The JF-17 Thunder (also known as the FC-1 Xiaolong) is a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft developed jointly by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. With a relatively low unit cost of $15-25 million, price is the primary selling point for this capable and versatile jet which Flashpoints‘ Robert Farley has described as conceptually a “modern MiG-21.” Despite the seemingly positive bang-for-buck proposition, the JF-17 has had a hard time finding committed buyers. Indeed, part of the reason that defense procurement programs the world over have shirked the jet is prestige, but additionally, the jet remains largely unproven. While a few states have expressed interest, Pakistan and China received some bad news this week with the news that Egypt — a major regional military — will likely instead go with France’s Rafale and Mirage 2000-series of jets.
As reported by Defense News, Egypt will likely acquire the Mirage fighters (specifically the 2000-9s and refurbished 2000-5s) off the United Arab Emirates, and is also currently in the process of negotiating a contract for 20 Rafale fighters. Egypt has additionally shown interest in the MiG-35. All of these options carry a significantly higher per-unit cost compared to the JF-17. The Rafale starts at around $90 million per unit, a considerably larger sum than the JF-17’s modest asking price. While these jets certainly offer advanced capabilities over the JF-17 to make up for their higher price tags (particularly in the areas of avionics and maneuverability), the JF-17 being passed over will undoubtedly frustrate both China and Pakistan.
Egypt’s decision to go with the more pedigreed jet offerings will prove uneconomical. As one analyst who spoke to Defense News notes, “Considering the current Egyptian economical situation, any purchase of Rafale or Mirages would have to be bankrolled by its Arab allies [Saudi Arabia and the UAE].” While the JF-17 would have likely been an entirely adequate solution to the Egyptian Air Force’s needs, the government will go with a considerably more expensive option. This doesn’t bode particularly well for the fortunes of the JF-17 elsewhere.
As Rob noted in his piece back in December, part of the importance of the JF-17 for China in particular is its potential to serve as a “gateway drug” for additional Chinese fighter exports. Each state that opts for the JF-17 is likely to consider the more expensive and advanced J-31 and other offerings. If economically constrained governments like Egypt are not price sensitive enough to see the appeal in the JF-17, China and Pakistan may have a harder time than foreseen competing with Russia for fighter sales. Even though Russian jets require considerably more expensive infrastructure to maintain and have higher operating costs, states continue to be attracted to the tried-and-true formula. If the JF-17 can’t compete on the basis of price, it may fail to take off entirely.