Pakistan Continues JF-17 Upgrades, Possible Interest in FC-31 Emerges

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Pakistan Continues JF-17 Upgrades, Possible Interest in FC-31 Emerges





Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, sits in the cockpit of the 50th JF-17 Thunder aircraft, co-produced with the support of China National Aero-technology Import and Export Corp. (AAMIR QURESHI/ / AFP)



ISLAMABAD
— Pakistan continues to proceed with improvements to its JF-17 Thunder jet fighter program, but the recent Zhuhai air show also revealed possible longer term ambitions to acquire stealth aircraft, namely the Shenyang FC-31.

According to Pakistan officials at Zhuhai, progress is being made to improve the JF-17’s avionics and software, and to fix a probe.

Kaiser Tufail, analyst, author and former air commodore, said these upgrades may not require the aircraft to be sent back to the factory at Pakistani Aeronautical Complex, Kamra, but could be handled locally at unit level.

“As flight trials with different weapons are getting completed, it is time for hardware and software upgrades. I am not sure if these would be done at unit level or factory level; perhaps the former.”

Though the upgrades are not a radical departure from the Block I standard, Tufail nevertheless has “no doubt that they would improve the operational readiness considerably” for the Air Force.

What the future holds for the fighter is uncertain as details of a Block III variant have not been revealed, and Tufail says at present “no one seems willing to talk about them.”

Similarly, analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said only reasonable speculation can made at present.

“Block-III is conceptual right now but most likely will see an AESA radar, HMD [helmet-mounted display] and some other avionics improvements. I am not sure if the airframe will be further modified for RCS [radar cross-section] reduction or airframe life enhancements. We just have to wait and see,” he said.

The perennial question regarding the JF-17, however, is its hitherto lack of export orders. Shabbir highlights the disruption facing the fighter’s most likely customers, but is still optimistic.

“Many of the countries that are probable JF-17 buyers have had political or financial turmoil but it is highly likely that an order will be won in 2015.”

Nevertheless, Pakistan revealed that a squadron of 18 JF-17s recently took part in a major exercise in western China, which marks the type’s first large-scale deployment.

Meanwhile, although Pakistan’s apparent interest in the FC-31 has caused a stir, Tufail maintains such an aircraft is not required.

“It seems to be a knee-jerk statement without much substance at this point in time,” he said.

“While stealth capability is welcome, the long-range capability that goes with this aircraft may be an overkill for an Air Force that is configured primarily for tactical air support to surface forces,” he said.

“Besides, a concerted strategic bombing campaign to decimate the enemy’s war-fighting capability needs months to achieve results. That option is a non-starter for nuclear-armed belligerents, as much as it is for the rest of the world, which can’t sit back and watch the dangerous escalation,” he added.

“So, I stick to my previously professed contention that it is tactical fighters that we need first and foremost. Two dozen or so stealth fighters seems more of a ‘fashion’ statement.”

He also highlights a perennial concern for Pakistan that may rule out the FC-31; “Who has got the money? Not Pakistan.”

Whether a Pakistani order for the FC-31 will materialize is unclear, though there will be an eventual need to replace the F-16, which is Pakistan’s most potent front-line combat aircraft.

Analyst, author and former Australian defense attaché to Pakistan, Brian Cloughley, said the FC-31 is a likely candidate, but perhaps not for some time.

“It’s being described in some quarters as an export machine, but that is bound to take a long, long time. Certainly there will have to be some sort of replacement for the F-16s, and it won’t be European or Russian, for obvious reasons, so it must be China,” he said.

“I think we can bet on the FC-31.” ■
 
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Once Indian defense companies start the research and development initiative, they will break the ceiling and pose a serious challenge for western defense contractors. Western technology is often overhyped. Technology developed by India will be three times cheaper than the west. Still have to wait for few more years.
 
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