The Buzz

Revealed: China's Lethal Low-Cost Fighter Goes Global

Beijing and Islamabad have officially signed on their first export customers for the Chengdu/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) JF-17 Thunder—which is also known as the FC-1 Xiaolong in its native China. Nigeria and Sri Lanka are set to become the first customers for the Chinese jet.

According to Nigeria’s Punch, the oil-rich African nation expects to buy three JF-17 in 2016. “Giving details of the weapons to be acquired for the operation of the Navy, the fiscal document states that the sum of N5bn ($25 million) is budgeted for the procurement of three JF-17 Thunder multirole combat aircraft,” the paper reported citing a leaked budget document.

Meanwhile, Defense News reveals that Sri Lanka has sign on to buy an initial eight JF-17 jets during Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif's three-day visit to Colombo. News of the deal is likely to be met with fury from India, which has been actively discouraging its neighbor from forging stronger defense links with Islamabad and Beijing. The JF-17 would be used to replace a portion of Sri Lanka’s existing fleet of Chengdu F-7s, Israeli Kfirs and Soviet-built MiG-27 strike aircraft.

The JF-17’s success on the export market thus far reveals that there is demand for a low-end, low-cost fighter aircraft that is build without U.S. components—which are subject to Washington’s export controls. It’s a part of the fighter market that has largely been ceded by Western manufacturers who are focusing their efforts on extremely expensive high-end combat aircraft, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale.

Even most current Russian offerings such as the Sukhoi Su-30SM and Su-35S are too expensive for many nations. Meanwhile, the only semi-affordable Western offering is the Saab Gripen—which has an American-built engine, and therefore is subject to the same export controls. That means for a nation like Sri Lanka—with its developing economy that is subject to U.S. export restrictions—an aircraft like the JF-17 is ideal.

The JF-17—especially the early Block 1 model—is a basic low-cost fighter aircraft. A Russian-made Klimov RD-93 engine producing roughly 19,000lbs of thrust powers the aircraft, which gives it a max speed of Mach 1.6. The airframe offers an eight g-force capability, which combined with the PL-9C high off-boresight missile gives the aircraft decent capability within visual range. It is equipped with the Chinese-built KLJ-7 radar, which is compatible with the PL-12 active radar-guided missile and affords the jet beyond-visual-range capability.

The improved Block 2 version of the jet has in-flight refueling capability and improved avionics. A third Block 3 variant is also under development, allegedly with a Chinese-built active electronically scanned array radar, helmet-mounted cueing system, an infrared search and track system and a host of new weapons. The improved variant might also replace the Russian-made RD-93 with a Chinese Guizhou WS-13—assuming China manages to complete development of that engine.

The Chinese are developing the jet incrementally—upgrading the plane over time with new avionics and weapons—which is a smart move. But the JF-17 will never be a world-beating fighter. It may not even be a good fighter—it’s designed for the low-end of the market. But it is designed to be “good enough” for nations that need decent capability that won’t break the bank. But the jet is in production after a relatively quick development cycle, it is being built in significant numbers and is more than competitive with its nearest potential adversary. In that respect, the program is a success, especially if China can find more buyers. AVIC anticipates a market for at least 300 JF-17 Thunder fighters.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Eric Salard.