According to reports by DefenseNews and DefenseTalk, Pakistan launched production of the Block-II JF-17 combat aircraft at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex near Islamabad. The Diplomat reported earlier this year that Pakistan expected to begin exporting the JF-17 in 2014; the beginning of production last week is set to keep it on track to meet that deadline.
The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex has already produced 50 older, less-advanced Block-I JF-17s for the Pakistan air force. The newer Block-II variants possess more advanced weapons systems and avionics. The JF-17s are low-cost multirole single engine fighters jointly developed between Pakistan and China. China refers to the JF-17 as the FC-1 Xiaolong.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex last week for “briefings on the exports of the Pakistan Air Force’s aircraft, the JF-17 Thunder,” according to a report by The Tribune. The event was intended to inaugurate the beginning of the production of the Block-II JF-17s and was attended by Chinese delegates and the Pakistan air force. Sharif said the JF-17 project would “expand the friendship between China and Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s air force intends the JF-17 to replace its aging Dassault Mirage-III/5 and Chengdu F-7P aircraft. The first batch of JF-17s replaced the Nanchang A-5 Fantan attack aircraft, according to DefenseNews.
The JF-17s could be a commercial coup for China and Pakistan. There is a major cadre of countries interested in importing the aircraft, which is appealing given its low price and performance. A 2010 report indicates a long list of potential buyers including Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Congo, Egypt, Indonesia (which has already signed an agreement with Pakistan), Iran, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Air Marshal Sohail Gul Khan of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex has also reiterated the interest earlier this year: “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.”
Regardless, Pakistan remains the only country to have formally purchased the JF-17 for use in its air force so far. The JF-17 has begun to enter Pakistan’s strategic community as an important asset. Usman Shabbir, an analyst of the Pakistan Military Consortium, described the value added by the Block-II JF-17s for Pakistan’s air defense capabilities. According to Shabbir, 50 JF-17s “are enough to form three squadrons with a typical squadron strength of 16 aircraft.” He adds, “From early 2014 the first Block-II will rollout. Block-II has no airframe changes other than the addition of [an in-flight refuelling probe] which would later also be refitted to all Block-I aircraft. Most of the improvements are in radar and avionics.”