During the campaign period for the 2016 Presidential elections, one joke I would occasionally come out with on my page went something like, “oh don’t worry, if Rodrigo Duterte becomes President, our Air Force would eventually end up with the JF-17 Thunder as its Multi-Role Fighter (MRF), ha-ha-ha”.
And then the May 2016 elections came, and he won. By a fricking landslide. Five months into the new administration, in December 2016 Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said in a newspaper interview that they were looking at importing weapons from Pakistan where the JF-17 is currently being made.1 Note that Dominguez is also one of Duterte’s closest advisers, being a childhood friend and former classmate.2 So the jokes came out again.
And finally, recently an article from a Brazilian website confirmed the existence of a lobby group that is seeking to acquire the JF-17 for the Philippines.3 So it seems that the thing that I kept making fun of could be coming closer and closer to reality, and I thought it is time to come up with this blog.
’Bring on the Thunder’
You gotta give credit the Pakistanis and Chinese to come up with quite a catchy name, the “Thun-durr”, although a bit optimistic since it is a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). An LCA with quite a strong and intimidating name. A couple of past and present western aircraft has been named “Lightning”, but no, this is not just “lightning”, this is the “THUNDER”.
Anyway, the JF-17 is single-engine, supersonic multi-role aircraft that first flew in 2003. It was derived from the Chinese made J-7 aircraft which is a licensed copy of the then Soviet Union’s MIG-21 Fishbed fighter aircraft. The JF-17 is made by a joint venture of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chinese company Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC).
The Pakistani Air Force is currently its main operator, with Myanmar and Nigeria buying it in smaller numbers. The Thunder is also known as the FC-1 Xiaolong in China, with Xiaolong meaning “Fierce Dragon” (another very optimistic name for an LCA).
It is combat tested, having seen action in the Waziristan region of Pakistan by bombing militant positions there, and has even shot down an Iranian drone near Pakistan’s border with Iran.
The current production version of the JF-17 is the Block 2 (Blk 2), and there is a Block 3 (Blk 3) version coming up, although no complete configuration for that has been released yet as of now.
I have decided to compare below the Thunder with a couple of aircraft which I feel is relevant to us, starting with our own FA-50PH Fighting Eagle; The JF-17’s main LCA rival, India’s Tejas Mk 1 which is the current version that is already flying; and the JAS-39E Gripen NG, just so we can see how it compares to a heavier MRF and which also is reportedly a favorite of the Philippine Air Force.
’WVR Capability’4 5 6 7
Below is the comparison of some characteristics and the Within Visual Range (WVR) or “Close Range” combat capability of each aircraft based on their Avionics, Weapons and Performance:
Characteristics: The Thunder has around the same weight as the FA-50PH and Tejas, while the Gripen NG is set apart by being heavier by around 2-3,000 kg and faster by around 0.4 Mach.
Performance: The JF-17 has better Wing Loading and Thrust to Weight (TTW) ratio than the FA-50PH and Gripen NG, but not as good as that of the Tejas which beats all aircraft in terms of performance.
However, the JF-17 only has a Hybrid (i.e., partly mechanical) Fly by Wire (FBW) flight control system which means it will be harder to fly at the edge of its performance envelope compared to the other aircraft with full FBW systems.
So that evens things out with the FA-50PH. A newer version of the Thunder, the JF-17B is already flying with full FBW capability,8 but no confirmation yet if full FBW will also be incorporated into the Blk 3 version.
WVR Weapons and Avionics: The Thunder is hampered by the lack of a Helmet Mounted Sight (HMS) and High Off Boresight Missiles (HOBM) compared to the Tejas and Gripen NG, although this will reportedly be corrected on their Blk 3 version.
It does have a higher caliber and faster firing cannon than the FA-50PH, though. The Gripen NG has the most powerful and longest ranged cannon among the four, but it also has the slowest rate of fire.
Overall: In terms of WVR capability, I would put the JF-17 as slightly better than the FA-50PH because of its better gun, but less than the Tejas or the Gripen NG.
BVR Weapons and Avionics: Here the Thunder trumps the Tejas and FA-50PH because it has longer ranged radar and missile (at least on paper). The Gripen NG theoretically has the best radar, although this is just an estimate as no fairly reliable data of the exact range of its Raven ES-05A Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar is currently available. The Gripen also has the best BVR weapon and has a built in Infra Red Search and Track (IRST) system.
’Payload and Range’
Below is the comparison of the Payload of each aircraft based on full internal fuel, and a rough calculation of their range using the Internal Fuel Fraction (IntFF, the ratio of the weight of the internal fuel of the aircraft compared to its maximum take-off weight):
Payload and Range: The Thunder ends up at bottom in terms of Payload since it carries 800 kg less than the Tejas. The FA-50PH and Gripen NG can carry significally more payload.
Range of the JF-17 is expected to be about the same as the Tejas and FA-50PH, but the fact that it has aerial refueling capability makes it better than both. And here the Gripen NG pulls away from the pack with an expected longer range and having the best payload among all four aircraft.
One good thing about the JF-17 is that, like the T-50/FA-50 family of aircraft, it has been in service for awhile in respectable numbers, so we can have a good look at its operational history. It was commissioned into service with the Pakistani Air Force in 2007, and currently they have around 70 aircraft in service.11 So far I could only find two crashes of the JF-17 as reported thru major news organizations: One in 2011,12 and another one in 2016.13
In contrast, even after more than three decades of development, the Tejas is still nowhere near full operational status. It seems that they will now be skipping full production of the Mk 1 and will instead enter mass production with the Mk 1A, but that will only happen in 2021.14 And this is assuming that there won’t be any more delays with that program.
’Large Weapons Options’
Another good thing about the JF-17 is that it is currently already qualified for a wide array of weapons made by a couple of countries.15 Aside from the Air to Air Missiles (AAM) mentioned above, other Chinese advanced weapons that it can use include the C-802AK long range subsonic Anti-Ship Missile (AShM), the CM-400AKG long range supersonic AShM and LS-series of Satellite/Inertial Navigation System (INS)/Electro Optical (EO)/Infra Red (IR) guided bombs.
It can also use some American weapons like the AIM-9L/M Sidewinder AAMs, GBU-10/12 Laser Guided Bombs (LGB) and Mk 8 Series of unguided General Purpose (GP) Bombs. It is also qualified for the MAR-1 Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM) made by Brazil for use against Radars.
And of course it can also use Pakistani smart weapons like the Hafr-2/4 Stand Off Weapon (SOW) EO/IR guided glide bombs and Haft-VIII/Ra’ad land-attack Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
On the other hand, our FA-50PH are only qualified for less than a handful of American missiles/smart weapons. Some weapons manufacturers like Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd and Europe’s Taurus Systems GmbH are offering integration of more advanced weapons for the FA-50,16 17 but none has materialized yet and their integration will incur additional time, money and effort.
One big weakness of Russian and Chinese fighter aircraft though are their engines and airframes, they are not always as durable as that of western aircraft. The Russian Klimov RD-93 that the JF-17 uses, for example, needs to be overhauled (i.e., removed from the aircraft, taken apart for examination and then make repairs or replacements as necessary) after every 600 hours of operation.
The Chinese Guizhou WS-13 engine which is an alternative for use with the JF-17 is even worst, requiring overhaul after only 300 hours.18 The General Electric (GE) F404 engine that our FA-50PH uses on the other hand requires no routine overhaul requirement, it can be inspected while attached to the aircraft using borescopes thru ports located around the engine.
It also has a In-flight Engine Computer Monitoring System (IECMS) that monitors for malfunctions and keeps track of the lifetime of the parts. It also alerts the crew of any issues, and parts are then replaced as needed, or when they reach their recommended service life.19
The Total Engine Life (i.e., total number of hours in operation before the entire engine needs to be replaced) of the RD-93 is also only 1,300 hours, whereas that of the F404 is 4,000 hours.20
’A Better Engine’
The RD-93 engine does have an Electronic Engine Controller (EEC), but this is a step below the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) on the F404 engine. The difference between the two is that EEC is only concerned with controlling the engine, and it not fully automated, the pilot can still intervene manually with the engine if he or she wants to.
FADEC on the other hand is a wider system where the EEC is just one function of it, with other functions including Diagnostics Checks and Data Collection. And it is fully automated, meaning the computer has total control of all of the engine’s functions.21 Think of it as like a FBW system, but instead of the flight controls, it applies to the engine.
There is a version of the RD-93 that has FADEC, the RD-33MK Sea Wasp which is used on the MIG-29K Fulcrum aircraft. It has slightly more thrust, has a better Time Between Overhaul (TBO) of 1,000 hours and a better lifespan of 4,000 hours.22
Pakistan is considering getting the RD-33MK for their JF-17,23 although nothing concrete has been done so far in that direction. In case our Air Force considers getting the JF-17, then they should push for such an engine. It may increase the cost of the acquisition, but I think it will be worth it.
The airframe of the JF-17 itself is not so durable with a service life only 3,000 operating hours before it is in need of an overhaul. The FA-50PH’s airframe on the other hand, is rated at more than three times as much with a service life of 10,000 operating hours.24
So assuming an average of 400 Flight Hours (FH) of use per aircraft per year, then that means that the JF-17 will require an engine overhaul every one and a half years; Engine replacement every three years; and airframe overhaul every seven and a half years of operation.
For the same average FHs for the FA-50PH, it will need an engine replacement only after ten years, and airframe overhaul every 25 years.
The biggest issue with the JF-17 though may not be related to its capability or anything technical in nature, but more on the political circumstances surrounding it. There are some in the government who have a deep, deep hatred for China because of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue, and thus will oppose any adoption of Chinese equipment like the Thunder.
Their resistance can take the form of constantly finding ways to look and find faults in the operation of the aircraft. And there is also the issue of Duterte himself. Right now he is friendly to China and China in turn is very friendly to the Philippines, allowing our fishermen access to the WPS, providing weapons and grants/loans.
But as President, Duterte only has a limited, fixed term in power and thus the question will be what will happen to purchases like the JF-17 if the next sitting President will insist on China leaving the WPS, just like PNoy did. If that happens, then tensions with China will make it very difficult to maintain an aircraft like the JF-17 which will need spare parts from China’s joint venture with Pakistan.
The JF-17 is a good aircraft with good features, but it is inferior in terms of payload and range when compared to the heavier MRFs out there like the Gripen NG, F-16C Fighting Falcon or any of the Flanker family of aircraft. Hence we should go after those better aircraft as much as possible if we can afford them.
It may be possible to put most of the JF-17’s features on a new version of the FA-50PH like air to air refueling, BVR capability, HMS and HOBM, but that will increase the weight of the aircraft and thereby affecting its performance further, which is already less than the JF-17 right now. And the added internal weight will also lessen the FA-50PH’s external payload.
There is also the issue of FA-50PH’s co-developer Lockheed Martin (LM) which may be “nerfing” (i.e. intentionally making less capable) the FA-50PH so it won’t compete directly with their beloved F-16C aircraft which they are still producing. I think at best is that LM will allow some additional features to future versions of the FA-50PH … but not too much, it still won’t be at the same level as the JF-17.
’For the Philippines?’
Despite being a decent aircraft with some advantages and nice features, I think that the current production JF-17 Blk 2 aircraft is not suited to be our main fighter aircraft ahead of the FA-50PH. True, compared to the FA-50PH it has better performance in WVR combat, better guns, more weapons options and it has air to air refueling and BVR capability.
But to get those, we will need to trade down to a lesser payload, less advanced hybrid FBW system and engine (which requires more maintenance and more frequent replacement), and less durable airframe. A worthwhile version of the JF-17 for us I think would be one that retains all of the advantages of the Blk 2 version, but with a full FBW system, an RD-33MK engine (with FADEC, longer TBO and engine life); an HMS and an HOBM.
The Blk 3 version is promising, but up to now we still don’t know exactly what goes into to such a version. An initial set of specifications was released, but it is not complete.25
And even if the Blk 3 version is finalized, it may not necessarily have all the features that we might want, and it won’t solve all of the issues of the JF-17 like less payload and less airframe life.
On top of that, there is opposition within the government itself of getting such a Chinese made weapon, and the long term sustainment of the aircraft’s maintenance depends on our ability to maintain a friendly relationship with China beyond Duterte’s term, which may or may not happen.
The JF-17 to me embodies the typical Russian and Chinese mentality when it comes to military equipment in that it may lack some advanced features, but it is effective, it works, it does its job well for the missions it is assigned to.
But it can do those jobs only in the short term before it is in need of parts overhaul or replacement. For our Air Force, I think the JF-17 will be facing an uphill battle. If we do decide to get it though, we will have to live with some of its compromises and risks.
China does have another single engine fighter aircraft out there, the J-10 Firebird which is better, but it still won’t solve all of the JF-17’s issues, and it is a bit more expensive.
Philippines mulls defense asset imports from Pakistan,
Who’s who in Duterte’s Inner Circle,
Exportação de Super Tucanos para as Filipinas pode ser quadruplicada (tudo depende Dele…),
Technology Focus Vol. 1, No. 1 – LCA Tejas,
Gripen E in Brief,
JF-17B prototype reportedly nearing maiden test flight,
- Smarter (and Simpler) Radar in Harpoon, (https://web.archive.org/web/20160313125508/https://clashofarms.com/files/Smarter%20Radars%20for%20Hpn.pdf) ↩
KLJ-7/10 Fire Control Radar (FCR) (China), Airborne radar systems,
Pakistan Formally Equips Fifth JF-17 Squadron,
DUBAI: JF-17 crashes in Pakistan’s Kamra,
PAF JF-17 crashes into Arabian Sea,
With 83 Tejas MK1A orders in the kitty, Can HAL deliver or will ADA catch up with Tejas MK2?,
FC-1 “Chao Qi” / JF-17 Thunder Specifications,
Philippines looks to greatly expand airpower capabilities,
- Taurus seeks to supply long-range missiles on Korea’s FA-50, (https://web.archive.org/web/20160304073226/http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2015/10/116_189345.html) ↩
JF-17 Thunder – a road to operational maturity,
Engine Condition Monitoring System for the Canadian Forces F404-GE-400 Engine,
KN5-1 Reducing Military Aircraft Engine Development Cost through Modeling and Simulation,
Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC),
Pakistan might consider the Klimov RD-33MK for JF-17,
T-50 Golden Eagle, South Korea,
Pakistan Inches Closer to JF-17 Block-III,