues. These jets are grounded and are raising tensions between Islamabad and Naypyidaw.

  • – Several reports claim issues with the JF-17’s engines, radar system, and Structural integrity. 
  • – Another issue is Indigenous Link-17 data link reportedly struggles with bandwidth, hindering interoperability with other advanced systems.
  • – Weapons targeting accuracy is also another arguable issue. On February 27, 2019, the Pakistan Air Force conducted airstrikes in Indian-administered J&K with its JF-17s equipped with REK bombs; all targets were missed. 

Such ineffectiveness of JF-17 has pointed out flows such as low endurance, poor accuracy, unreliable airborne interception radar, low weapons carrying capacity, challenges in its basic maintenance, unreliability of its avionics, and frequent technical glitches. Although Pakistan sent a team of engineers to address issues being faced by Myanmar under unofficial visit, they failed to provide any solution. Apart from this, looking back to the origin of the JF-17, it was majorly built as a cost-effective fighter jet capable of performing the task of a 4th generation jet. Also, we can’t ignore that China has advanced in the aviation field, yet reliability is still a question that sticks with Chinese-produced goods. The same goes with JF-17, compromising on cost and providing various features don’t go well together. As per data available, from 2011 to 2021, crashes of four JF-17 in service with PAF have been reported, only one crash was  reported due to technical issues, whereas the reasons for the other three crashes are unknown.

Reasons for Failures

A unit of JF-17 costs between $ 15 million to $25 million, making it less expensive than other fourth-generation light combat aircraft. Cost is the only reason why any potential buyer of a lightweight modern fighter will once consider the JF-17 over any other aircraft available in the market. But somehow, this cost-effectiveness has become the reason for the negative marketing of the JF-17. 

  • – Firstly, the JF-17 is powered by a single Russian RD-93 engine. This engine requires timely maintenance, and due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict spare parts supply chain and maintenance of engines have been disrupted. This problem is not only faced by Myanmar but by Pakistan as well. 
  • – Secondly, JF-17’s avionics contain Western components as well. Since the military coup in 2021, Myanmar has faced sanctions from the European Union (EU), resulting in a lack of spare parts for the jet. These restrictions also prevent Myanmar from directly purchasing missiles and Bombs. 

Way Forward

Pakistan has the Final assembly line at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra, known as Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMC), which has already started producing JF17 block III. The presence of an assembly line in Pakistan can be the only reason why Pakistan is not facing such higher challenges in maintaining its fleet of JF-17 operational as compared to Myanmar. Yet it can’t be ignored that sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and EU have somehow led to higher cost of maintenance of the JF-17. China, the co-developer of the JF-17, does not utilise this aircraft itself. Developed as a cost-effective jet with fourth-generation capabilities, it holds a lot of ‘?’ within itself. Failures with the JF-17 have already led to failed bidding with Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Sri Lanka. Not cost-effective but more reliable options such as India’s Tejas, Korea’s KAI-50, or JAS Gripen are available in the market. Infact, India’s Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) manufacturer of Tejas aircraft also offers to exchange components in the export version of Tejas to address concerns about the availability of spare parts in the future for friendly nations looking to buy a light combat aircraft.

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