The Chengdu/PAC JF-17 Thunder is a rustic Chinese fighter with an old-fashioned design that is still effective in air-to-air mode.

In this first quarter of the 21st century, the appearance of a new model of fighter aircraft is inevitably an event in the aeronautical microcosm. Many expect the machine to be as versatile as possible, to have a reduced radar signature, and to be equipped with the latest electronics and optronics. Also, when the aircraft is rather rustic, not stealthy at all, and with an architecture reminiscent of the 1980s, it can only arouse interest because we think that it will never be built in series. And when it is, it is the Chengdu / PAC JF-17 Thunder from China and Pakistan!

The origins of this aircraft are complicated. Unlike the European Panavia Tornado and Eurofighter EF-2000 Typhoon programs, the development of the Chengdu / PAC JF-17 Thunder does not really stem from a common need between China and Pakistan for such an aircraft, but rather from a convergence of interests between the two countries. The former knew how to make fighters at the very moment when the latter really needed them. It must be said that the Pakistani aeronautical industry is rather in its infancy. Apart from the licensed production of the Swedish Saab MFI-15 Safari trainer, and subcontracting to China, it has never been very effective.

Chengdu/PAC JF-17 Thunder

It was in 1999 that Pakistan turned to China to find a solution to its severe lack of modern fighters. Apart from a handful of General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcons, the Pakistani air force was only fielding aging aircraft such as the Chengdu F-7 Fishcan and the Dassault Mirage III. In addition, the Pakistanis were hoping to find a successor to their Nanchang A-5 Fantan attack aircraft.

A political agreement was reached between the two countries. The Chinese aircraft manufacturer Chengdu would organize 75% of the development and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex the remaining 25%. However, PAC could assemble the aircraft locally for its own market.

The program was then designated the JF-17 Thunder. China, for its part, gave it the designation FC-1 Xiaolong.

In fact, the Chengdu designers didn’t go far to come up with a design for the aircraft. They took out of the box the works of the late Super 7, a fighter designed between 1986 and 1989 with the help of the American aircraft manufacturer Grumman. Already it was a question of finding a successor J-7 Fishcan, but then only for Chinese needs. After the dramatic events of Tiananmen Square, the program was abandoned, as the United States broke off all technological relations with China. Chengdu already had a good basis for the future JF-17 Thunder.

However, since the Chinese and Pakistanis had different views on the program, development work slowed down. So much so that the prototype designated PT-01 did not carry out its first taxiing tests until May 2003. On August 25 of the same year, this prototype made the first flight of the JF-17 Thunder.

Externally, the aircraft is a single-engine aircraft of all-metal construction with retractable tricycle landing gear and a pressurized cockpit. Its wing is in a median position. The Chengdu / PAC JF-17 Thunder is available as a single-seat fighter or two-seat operational conversion aircraft, powered by a Klimov RD-93 turbojet engine developing 5035 kg of dry thrust or 8618 kg with afterburner. This is the turbojet engine fitted in the USSR and then in Russia to the Mikoyan MiG-29 twin-engine fighter.

The JF-17 Thunder’s armament consists of a Russian-made 23mm calibre GSh-23 cannon with a 4600 kilogram external load. Chinese-made PL-5, PL-9, and PL-12 air-to-air missiles provide the bulk of its fighter armament, while the aircraft can fire Chinese-developed C-802AK anti-ship missiles as well as several types of smoothbore and guided bombs, including some developed in the United States.

The pilot sits on a Russian-made zero-zero ejection seat, while the on-board radar is a Chinese-made KLJ-7.

The first production aircraft entered service in March 2007 with the Pakistan Air Force. Very quickly it appeared that the designation FC-1 Xiaolong was going to become totally phantom since China refused to order the aircraft in series. It would have been redundant with the much more modern Chengdu J-10 Firebird that entered service a few months earlier.

Initially, therefore, the planned production was seventy-six machines: fifty single-seat JF-17As and twenty-six two-seat JF-17Bs for Pakistan.

In 2013, the Chinese-Pakistani consortium decided to offer its aircraft on the international market. For this purpose, the JF-17 Block 3 was developed, which differed from the Block 1 in that it had a new Italian-made Grifone S-7 radar, a GPS and an improved head-up display. In addition, the aircraft was offered with the capacity to carry and fire four American-made GBU-12 laser-guided bombs as well as Chinese PL-15 very long-range air-to-air missiles.

And it worked. China won a contract for ten aircraft, nine single-seaters and one two-seater, from Myanmar. Pakistan managed to sell three single-seaters to Nigeria in 2019. At the same time, Pakistan doubled its initial order by buying JF-17 Block 2s, Block 3s adapted to their needs and incapable of firing the GBU-12, which has been embargoed by the United States.

By the end of 2020, the Pakistanis were fielding 138 of these fighters, both single and two-seaters.

Much more of a fighter-bomber than a true multi-role fighter, the Chengdu / PAC JF-17 Thunder is also a formidable fighter in air-to-air mode. In February 2019 a patrol of these fighters shot down an Indian Mikoyan-Gurevitch MiG-21 Fishbed and Sukhoi Su-30 MKI Flanker-C in a border skirmish. The first of these fighters was shot down by machine gun and the second by air-to-air missile.

It should be noted that a JF-17A is presented by Pakistan as a Solo Display with a special livery featuring the colors of the national flag. It notably caused a sensation in June 2019 at the Paris Air Show. Today, countries such as Albania, Egypt, Sudan, Ukraine and Uruguay have expressed their interest in the JF-17 Block 3.

The aircraft could therefore be a future export success.

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