The JF-17 Thunder will be returning to the Dubai Air Show this year following its absence in 2015. Alan Warnes reports.
Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra, which builds 58% of the JF-17 Thunder and provides the final assembly for the domestic market, has now delivered more than 90 aircraft.
This year, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) will take delivery of 14 JF-17s to complete the original order for 50 Block IIs.
However, the PAF announced in early 2017 that another 12 Block IIs would be built in 2018 to bridge the gap in production caused by delays to the more sophisticated Block III.
This more advanced version of the Thunder will include new avionics, better electronic warfare systems, increased payload and more sophisticated weapons, including Mk83 (1,000lb) and Mk84 bombs fitted with indigenous range extension kits (IREKs).
A targeting pod is also a priority, with Turkey’s Aselsan Aselpod system a likely option, as well as an indigenous data-link developed by PAC’s avionics production factory.
The only outstanding issue is the selection of an airborne electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to replace the Block I/II’s older KLJ-7 fire control radar.
“We don’t want to make any mistakes with this aircraft so we instigated a one-and-a-half year delay to the Block III programme,” explained Sohail Aman, the PAF chief of air staff back in May. He then added: “A lot of Block III improvements have already been used to upgrade Block I/2s.”
China has two AESA options on offer, one being CETC’s enhanced KLJ-7A, while Leonardo (formerly Selex ES) has also approached the PAF with a Grifo solution.
Meanwhile, Aman was keen to say that the JF-17 trumps the F-16 Block 52 in three different domains – although he wouldn’t elaborate on what they were. “Let me keep something to myself,” he smiled.
The first flight of a dual-seat JF-17B, took place at Chengdu on April 27, which revealed several modifications to the aircraft’s airframe not seen in the single-seater.
It has a dorsal spine to house more fuel, which compensates for the space taken by the additional seat. The vertical stabiliser has also been modified with the swept tail housing components for a new three-axis fly-by-wire flight control system.
The nose has been enlarged to accommodate the AESA radar.
Three aircraft are being built at Chengdu, with two set to be delivered to the PAF and one to remain in China.
Having a two-seater in the testing and development programme will speed up the integration of more weapons, according to CATIC. At the same time, it will allow potential customers to actually feel the aircraft, rather than rely on a simulator.
A fifth PAF unit – 14 ‘Tail Choppers’ Squadron – stood up on February 16 at PAF Base Minhas, with most of the aircraft fitted with air-to-air refuelling systems. It joins 2 ‘Minhasians’ Squadron at PAF Base Masroor, 16 ‘Black Panthers’ Squadron at PAF Base Minhas, 26 ‘Black Spiders’ Squadron at PAF Base Peshawar and the JF-17 Combat Commanders School (CCS) at PAF Base Mushaf. A sixth unit will stand up in early-2018.
Also being built at PAC Kamra’s aircraft manufacturing factory is the MFI-17 Super Mushshak, which has had an incredible year of export success.
With a glass cockpit, supplied by Garmin or Dynon, a new lease of life has been breathed into the old design and attracted customers looking for a cheaper state-of-the-art basic trainer. In 2016, the Nigerian Air Force ordered eight, which have been delivered, followed by a requirement for another four. The Qatar Air Force also placed an order for eight, which led to four being delivered in late-June.
In May, 2017 the Turkish MoD signed a deal for 52 Super Mushshaks, followed in September by Azerbaijan’s requirement for 10 aircraft.
There are also plans to weaponise the aircraft and, during May, a company demonstrator was fitted with Chinese FT-5 air-to-ground missiles for aerodynamic trials. Other options include the installation of an electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) system, which could help to ‘lase’ any weapons on to a target.
AMF will integrate its own domestic-made forward-looking infrared (FLIR) on the Super Mushshak, probably for the domestic market.
It’s all quite a success story for an aircraft that was first built by Saab in the early 70s before PAC took over the license to build in the 1980s.