By Talat Masood
The rolling out of the first indigenously assembled JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft marks a major achievement in defence production. It demonstrates how far Pakistan has progressed in defence production considering that at the time of independence, there was not a single industrial unit pertaining to the same in the country. All ordnance factories and defence industrial units were located in India and research and development facilities were non-existent. This event is also significant as the manufacture of a fighter aircraft is a qualitative jump in terms of technology and industrial production. It is also a shining example of the close cooperation and support that China is providing to Pakistan in the entire spectrum of defence.
In modern warfare, air power has the most dominant and critical role as was amply demonstrated during the Gulf wars and Balkan and Afghan operations. Our own experience of 1965 and 1971 wars clearly brought out the efficacy of having a well-equipped and well-trained air force. The use of airpower is equally a major element in counter-insurgency operations as we are witnessing in South Wazirstan and earlier in Malakand. The operational effectiveness of land and sea forces is heavily dependent on the cover provided by the air arm. The unique capabilities of the fighter aircraft — high flexibility, unprecedented fire with sophisticated weapons and rapid concentration — make them eminently suited to combat aggression. Moreover, the phenomenal accuracy and extended range of air-launched, precision-guided weapons and bombs tilts the advantage to a military power that has air superiority.
India already enjoys numerical superiority, and is now further expanding its capability and modernising its fleet by acquisitions of the latest fourth-generation aircraft. It has, to its advantage, the choice of F-16/F-18, Eurofighter, Typhoon, MIG-35, Su-33, Mirage-5, Rafale and Swedish Grippen. On the other hand, Pakistan — due to financial constraints and the potential threat of sanctions not only from the US but western countries as well — has to largely depend on indigenous effort and support from China, whose reliability has been repeatedly tested.
Faced with these difficulties, the air force, during the tenure of late Air Marshal Mussaf, successfully re-engaged China for cooperative development of a mid-level high-tech fighter aircraft: the JF-17 Thunder. It was his foresight and leadership that gave birth to this project. Successive chiefs and project directors and their teams have put in great effort to bring the venture to this stage. Still, a lot more has to be done but with the quality of leadership and guidance being provided by the present chief and the support it is receiving from the ministry, the JS -17 should continue to roll out on time. This will eventually be the PAF's second line of defence.
The concept and air service requirements were given by the PAF. The design was primarily Chinese and the Pakistani side was closely associated with it. The production of the initial lot of JF-17 was done in China but hence forth, the aircraft will be assembled in PAC Kamra and, gradually, the indigenous content will be increased. The project has provided invaluable experience to our aeronautical and avionic engineers in design and development, and given them considerable experience in managing new projects. This nucleus of trained engineers can lay the foundation of Pakistan's aviation industry if properly guided and encouraged. In fact, in the not-too-distant future, our aviation industry can aspire to join the exclusive club of few countries that manufacture medium-high-technology fighter aircraft.
For nearly four decades, China has been at the forefront in assisting Pakistan in its indigenising effort, and this project is the finest example of this deep and enduring relationship. The Chinese aircraft firm CATIC also fully assisted us in the development of the trainer aircraft K-8. It is likely that if China were to succeed in developing its fourth-generation aircraft, Pakistan would like to associate itself with it. With such close cooperation, it is not surprising that today PAF's 70 per cent of weapons and equipment are outsourced to China, which is beneficial to both countries. It was in the 50s, and up to the 70s, that the PAF was practically one hundred per cent dependent on the US. Sanctions have been a great motivator for self-reliance. There are lessons in this for everyone. In a way, the US has not gained anything by pursuing its policy of isolating us. It has been unable to prevent us from moving forward with our nuclear programme. It may not have been important enough for the US to lose the Pakistani market, being more than an $11 trillion economy, but the loss of goodwill and weakening of strategic links haunts both countries to this day.
Although India has a wider and deeper industrial and technological base, still its indigenous effort of manufacturing the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has taken decades and is still undergoing trials.
For ensuring incorporation of the latest technolog,y the air frame of JS-17 has been designed such that it has the flexibility to integrate avionics and weapon systems from the Chinese or European sources, including the possibility of a hybrid arrangement. The Chinese have overcome their initial dependence on engines by collaborating with the Russians and producing it themselves.
The PAF also plans to progressively undertake the indigenisation of avionics and armaments of the JS-17. This aircraft is has the potential for continuous upgrades, termed as a 'block approach'. There is a built-in provision for stealth and air-to-air fuelling. The JF-17 is also equipped with air-to-air missiles beyond the visual range that will give it a critical operational capability, a standard feature with modern air forces. It is fly-by-wire, has a powerful state-of-the-art radar and there is a good man-machine interface.
The JF-17 could set the pace for a new generation of affordable and capable mid-level, high-tech aircraft. It has the potential for export and can find a niche market in the MiddleEast and South and South-east Asia. The Asian requirements at one time were projected to be anywhere between 1,000 to 1,500 aircraft in the next 15 years, thus China and Pakistan — the latter's equity share being 58 per cent and China's being 42 per cent in the project — can both benefit from exports.