JF-17 Thunder - Variants
J Jointly developed and manufactured by China and Pakistan, the single-engine multi-role light fighter jet JF-17 made its maiden flight in 2003. The first JF-17s were delivered to Pakistani clients in 2007 and a number of them were later commissioned by the Pakistan Air Force. After a decade of use, it was time for the first JF-17s to undergo overhauls. A contract was signed in 2016 and the first overhaul started in November 2017. The overhauled aircraft made its first test flight in October 2018. An overhaul includes major maintenance featuring repairs and replacement of old components including the airframe and engine. While standard, regular maintenance could be done by the military, an overhaul usually needs to be conducted by a designated and more capable supplier due to higher complexity. Such an overhaul can ensure flight safety after years of use. It might also equip the aircraft with newer technologies that enhance its capability, or prolong the aircraft's lifespan, Changsha 5712 Aircraft Industry Co Ltd under the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) reassembled the overhauled JF-17 and delivered it to its Pakistani client in March, China Aviation News reported on 20 May 2019. This was the first time AVIC has overhauled a made-for-export third generation fighter, or fourth generation according to another widely used standard. "The first [JF-17] overhaul marks an important milestone [in the JF-17 project]," Fu Qianshao, a Chinese air defense expert, told the Global Times on 21 May 2019. The first overhaul represented the trial-and-error phase of the project and provided experience in establishing standards for other JF-17 overhauls in the future,
The newer JF-17 Block-II variant — the upgrade version of the JF-17 Thunder or Xiaolong fighter jet — has more advanced weapons systems and avionics. The new variant features Air to Air refuling capability, providing it a long battle and flight time; improved avionics, creating an advantage over opponents in a dog fight; enhanced load capacity; making it capable of making more weapons and ammunition; and enhanced Data Link and electronic warfare, providing more resistance towards electronic warfare like jamming.
The deliveries of the Block II JF-17 Thunder to Pakistan Air Force were scheduled to start from the second half of the 2012 and will continue till 2015. Pakistan launched production of the JF-17 Block-II at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in 2013. The Kamra production facility was reconfigured for the production of the new version. Production of JF-17 Thunder Block 2 was expected to continue till 2016 after which manufacture of JF-17 Thunder Block 3 was planned, which may have a new engine and different weaponry. The JF-17 Block-II is likely to be a very popular combat aircraft among developing nations. The aircraft costs around $20-25 million a piece, compared to JF-17 Thunder Block I1 which costs about $15m. Three JF-17 Thunder Block 2 aircraft can be purchased in price of one F-16. The country hoped to begin exporting the aircraft in 2014, but these hopes were premature.
By 2018 PAC had so far produced 50 Block I aircraft and 50 Block II JF-17s. Twelve more Block II JF-17 aircraft are expected to be rolled out in 2018.
A Block 3 variant of the JF-17 is under development, which is expected to be much more powerful than the previous two blocks thanks to a new China-developed active electronically scanned array radar. Initially, from 2016, JF-17 Thunder Block III was to have entered into production. Once the Block-II JF-17 order is completed in 2018, PAC will switch to producing the aircraft’s most advanced version. The two-seat trainer variant of the JF-17, designated JF-17B, could be the basis for the JF-17 Block III variant. The PAF’s JF-17 is also slated to be retrofitted with a Chinese-made active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system, according to Chinese media reports. The latest version of the aircraft will also feature a new electronic warfare suite.
The development and production of the JF-17 Block 3 are underway, said Yang Wei, a Chinese legislator and chief designer of the China-Pakistan co-developed fighter jet, as he aims to enhance the jet's informatized warfare capability and weapons. "All related work is being carried out," said Yang at a 07 March 2019 press conference featuring Chinese legislators and political advisers in aviation, China Aviation News reported. The third block will see the JF-17's informatized warfare capability and weapons upgraded, Yang said.
Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, told the Global Times on Monday that the JF-17 Block 3 is expected to be fitted with an active electronically scanned array radar, which can gather more information in combat, enabling the fighter jet to engage from a farther range and attack multiple targets at the same time. A helmet-mounted display and sight system could also allow pilots to aim whatever he sees.
Pakistan, the main user of the JF-17, could further share information between the fighter and other platforms, taking advantage of the whole combat system to effectively defend against strong opponents like India, Wei said. With the new upgrade, Wei expects the JF-17 Block 3 to match an improved version of the F-16 fighter jet. Yang said that the development and batch production for the JF-17 Block 3 are going simultaneously, thanks to the broad experience. Wei said this probably means while the upgrades like the new AESA radar are still in development, the airframe, which remains roughly the same, can be manufactured without waiting.
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