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Chengdu (AVIC) / PAC JF-17 Thunder (FC-1 Xiaolong) - China, 2007

Detailing the development and operational history of the Chengdu (AVIC) / PAC JF-17 Thunder (FC-1 Xiaolong) Lightweight Multirole Fighter Aircraft.

 Entry last updated on 1/17/2018; Authored by Dan Alex; Content ¬©

  Chengdu (AVIC) / PAC JF-17 Thunder (FC-1 Xiaolong)  
Picture of Chengdu (AVIC) / PAC JF-17 Thunder (FC-1 Xiaolong)

The CAC / PAC JF-17 Thunder was conceived of as a low-cost export option marketed to developing nations.

The FC-1/JF-17 lightweight multirole combat fighter platform was developed jointly by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAIC) and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) to produce a low-cost, multirole aircraft taking advantage of the latest avionics and weapons packages. Up to this point, Pakistan had already employed several Chinese-originated Cold War-era aircraft in its stable but the peak operational prowess window for these aircraft had since come and gone thusly providing an opportunity to find an all-new solution. Many of the more advanced 4th Generation Fighters proved well beyond the scope of procurement so a joint development effort was taken on to produce a semi-indigenous Pakistani fighter. Pakistan held the requirement and motivation while China seemingly provided the means and experience of years in re-engineering and producing Soviet/Russian technology locally. In this way, the FC-1/JF-17 can trace its evolution 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 FC-1 Xiaolong ("Fierce Dragon") / JF-17 Urdu ("Thunder") was born - the former being the Chinese designation while the latter being the local Pakistani designation. The joint program began loosely in 1998 and came to a formal agreement in 1999. The initial prototype was designed and developed with Pakistani input through all its phases and recorded a first flight on August 23rd, 2003. Follow-up testing and revisions naturally ensued and a newer 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 in 2009 and the first operational squadron was formed in February of 2010.

FC-1/JF-17 Variants
The FC-1/JF-17 was initially conceived of in three single-seat prototypes known as the 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 the 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. To follow will be a two-seat variant that will double as both an advanced student trainer (fitting the student in the forward cockpit with the instructor aft) and a dedicated strike fighter.

Avionics and Internal Systems
The FC-1/JF-17 makes use of a wide array of technology to maintain a modern existence in a world beginning to switch over to the 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) 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 sorties. 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 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 are fully compatible with the "all-glass" digital cockpit used in fighter. The digital cockpit setting reduces some of the mission load from the pilot and centers them on fully-automated computer processing systems which allows the FC-1 / JF-17 to remain a single-seat, multi-role combat aircraft.

Chengdu FC-1/JF-17 Walk-Around
The Chengdu FC-1/JF-17 is a highly conventional design making use of a tubular fuselage with the cockpit set well-ahead along the airframe. The front of the fuselage is capped by a 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 where the fuselage spine obstructs). The cockpit is covered over in a single piece canopy with a fixed forward assembly utilizing only light framing. Intakes along the side of the fuselage feed 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 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 FC-1/JF-17 makes use of a fully-retractable tricycle landing gear featuring two single-wheeled main landing gear legs as well as a single-wheeled nose landing gear leg. Construction of the airframe is of semimonocoque 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.

Chengdu FC-1/JF-17 Powerplant
The Chengdu FC-1/JF-17 is powered by a single Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine 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). Not surprisingly, the Chinese engine is of Soviet/Russian origin. Maximum speed is listed at approximately Mach 1.8 (about 2,205 kilometers per hour). The FC-1/JF-17 enjoys a ferry range of up to 2,175 miles with a combat radius equal to 840 miles. Service ceiling is listed at 54,790 feet.

Chengdu FC-1/JF-17 Armament
Standard armament for the FC-1/JF-17 is a 23mm GSh-23-2 twin-barrel internal cannon of Russian origin. Additionally, this weapon system can be replaced with the larger-caliber 30mm GSh-30-2 series cannon at the expense of available ammunition. In addition to this fixed armament, the FC-1/JF-17 can field a wide variety of air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions 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 times of such aircraft without the need for costly in-flight refueling operations. The FC-1/JF-17 can sport an underfuselage tank of 800 liters while her two underwing stations can carry either 800 liter or 1,000 liter fuel supplies depending on mission parameters.

Among the munitions options to be made available to FC-1/JF-17 pilots are air-to-air weapons systems such as the AIM-9L/M series short-ranged missile. Similarly, the PL-5E and PL-9C will broaden the short-ranged missile array. Beyond visual range missile systems include the PL-12 (exported as the SD-10).Air-to-surface ordnance 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 AM-39 Exocet AM-39 anti-ship missile and the MAR-1 anti-radiation missile (the latter to counter ground-based radar threats). 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 FC-1/JF-17 is cleared for the 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 FC-1/JF-17 to their liking, be they American-based weapons or Israeli, French, British or Russian in origin.

FC-1/JF-17 Operators
Pakistan has become the only operator of the JF-17 "Thunder". 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 itself 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 has been mentioned that an FC-1 was being tested with a Guizhou WS-13 series turbofan engine in November 2012.

Initial success of the JF-17, thanks to its display in Pakistan military exhibitions, has increased global interest in the Chinese/Pakistan product. Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe are known to have shown a desire to purchase the new jet and other interested parties mentioned include Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, and Sudan where 4.5th Generation and 5th Generation Fighter types are seemingly out of reach.

For the Pakistani Air Force, the JF-17 has begun replacing a stock of French Dassault Mirage fighters in its inventory as well as Chinese J-7 and A-5 (Chinese MiG-19) fighters. The multirole advanced nature of the JF-17 will mean that several different outgoing aircraft types will now be replaced with a single JF-17 as the JF-17 can take over the roles once handled by multiple jets. The JF-17 may also be paired with the Chinese Chengdu J-10 "Vigorous Dragon" which may still be sold to Pakistan in the future.

58 production JF-17s have been delivered to Pakistan up to 2013. From the period of 2014 to 2024, it is estimated that a further 96 will be locally built in Pakistan. New production through a "Block 2" initiative has included an in-flight refueling probe.

June 2016 - It was announced that Nigeria will soon be introducing the JF-17 as part of its active inventory.

February 2017 - Block 3 production is set to begin around 2019.

February 2017 - The JF-17 currently makes up four complete squadrons for the Pakistani Air Force.

May 2017 - It was announced that a twin-seat JF-17 (JF-17B / FC-1B) aircraft completed its first-flight sometime earlier. Beyond its inherent advanced jet training capabilities, the JF-17B will retain full combat capabilities as well. Changes to the twin-seat design include a revised tail unit and a deeper fuselage owing to the addition of the second in-tandem cockpit. The result is a slightly modified, heavier version of the single seat JF-17 form. Pakistan has plans to introduce the two-seater as soon as 2017.

January 2018 - Nigeria has committed to procurement of three JF-17 fighters making it the first foreign buyer of the joint Chinese-Pakistan platform. Included in the purchase are spares as well as product support.

Chengdu JF-17 Thunder Specifications

Service Year: 2007
Status: Active, In-Service
Type: Lightweight Multirole Fighter Aircraft
National Origin: China
Manufacturer(s): Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation / Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) - China / Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) - Pakistan
Total Production: 103

Structural (Crew, Dimensions, Weights)

Operating Crew (Typical): 1
Overall Length: 48.98 feet (14.93 meters)
Overall Width: 31.00 feet (9.45 meters)
Overall Height: 15.49 feet (4.72 meters)

Weight (Empty): 14,517 lb (6,585 kg)
Weight (MTOW): 27,304 lb (12,385 kg)

Power / Performance (Engine Type, Top Speed)

Engine: 1 x Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine with afterburner developing 19,000lb of thrust (11,510lb dry).

Maximum Speed: 1,058 knots (1,218 mph; 1,960 kph)
Maximum Range: 1,880 nautical miles (2,164 miles; 3,482 km)
Service Ceiling: 55,512 feet (16,920 meters; 10.51 miles)

Armament / Mission Payload

1 x 23mm GSh-23-2 twin-barreled cannon OR 1 x 30mm GSh-30-2 cannon

Up to 8,000lb of external ordnance across seven hardpoints. Can include a combination of the following munitions:

AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles
PL-5E missiles
PL-9C missiles
PL-12 missiles
SD-10 missiles
Anti-Radiation missiles
AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles
Ra'ad ALCM cruise missiles
Mk 82 general purpose bombs
Mk 84 general purpose bombs
Matra Durandal anti-runway bombs
Mk 20/CBU-100 Rockeye anti-armor cluster bomb
GBU-10 laser-guided bombs
GBU-12 laser-guided bombs
LT-2 laser-guided bombs
H-2 precision-guided munitions
H-4 electro-optically guided bombs
LS-6 satellite-guided glide bombs
3 x Fuel Tanks

Global Operators (Customers, Users)

Myanmar (ordered); Nigeria (ordered); Pakistan

Model Variants

PT-01 - Flight Performance Prototype
PT-02 - Static Load Test Prototype
PT-03 - Flight Performance Prototype
PT-04 - Avionics Test/Weapons Prototype
PT-05 - Fatigue Test Prototype
PT-06 - Avionics Test Prototype
FC-1 - Chinese Designation
JF-17 - Export Designation; Pakistani Air Force Designation.
JF-17 Block 1 - Model of 2006 Chinese weapons integration.
JF-17 Block 2 - Model of 2013; air-to-air refueling capability; increased weapons support; improved communications, EW and avionics suites.
JF-17 Block 3 - Improved avionics; AESA radar fit; uprated engine; optional two-seat cockpit configuration; Helmet-Mounted Display (HMD) support; in-flight refueling probe.
JF-17B (FC-1B) - Two-seat multirole variant for Pakistan Air Force; advanced jet trainer and attack capabilities.

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