JF-17 Block 3 vs. J-10C: Comparing China's Two Advanced New Single Engine Fighters

Although China has been a major producer of jet fighter aircraft since the 1960s, which were widely exported during the Cold War, the country only emerged as a top end producer in the field of combat aviation in the 2010s when the formally massive performance gap between it and industry leaders was largely bridged. This was perhaps best demonstrated by the J-20 fighter program, which in March 2017 produced the world's first active fifth generation fighter outside the United States. The J-20's capabilities demonstrated that China had in many respects reached a league above rivals in Russia and Europe as a peer competitor to the United States, much as the Soviet Union had been in the decade before its collapse, with advances in industry also reflected in the capabilities of China's other fighter programs such as the '4+ generation' J-16 and J-10C. Although China is one of just three countries to produce heavyweight fighters, alongside the United States and Russia, unlike Russia which has invested very little in fighters from other weight ranges China has produced two entirely distinct classes of single engine lightweight fighter jet. The J-10 and JF-17 first entered service in 2006 and 2008 respectively, with the former developed for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and the latter developed exclusively for export.

Although the two fighters were initially somewhat mediocre, as China's military aviation industry and general economy advanced considerably in the 2010s both fighters saw new variants developed which revolutionised their performances. The latest iteration of the J-10, the J-10C, entered PLA service in the spring of 2018 with an estimated 150 operational by the end of 2020. It served as a complement to the heavier J-16 and J-20 fighters produced in parallel, with much lower maintenance needs and operational costs allowing it to be very widely deployed to replace older aircraft such as the J-7. Notable features include thrust vectoring engines, integration of an AESA radar, new avionics and electronic warfare systems, and perhaps most notably access to the PL-15 and PL-10 air to air missiles. A comparable set of improvements was subsequently applied to the JF-17 program similarly revolutionised the fighter's capabilities, with the new JF-17 Block 3 variant produced for export as a lighter complement to the J-10C and seeing its first flight in December 2019.

While both the J-10 and the JF-17 are lightweight fighters, the latter could be categorised as a 'very light' fighter comparable to the American F-20 or Swedish Gripen while the former is comparable in weight to the American F-16 or Japanese F-2. The J-10, like the F-16, uses a single engine from a heavyweight twin engine fighter class - in the F-16's case the F110 engine from the F-15 and in the J-10's case the WS-10 from the J-11 and J-16 fighters. The ‘very light’ fighters by contrast borrow engines from twin engine medium weight rather than heavyweight fighters - the JF-17 using a heavily enhanced version of the Russian MiG-29's RD-33 engine while the Gripen uses the F104 engine of the MiG's American competitor the F-18. Thus while the J-10C is comparable in performance to the American F-21 - a heavily enhanced F-16 variant - the JF-17 Block 3 is comparable to the Swedish-American Gripen E with both developed under similar design philosophies and prioritising similar capabilities. 

The JF-17, by virtue of it being lighter and using a smaller engine than the J-10, is not only significantly cheaper to manufacture but is also much cheaper and easier to operate and maintain. A strong emphasis on lowering maintenance requirements and facilitating higher sortie and availability rates are one factor which makes the JF-17 comparable to the Gripen. The J-10 by contrast is significantly more costly both to operate and to manufacture, although still very inexpensive relative to medium or heavyweight jets like the J-16, but benefits from a much better flight performance. The J-10 can carry a heavier radar, and its powerful WS-10 engine provides it with an unrivalled degree of manoeuvrability and the world’s highest climb rate for a single engine fighter. The JF-17 Block 3, while overall less capable than the J-10C, can still pose a comparable threat in beyond visual range combat due to its similar avionics and its access to PL-15 and PL-10 standoff and short ranged air to air missiles. The PL-15 is widely considered the most capable missile of its kind and benefits from near unique AESA radar guidance and an estimated 200-300km range, while the PL-10 paired with advanced helmet mounted sights allows the fighters to engage targets quickly and at very extreme angles. Integration of the PL-10 helps compensate for the JF-17's less manoeuvrable airframe, removing the requirement for pointing the fighter at the target before firing

For many clients with lower defence budgets or emphasising retention of larger fleet sizes the JF-17 Block 3 may well be considered the more cost effective of the two fighter classes due to its much lower operational costs, and as a result the aircraft is expected to see more foreign interest. With technologies close to two decades ahead of previous JF-17 variants, the aircraft will be much more attractive to foreign clients. The Pakistani Air Force has notably acquired both the JF-17 Block 3 and the J-10C in parallel, the former which will account for the vast majority of new acquisitions while the latter will form elite units and potentially eventually replace the country's older F-16 airframes which are close to 40 years old. The aircraft will together revolutionise Pakistan's ability to counter high performance Indian fighters, potentially ending the disadvantage in the air which the country has faced since the mid-1980s when the Indian Air Force acquired its first MiG-29s followed by its first much more capable Su-30 fighters a decade later. Although lacking the advanced flight performance of the MiG-29 and Su-30, the JF-17 Block 3 compensates with more advanced avionics, sensors and missiles with its deployment potentially forcing the Indian Air Force to modernise its Su-30s to retain an advantage. 

The JF-17 Block 3 is expected to be much popular than older variants on export markets due to its sophistication and uniquely low cost for an aircraft with advanced next generation technologies, with Egypt, Iran and Myanmar considered among the leading potential clients. The J-10C and JF-17 Block 3 are expected to compete against one another for multiple contracts, while also competing against the Russian MiG-35 and MiG-29M which much like the JF-17 were developed primarily with export markets in mind. Alongside a lower costs and lower maintenance requirements, access to the PL-10 and PL-15 missiles are expected to be a major factor in favour of the Chinese jets with Russia having yet to integrate any comparable missiles on its own rival fighters. There remains a significant possibility that, much like Pakistan, other clients could consider acquiring both fighters to operate alongside one another in complementary roles. With China notably not offering its heavyweight fighters for export, the country's success in export of manned combat aircraft depends heavily on the performances of the JF-17 and J-10 on global markets with the new variants of both having a strong potential to gain foreign interest. Even if not exported further, however, there is sufficient demand from China and Pakistan alone to ensure that both programs are successful.

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