PAC JF-17 Thunder
Lightweight Multirole Fighter Aircraft
The joint-venture CAC-PAC JF-17 Thunder was conceived of as a low-cost export option marketed to developing nations - Pakistan remains its primary operator.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The JF-17 "Urdu" ("Thunder") - also known as the FC-1 Xiaolong "Fierce Dragon" - lightweight multirole combat fighter platform was developed jointly by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAIC) of China and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) to produce a low-cost, lightweight, multirole combat aircraft taking advantage of the latest avionics and weapons packages available to the former. Up to this point, the Pakistan Air Force was already employing several Chinese-originated Cold War-era aircraft but the battlefield capabilities of these systems had reached their best days. This provided the impetus to find an all-new solution with a focus on indigenous production on the part of Pakistan.
Since many of the more advanced, modernized 4th Generation Fighters then available proved well beyond the scope of available budget, a joint development effort was established to produce a semi-indigenous Pakistani fighter. Pakistan supplied the formal requirement and determination while China moved in to supply the means as well as experience in years of re-engineering /producing Soviet / Russian technology locally. In this way, the JF-17/FC-1 can trace its roots back to the Soviet-era Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 "Fishbed" of which Chinese industry went on to evolve on many levels.
Against this backdrop, the JF-17 / FC-1 was born - the former being the Pakistani designation while the latter becoming the local Chinese designation. The joint program began in 1998 and evolved to a formal agreement in 1999. The initial prototype was designed and developed with Pakistani input through all of its phases and went on to record a first flight on August 23rd, 2003. Follow-up testing and revisions naturally ensued and a new, revised prototype took to the skies during 2006. All testing was handled in China up until 2007 which saw initial deliveries of JF-17s to the Pakistani Air Force for formal evaluation. This phase proved the product sound and the Pakistani Air Force officially adopted the aircraft into service under the designation of JF-17 "Urdu". The first locally-produced Pakistani JF-17 was delivered to the PAF in 2009 and the first operational squadron was formed in February of 2010.
The FC-1/JF-17 was initially conceived of in three single-seat prototypes known rather simply as "PT-01", "PT-02", and the "PT-03". These were followed in development by the revised single-seat prototypes encompassing "PT-04", "PT-05", and "PT-06". From the PT-04 prototype, the single-seat production form was born and is now known under the two distinct aforementioned product designations in China and in Pakistan. A two-seat variant, to double as an advanced jet trainer (fitting the student in the forward cockpit with the instructor aft) and a dedicated strike fighter, if known as the "JF-17B".
The JF-17/FC-1 makes use of a wide array of technologies to maintain a viable existence on a battlefield graduating towards "5th Generation Fighter". Chief among these is the NRIET KLJ-7 series multi-mode fire-control radar that handles tracking and engagement of targets including those Beyond Visual Range (BVR) allowing the aircraft access to the latest in available Pakistani missile weaponry. The KLJ-7 was developed by the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronic Technology (NRIET) of China around 2005 and promotes a range out to 75 kilometers on an X-band frequency. Available radar modes include Range While Search, Dual Target Track, Air Combat Mode, Air-to-Ground Ranging, and Ground Moving Target Indication/Track.
Avionics pods are carried externally and can assist in expanding the pilot's situational awareness during a given sortie. These devices include a self-protection radar jammer, a day-or-night laser designator (for precision-guided munitions), and a Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) system for tracking targets in the dark or through heavy smoke. A Helmet-Mounted Sight and Display (HMSD) returns vital mission information directly to the pilot's helmet without the pilot taking his view away from the action and down to the instrument panel. Additionally, Night Vision (NV) equipment can be utilized for night time / adverse weather missions and is fully compatible with the "all-glass" digital cockpit. The digital cockpit environment reduces some of the pilot's management load and centers on a fully-automated computer which allows the JF-17/FC-1 to remain a single-seat, yet-multi-role, combat aircraft.
The Chengdu JF-17/FC-1 relies on a highly-conventional design making use of a tubular fuselage with the cockpit set well-ahead. The forward end of the fuselage is capped by a traditional nose cone assembly housing the onboard radar. The pilot is afforded an excellent view out-of-the-cockpit with the exception being views to the rear which the fuselage spine obstructs. The cockpit is covered over in a single piece canopy with a fixed forward assembly utilizing light framing to maximize views. Intakes along the side of the fuselage aspirate the single powerplant buried within. Small bulges ahead of each opening help to induce airflow. Wings are well-contoured to the fuselage along their leading edges and feature rear-swept surfaces. The wings are designed to take a brunt of the external ordnance load by way of underwing hardpoints and wingtip missile launchers. The fuselage spine conforms to become the base of the single vertical tail fin atop the rear section of the empennage. The tail fin sports a severe sweep along its leading edge and a straight form along its trailing edge. All-moving horizontal tailplanes are set to either side of the empennage for good agility control. The engine exhausts through a single jet pipe found at the extreme rear of the fuselage. Some of the integrated avionics are set in a rear package appearing as a rounded protrusion just above the jet exhaust ring and at the base of the vertical tail fin. A pair of ventral strakes can clearly be identified at the base of the empennage as well. The JF-17/FC-1 makes use of a fully-retractable tricycle landing gear for ground-running featuring two single-wheeled main landing gear legs as well as a single-wheeled nose landing gear leg. Construction of the airframe is of semi-monocoque approach and made up of lightweight aluminum alloys as well as high-tolerance titanium and steel in certain high-stress/high-temperature areas. Control surfaces are under the management of a digital flight control system while the pilot enjoys the benefits of a HOTAS configuration (Hands On Throttle and Stick) in the cockpit.
The Chengdu JF-17/FC-1 is powered by a single Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine of Russian origin delivering 11,106 lb of standard thrust and up to 18,973 lb of thrust with afterburner (raw fuel pumped into the exhaust for quick bursts of speed). Maximum speed is approximately Mach 1.8 (2,205 kilometers per hour). The aircraft enjoys a ferry range up to 2,175 miles with a combat radius equal to 840 miles. Service ceiling reaches 54,790 feet.
Standard armament for the JF-17/FC-1 is an internal 23mm GSh-23-2 twin-barrel automatic cannon, again of Russian origin. Additionally, this weapon system can be replaced with the larger-caliber 30mm GSh-30-2 series at the expense of more available ammunition. In addition to this fixed armament, the JF-17/FC-1 can field a wide variety of air-to-air and air-to-surface ordnance across its seven external hardpoints. Weapon stations include the wingtip launchers (reserved solely for short-range air-to-air missiles), four underwing stations (the two innermost are plumbed for external jettisonable fuel stores) and a single underfuselage centerline location (this also plumbed for external fuel stores).
External fuel tanks help expand the range and loitering time of the aircraft without the need for costly in-flight refueling operations. The JF-17/FC-1 can sport an underfuselage tank of 800 liters while its two underwing stations can carry either 800 liter or 1,000 liter fuel supplies depending on mission parameters.
Among the ordnance options made available to the aircraft are air-to-air weapons systems including the American AIM-9L/M "Sidewinder" short-ranged missile family. Similarly, the PL-5E and PL-9C broaden the short-ranged missile selection. Supported BVR missiles include the PL-12 (exported as the "SD-10").Air-to-surface ordnance options consists of mainstream missiles, guided bombs, conventional drop bombs, and rocket pods. Among the guided munition options are the Ra'ad ALCM cruise missile, the French AM-39 "Exocet" anti-ship missile, and the MAR-1 anti-radiation missile (the latter to counter ground-based radar threats directly). Precision drop bombs come in the form of the GBU-10, GBU-12, and LT-2 laser-guided bombs. Additionally the H-2 and H-4 electro-optically guided bombs can be used as can the LS-6 satellite-guided bomb. The JF-17/FC-1 is cleared for the America Mk-82 and Mk-84 unguided drop bombs as well as the CBU-100/Mk 20 "Rockeye" anti-armor cluster bomb.
Of course, these armament selections are not the limit for any operator can dress the JF-17/FC-1 to their liking, be they American, Israeli, French, British, or Russian in origin.
While Pakistan is the primary operator of the JF-17/FC-1 series, the Myanmar Air Force has committed to sixteen of the type (becoming the first export customer of the Thunder in the process). Six JF-17M models were delivered before the end of 2018. The Nigerian Air Force has invested in three aircraft of their own. In February of 2010, the Pakistan Air Force was home to at least fourteen JF-17 operational examples, these with the 36th Tactical Attack Wing out of PAF Base in Peshawar. These Thunders then came under ownership of the No. 26 Squadron known as the "Black Spiders".
While China is the lead developer for the JF-17/FC-1, the nation will most likely not procure the aircraft for its own air service with other more advanced designs upcoming. In late 2009, the FC-1 was known to have passed a procurement hurdle that seems to indicate that the Xiaolong will, at some point, arm the People's Liberation Army Air Force in the near future but this has not proven the case. It is also of note that the FC-1 was tested with an indigenous Chinese engine - the Guizhou WS-13 series turbofan - in November 2012 but nothing more came of this, at least locally.
Initial success of the JF-17, thanks to its display in Pakistan military exhibitions, has increased global interest in the joint Chinese-Pakistan product. Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe have, at one point, shown an interest in the relatively new jet and other interested parties mentioned in conversation have been Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, and Sudan where 4.5th Generation and 5th Generation Fighter types are generally cost-prohibitive.
For the Pakistani Air Force, the JF-17 has moved to replace a stock of aging French Dassault "Mirage" fighters/fighter-bombers in inventory as well as Chinese-made J-7 and A-5 (Chinese MiG-19) fighters/fighter-bombers. The multirole advanced nature of the JF-17 means that several different outgoing aircraft types can be succeeded by a single JF-17. The JF-17 may also be paired in the Pakistan Air Force inventory with another Chinese-originated fighter, the Chengdu J-10 "Vigorous Dragon" (detailed elsewhere on this site), which may still be sold to Pakistan in the future.
Before the end of 2013, some 58 production-quality JF-17s were delivered to Pakistan and over 100 of the type have been built to date (2019), with many locally in Pakistan factories. Block 1 aircraft represent the original production form of 2006 coming out of Chinese factories. The Block 2 model appeared in late-2013 and added an air-to-air refueling capability by way of probe. Additionally, the avionics fit was evolved and greater war loads supported. The proposed Block 3 initiative involves support of the Helmet-Mounted Display (HMD) system, new instrument panel, and an Active, Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar unit in the nose. The JF-17B is the twin-seat form intended for training duties. This model took to the air for the first time in April of 2017.