Date Posted: 23-Jul-2010
Jane's Defence Weekly
Farnborough 2010: Pakistan increases autonomy in production of JF-17 Thunder aircraft
Reuben F Johnson JDW Correspondent - Farnborough
Two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) JF-17 Thunder aircraft were displayed at the Farnborough International Airshow, marking the first appearance by that platform at any Western airshow. The aircraft were developed and built at China's Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) Aircraft Plant 132 in Sichuan Province under the FC-1 designator.
The rebranding of the design as the JF-17 is intended to convey the message that the programme is a co-operative effort between CAC and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra.
However, the PAF and other senior technical personnel from the PAC have emphasised that "we are doing almost everything by ourselves now" and that where, at one time, assistance from the Chinese would have been required to integrate third-party onboard systems, "we are now able to complete this kind of work without the assistance of the Chinese".
PAC officials told Jane's there has been considerable investment made in the PAC in order to support a full-spectrum capability to not only support the production of the JF-17, but also the manufacturing of its major onboard subsystems. The construction of additional facilities to support JF-17 production has resulted in the creation of four factories at the Kamra site facility that go far beyond its original capacity as just a [commercial] maintenance, repair and overhaul.
The JF-17 programme is run by a PAF management team headed by Air Vice Marshal Mohammed Arif. Speaking to Jane's , AVM Arif said the team of engineers and designers supporting the JF-17 have proficiency with more than just the Chinese-designed hardware that constitutes the aircraft's configuration at present.
The concept for the JF-17 is to use it as a basic platform that can be exported to multiple countries and to fit it with whatever set of onboard systems a customer would prefer. "We have learnt how to integrate different avionics and weapon systems on to the JF-17," AVM Arif said. "There is still active interest in having the set of French-made hardware for the aircraft - the Thales RC400 radar and the MBDA air-to-air missiles - that have been under discussion for some time now."
The integration of third-party, non-Chinese equipment onto the aircraft is an option that would primarily be at the request of an export customer. The PAC programme managers are satisfied with the aircraft's hardware and state that the JF-17's avionics fit and glass cockpit are superior to the older-model F-16A/B Block 15 aircraft that the PAF acquired in the 1980s.
One of the systems the PAC designers give full marks to is the CETC/NRIET KLJ-7 radar set. A PAC programme officer told Jane's : "I have flown with this radar and with other models that we have looked at fitting to this aircraft, such as the Thales RC400, and the Chinese radar is every bit as capable as its contemporary analogues." He added that the performance of the CETC KG300G electronic warfare pod was effective and that "there will be an upgraded version available within a year-and-a-half".
One of the central question marks on the programme has been the aircraft's Russian-designed-and-built Klimov RD-93 jet engine, which is produced by the Chernyshev plant in Moscow.
Just prior to the Farnborough Airshow, the Moscow newspaper Kommersant reported that Mikhail Pogosian, the general director for Sukhoi and RSK-MiG, had written an official letter to the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Co-operation (FSVTS), which regulates all exports of military-related items, and the Russian state arms export monopoly, Rosoboronexport, asking that the next tranche of 100 RD-93 engines to be shipped to CAC in Chengdu be cancelled.
The RD-93 is a specially configured variant of the MiG-29's RD-33, optimised for a single-engine aircraft. This version of the engine was originally conceived in the early 1990s as an option for upgrading older-model MiG-21 aircraft. A similar model of the engine, the SMR-95, was also developed in the same timeframe for use in the South African Mirage F1 and Cheetah D-2 aircraft. In both configurations, the gearbox and other components of the accessory pack are rotated from the top - where they are positioned on the standard RD-33 - to the bottom of the engine casing.
Pogosian is reportedly requesting a halt to deliveries of the engine to CAC on the grounds that the re-export of the engine, once installed in the FC-1/JF-17, damages the interests of MiG in several markets. Negotiations for a MiG-29 purchase are supposedly ongoing in some of the same nations - Egypt, Algeria, Bangladesh and Nigeria - that have also been approached by the JF-17 sales team. For the moment, the contract for the export of these next 100 engines remains unsigned.
AVM Arif told Jane's that "if the Russians decide to cut off shipments of the RD-93 to us, then we still have other options. One of those is a Chinese-made WS-13 engine, which was certified by the Chinese in 2007 and has been in low-rate initial production since 2009. Pakistan industry officials confirm that it is currently undergoing flight tests on an FC-1 aircraft from CAC. Its thrust rating in the present version is almost 10 per cent higher than the RD-93 and an increased/enhanced performance engine version of up to 10 metric tonnes is in development.
When asked about the WS-13, AVM Arif stated that "the Chinese engine needs time to mature and might not be available for five years or more". However, one of his deputies said privately that the air vice marshal was giving the "worst case scenario and being a bit cautious". The WS-13, they say, could be ready for use with the JF-17 as soon as two years from now.
The JF-17 has also completed trials of dropping of unguided bombs and firings of the Luoyang Electro-Optical Technology Development Center (LOEC) Pi Li PL-5EII infrared air-to-air missile. The LOEC Shan Dian-10 (SD-10), an active radar-homing air-to-air missile, is currently undergoing integration and will be finished with its demonstration firing before the end of the year.
"The biggest plus for the JF-17 is the cost-performance ratio, which is exceptionally good considering what you get at this price," said AVM Arif. The long-term Pakistani plan is to have a high-low mix of fighters with the newer-model F-16C/D Block 52+ aircraft they are receiving from the US as the upper tier and the JF-17 on the lower tier.
One of the Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft seen at the Farnborough International Airshow. (IHS Jane's/Patrick Allen)