JF-17: The hype and the reality

capability

With the recent induction of the JF-17 Thunder in the Pakistan Air Force, there has been a lot of coverage and excitement generated. No doubt, this aircraft and its related programs represent an important step forward for the PAF and the nation as a whole. Here on PakWheels, Omar Khalid recently briefed us on the basic details of the JF-17 as well as the lively discussion amongst Pakwheelers in fan club of JF-17 at PakWheels forums.

This short article is written with the intent of providing a critical review in order to separate the hype and the reality related to JF-17.

On paper, the specifications and the performance of the JF-17 compare very well to a number of modern aircraft. Some of these potential competitors are listed in the table below, and it is evident that the JF-17 is designed to be a light weight tactical jet aircraft well-suited to the roles envisaged for it according to PAF requirements. Please note that all figures are approximate, depend on variants, and also on the type of mission and ordnance/fuel combination carried.

Table 1A F-16 JF-17 JAS-39
Length 49’5” 45’9” 46’3”
Wingspan 32’8” 31’ 27’7”
Height 16’ 15’8” 14’9”
Wing Area 300 sq ft 263 sq ft 323 sq ft
Weight (empty) 18,900 lbs 14,134 lbs 12,600 lbs
Weight (loaded) 26,500 lbs 20,062 lbs 18,700 lbs
Weight (max takeoff) 42,300 lbs 28,000 lbs 31,000 lbs
Thrust (dry) 17,155 lbs 11,510 lbs 12,100 lbs
Thrust (max) 28,600 lbs 19,391 lbs 18,100 lbs
Speed 1,500 mph 1,378 mph 1,372 mph
Range 2,620 miles 2,175 miles 2,000 miles
Combat radius 340 miles 840 miles 432 miles
Ceiling 60,000 ft 55,000 ft 50,000 ft
Wing Loading 88.3 lbs/sq ft 76.3 lbs/sq ft 68.8 lbs/sq ft
T:W ratio 1.1 0.96 0.97
Load Factor +9G +8.5G +8.5G

(Pics of the Rafale, MiG-29, Su-27 and F-18 go here.)

Table 1B Rafale MiG-29 Su-27/30 F/A-18
Length 50’1” 57’8” 72’10” 60’1”
Wingspan 35’4” 39’4” 48’2” 44’9”
Height 17’5” 14’5” 20’9” 16’
Wing Area 492 sq ft 462 sq ft 667 sq ft 500 sq ft
Weight (empty) 22,400 lbs 29,000 lbs 39,000 lbs 30,600 lbs
Weight (loaded) 30,900 lbs 40,900 lbs 54,900 lbs 47,000 lbs
Weight (max takeoff) 54,000 lbs 54,000 lbs 76,000 lbs 66,000 lbs
Thrust (dry) 22,500 lbs 20,000 lbs 34,000 lbs 28,000 lbs
Thrust (max) 34,000 lbs 39,500 lbs 55,000 lbs 44,000 lbs
Speed 1,493 mph 1,370 mph 1,320 mph 1,190 mph
Range 2,000 miles 1,860 miles 1,620 miles 2,346 miles
Combat radius 1,000 miles 750 miles 1,000 miles 450 miles
Ceiling 55,000 ft 57,400 ft 56,800 ft 50,000 ft
Wing Loading 83.3 lbs/sq ft 90.5 lbs/sq ft 82.3 lbs/sq ft 92.8 lbs / sq ft
T:W ratio 1.1 0.97 1.0 0.93
Load Factor +9G +9G +9G +8G

The goal of having an independent aircraft designing and manufacturing ability is a noble one indeed, and one that any nation that needs an effective military deterrent aims for, just like Pakistan. The JF-17 represents an important step towards achieving this goal. However, the reality of this important advance has been caught up in hype born of both political and military bravado, unfortunately.

Let us take a short look at various steps involved in the design and production of a typical modern jet fighter so that we can then critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the JF-17 program.

Design and construction of modern military jets:

Modern military jets are complex machines indeed. Drawing up an initial proposal takes a number of steps, starting from defining the needs and the roles for the aircraft. These requirements are then refined based upon the availability of materials and equipment. Of course, in all of this, cost considerations remain an important aspect of the project.

  1. CAD/CAM: The level of computing power needed here is immense, requiring multiple mainframes and satellites working in parallel as well as series. The software required is dedicated too, relying upon direct input from classified research projects and other sources of data to be able to model the aircraft correctly. The output from the Design (CAD) aspect is then fed into the Manufacturing (CAM) aspect so that the parts can be translated faithfully according to the intended specifications. The volume of the data that is transferred securely in this entire process is immense.
  2. Metallurgy and Advanced Composites: The choice of materials is paramount to provide the strength: weight ratio and durability needed for military jets, both for the main airframe but also for the engines in particular. Not only are there the many different type of conventional alloys of steel, aluminum, and titanium, to more exotic alloys using rare metals such as beryllium and tantalum, all the way to sandwiched and nanotube fiber composites. There are only a few sources from where such state of the art materials can be reliably obtained in the required forms, but only a few facilities capable of using these materials to form the needed parts.
  3. Electronics: Modern military jets can be thought of as mere platforms to carry their electronic equipment. The three main components are the radar, the weapons system and communications. Each one is critical to the operation of the others. The radar provides the eyes and the ears, while the weapons systems provide the attack and defence capabilities that are the main reason for the jet to exist in the first place. Of course, both of these must be supervised and directed by a central controlling authority so that the particular jet can play its assigned role within the entire war theater, and that requires secure, reliable and instantaneous communications capabilities.
  4. Ancillary systems: There are a multitude of ancillary systems that must also be integrated into the basic airframe, engine and avionics package. The most important of these is obviously the ejection seat system, but other subsystems like those controlling the pilot’s environment (including the g-suit), and routine servicing (both major, minor, and in the field), are included in the overall package.
  5. Testing: Once all these systems have been designed, manufactured and integrated, testing is required to military levels standards, which are indeed very rigorous. A detailed discussion of such testing is outside the scope of this article, but suffice to say that this testing process needs its own set of specialized equipment, laboratory and bench testing facilities of all components large and small, as well as the related expertise in materials, and testing hardware and software.

With this brief background, we can now begin to look at how the JF-17 has come from signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between China and Pakistan in 1995 to the point of being officially inducted in the PAF in 2010, and what that actually represents.

Main components of the JF-17:

  1. Airframe: The basic design of the airframe is a further development from the remains of the joint Sabre 2 project between Chengdu Aircraft Industries of China and Grumman Aerospace Corporation of the USA after it was halted in 1991 after being in development for many years prior to that. This aircraft is based on a standard semi-monocoque spar/ bulkhead/ stressed skin construction using aluminum alloys with no stealth features or advanced composites used to date, although further development may change this aspect. Initial flight testing in 2003 revealed control problems that required a redesign of the wing’s leading edges and the tailfin. Pakistan received the first two pre-production planes in 2007 for assembly at the Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF) portion of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra. AMF-PAC completed the assembly within eight days, and these airplanes were able to participate in the March 23rd parade of the same year. Another six aircraft were added in 2008. AMF-PAC is currently manufacturing only sub-assemblies for future production with all major structural components being produced in China. The design work has been carried out using the French CATIA Product Life Cycle Management software running in the well-known Microsoft Windows environment. This software package is a joint project between Dassault Systems and IBM that was started in the late 1970s for the Mirage fighter jets of that time. The real strength of this software environment comes from the customized user libraries that provide materials and testing data as well as interfaces with other dedicated software packages that provide additional functionality.
  2. Powerplant: The powerplant currently is a Chinese version of the Soviet Klimov RD-33/93 turbofan engine. Initial testing in 2003 revealed problems with air intake design causing excessive smoke issues, which were reduced by a redesign of the intakes. Further complications were caused by licensing issues with the Soviets refusing to allow sale to Pakistan, which were resolved, although not completely, to allow delivery of the first few planes. There are plans to replace this engine with a Chinese Guizhou WS-13 turbofan engine that has been under development since 2000 to improve the poor MTBO (Mean Time Between Overhaul) of the RD-33/93 of between 300 to 1,000 hours, smoke production and stall characteristics under high angles of attack with many new features. Improved smoke performance and an MTBO of 2,200 hours is a target that has yet to be achieved.
  3. Avionics: The Kamra Avionics and Radar Factory (KARF) portion of the PAC has used its previous experience with integrating western avionics into Chinese aircraft to attempt to integrate the Italian Grifo-7 radar into the PAF JF-17s using equipment provided by the US company APS Novastar for production and assembly of circuit boards. However, these plans are still underway and are not finalized, so the first 42 PAF aircraft will use a Chinese KLJ-7 radar, which is a smaller and limited export version of their KLJ-10 radar system. This system has limited Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capabilities. Other components of the avionics package such as the Electronic Warfare (EW) suite and the Heads-Up and Helmet-Mounted Displays (HUD/HMD) are an integration of various commercially available products.
  4. Weapons systems: These have not yet been finalized, but will likely include various Chinese, US and European subsystems. Live fire-trials are planned, but to date, no PAF JF-17 has fired an SD-10 or AIM-9L missile successfully in a BVR environment, and this remains a goal. Of course, a multitude of conventional weapons have been demonstrated successfully under visual conditions and details are available elsewhere, including the use in military operations in South Waziristan and the High Mark 2010 exercise.

PAF requirements:

The PAF is one of the most capable airforces in the world, despite many disadvantages, major among which are limited financial resources and reliance on foreign technology. A major effort to indigenize the service, remanufacture and recondition its rapidly aging Chinese and French aircraft fleet over 35 years ago led to the establishment of the F-6 and Mirage rebuild factories, which then grew into the complete PAC at Kamra of today. These facilities now form an important part of the PAF, and are now beginning to develop design and manufacturing expertise according to PAF requirements, and as free from foreign interference as possible. However, the major role continues to be service and overhaul of the existing fleet. PAF still does not have access to the level of financial resources needed to truly develop an independent aircraft design and manufacturing capability, and there is not enough of an industrial foundation to provide critically needed associated resources (for example in materials/metallurgy, engines, computing, testing), although these remain cherished goals.

Political Considerations:

The story of the JF-17, in the context of the present article, is a very good example of how national needs and capabilities and international geopolitical realities interplay to influence outcomes. This story starts with the realization in the 70s just how far Pakistan was falling behind the international community, and continues to the present with various attempts to catch up, some successful (the atomic bomb and missile delivery systems), some partly successful (the JF-17 and the steel mill) and some abject failures (industrial and agricultural strength and socioeconomic development). A detailed discussion of these factors is beyond the scope of the present article, but there are appropriate threads at PakWheels where this may take place after readers have read this article and are inclined to participate.

Summary:

The JF-17 represents an important advance for both PAF and Pakistan, from relying on jetfighter technology of the 50s and 60s, to at least the 70s and 80s. It is not a state-of-the art airplane by any means, and its design and manufacture will continue to rely on several foreign countries for years to come. However, the basic design is well suited to the needs of the PAF, and if further development can be integrated with the critical transfer of technologies needed to indigenize design and manufacture of jet aircraft and related military capabilities, then this project does indeed have the potential to act as the kernel around which such projects may be able to grow in the future.

  • Mazhar J

    Very well balanced and realistic commentary. At least we have a platform where no more embargo will stop us. This is a very appropriately priced Aircraft, designed for countries with less resources. Better to buy a few aircraft worth $25 to $28 Millions each instead of one big shot of $80 to $90 million a piece of US or European origin. Whatever -ve comments are coming, specially from Indians, will not make us astray from the path.

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