The JF-17 Thunder (also known as the FC-1 Xiaolong), a combined development project between “all-weather” partners China and Pakistan, hasn’t quite been selling like hotcakes on the international budget fighter market. The lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat jet, jointly developed by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, sells at an attractive price point, with a unit cost of just around $15-25 million. If there’s one point China and Pakistan would emphasize in a sales pitch, its the price. Still, as I’ve noted before on The Diplomat, the jet hasn’t been the easiest sale. Concerned with prestige and the unproven nature of the somewhat experimental take on the classic Russian MiG-21, budget militaries have just been unwilling to jump into the deep end and commit to the JF-17 … until now.
Defense News reports that Bulgaria may be the first credible purchaser of the JF-17. Pakistan will offer 16 JF-17 jets under a tender for the Bulgarian Air Force. The purchase makes sense for the Bulgarian Air Force, as the jets will be replacing its legacy MiG-21s, according to the report. The Bulgarian Defense Ministry’s other shortlisted aircraft include the considerably more expensive U.S. F-16s, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Swedish Gripen. These jets run at roughly $27 million, $95 million, and $69 million per unit respectively, with higher anticipated maintenance costs across the board. Both the Block I and Block II variants of the JF-17 come in at a relatively low cost-per-unit of $20 and $25 million respectively. With its background in operating MiG-21s, the JF-17 should realistically be a low-friction, low-cost upgrade for the Bulgarian Air Force.
If the deal goes through, Bulgaria would become the first foreign country to operate the Sino-Pakistani fighter. Currently, the Pakistani Air Force is the only one to operate the fighters.
Bulgaria is probably the most credible potential purchaser of the JF-17 at this point. As Robert Farley noted on Flashpoints previously, Argentina and Nigeria are both facing a set of procurement constraints that make the JF-17 an attractive option. Myanmar was reported as a JF-17 customer back in summer 2014 but has so far not confirmed its intention to purchase the jets. Pakistani media reports have also floated other potential destinations for the JF-17 as early as 2013, including Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.