TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — According to China’s state media narrative, the country’s modern aircraft are the best in the world, yet Pakistan’s experience with the Chinese-made JF-17 tells a different story.
As China continues to conduct sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ, it is worth noting the many structural issues that have dogged this weapons platform. Considering the headaches it has caused makes it clear the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) would have been better off staying with U.S.-made aircraft — the kind Taiwan is equipped with.
The first images of Pakistan’s new mass-produced JF-17 Thunder (Block III) have surfaced in recent days. The new version is hoped to be a radical departure from the clunky earlier JF-17 models, yet questions hang over the extent of its supposed upgrades.
The JF-17 has a checkered history that started in 1999 when Islamabad and Beijing signed an agreement to jointly develop and produce the aircraft. Pakistani leaders envisaged a low-cost, lightweight, all-weather multi-role fighter, something akin to the Russian Su-30MKI or the French Mirage 2000. The reality fell well short of their high hopes.
Since its operational induction in 2009, downings have been all too common. In 2012, Pakistani media recorded a string of 12 crashes over 18 months, among which were several JF-17s. In August last year, another newly built dual seat model crashed only a year after being made and 96 hours of flight time, according to Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
Though the PAF has brought over 100 JF-17 Block Is and Block IIs into active service, due to a shortage of spare parts, approximately 40 aircraft are not airworthy, per reports. Though most parts are sourced from China, some are brought in from several other countries which have complicated maintenance.
The engine of the JF-17 is the Russian-made RD-93, which has caused repeated failures. A large number of engines have reportedly experienced cracks in guide vanes, exhaust nozzles, and flame stabilizers.
The shoddy engines are also hard to replace, in part due to U.S. sanctions on the Russian supplier agency, which has caused complications with dollar-denominated transactions. The engine cannot be directly sourced by Pakistan from the OEM or further exported by it.
The KLJ-7 radar undergirds JF-17 avionics (or “aviation electronics”), but it consistently exhibits below-grade performance and has been plagued by several operational issues since the beginning of the JF-17 project. Despite China’s Nanjing Research Institute of Electronics Technology recommending retrofitting, the radar continues to experience a high failure rate.
Pakistan hopes the latest model — the Block III — will finally pull the platform out of its technical funk. The engine, at least, is expected to get an upgrade, with either an RD-93MA (an upgrade of the RD-93) or a Chinese WS-13 engine.
However, the latest images show no visible changes to the exterior of the engine, suggesting it is probably fitted with the Klimov RD-93MA or even the same legacy RD-93, though this has yet to be confirmed. Regardless of how it performs, if it is a Russian engine again, serviceability will continue to dog the platform in the future.
Thankfully for Pakistan, they have American planes in their hangers too. U.S.-made F-16s have been in service of the PAF since 1981 which, unlike the JF-17, has helped Pakistani pilots win several dog fights over the years, according to National Interest. The latest example was the downing of an Indian fighter in 2019, per reports.