Pakistan will begin exporting the JF-17 Thunder multirole fighter jet next year Pakistani media outlets reported on Friday, citing unnamed officials from the Ministry of Defense Production.
According to a report that appeared in multiple Pakistani newspapers, “The Pakistan Air Force has been assigned [a] target of exporting 5 to 7 JF-17 Thunder planes next year and discussions in this regard are under way with Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Qatar and other friendly countries.”
The JF-17 Thunder aircraft is a low-cost, single engine multirole fighter aircraft jointly developed by China and Pakistan. It is referred to as the FC-1 Xiaolong by China.
The JF-17 is powered by the Russian-made RD-93 turbofan engine, although there have been reports that later aircraft may be powered by a Chinese-made engine due to Russian concerns that the JF-17 would compete for international sales with its own MIG-29 Fulcrum.
According to Sino Defense, the joint project was launched in 1999 with China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) as the lead contractor for the development and manufacture of the FC-1 Xiaolong and Pakistani Aeronautical Complex (PAC) being in charge of post-sale maintenance of the jet. However, in recent years Pakistan has begun manufacturing the JF-17 Thunder domestically.
The JF-17 Thunder’s initial purpose was to provide Pakistan’s Air Force with a cheap alternative to comparable Western fighters at a time when the U.S. and allies were sanctioning Islamabad following its 1998 nuclear tests. Pakistan took delivery of its first JF-17 from China in 2007, and inducted its first JF-17 Thunder squadron in 2010. Another squadron was inducted the following year. Altogether, Pakistan may procure as many as 250 fighter jets for its own Air Force.
China is reportedly still considering equipping the PLA Air Force with the aircraft, although this is generally seen as unlikely by most analysts. Comments made by Chinese military officials have also implied that Beijing does not intend to use the aircraft itself.
For a number of years now China and Pakistan have also been touting the export potential of the JF-17 Thunder. A seemingly endless number of countries have been floated as potential buyers of the aircraft. In 2010, it was reported that China and Pakistan had already offered the plane to Indonesia, and were targeting Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Congo, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela and Zimbabwe for sales. The same year Flight Global quoted a Chinese defense industry official as saying, “We’re talking with six to eight countries about the JF-17.”
Earlier this year, the chairman of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Air Marshal Sohail Gul Khan, boasted: “We’ve been getting inquiries and expressions of interest for the JF-17 Thunder from many countries in the Middle East, Africa and from as far as South America.” In June of this year Argentine officials told Jane’s that they were in talks to jointly produce a version of the FC-1 Xiaolong with China.
Despite all the talk, the only country to have purchased the aircraft is Pakistan. This is not unusual for Chinese-built weapon systems. Indeed, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China surpassed the United Kingdom last year as the world’s fifth largest weapons exporter. Still, no less than 55 percent of its arms sales went to Pakistan. While Beijing benefits by having a country that will purchase its defense technology, Islamabad benefits from having an “all-weather” supplier who has proven willing to help it build a domestic defense industry.
Along with having a mutual adversary in India, this enduring strategic logic has kept Chinese-Pakistan defense ties strong over the years. In fact, Pakistan's Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is currently in the middle of a four-day trip to China.