Pakistan’s Dangerous New JF-17 Block 3 Fighter Has J-20 ‘DNA’: Which Fifth Generation Technologies Give it an Edge?

Following its first flight in December 2019 the JF-17 Block 3 fighter program has shown signs of considerable progress. The fighter is widely expected to enter service before 2023, with the first images of serial production airframes in Pakistan having emerged in late 2021. The aircraft is set to revolutionise the capabilities of the Pakistani Air Force and, alongside the heavier J-10C jets being procured in smaller numbers from China, will provide Pakistan’s fighter fleet with its first genuinely post-fourth generation capabilities. China is notably the only country to field domestically developed fifth generation fighters alongside the United States , with the J-20 being one of just two aircraft of its advanced generation both in production and in service at squadron level strength the other being the American F-35. Although the JF-17 and the J-20 are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of Chinese fighters in production, the former being the lightest, cheapest, and least complex to maintain and the latter the heaviest, most costly and most taxing to operate, the JF-17 Block 3 has nevertheless benefitted considerably from advanced technologies developed for the J-20 which provide capabilities well in advance of standard fourth generation aircraft. 

The JF-17 Block 3’s new avionics suite including its controls and cockpit displays, notably bear a resemblance to those of the J-20. The fighter’s helmet mounted sights and heads up displays are ahead of those of early fifth generation fighter models, and allow it to capitalise on a new range of armaments which are deployed by both it and the J-20. Other notable advances the new JF-17 variant benefits from include a slightly larger high composite airframe, a more powerful engine, a reduced radar cross section and a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Materials and sensors on the aircraft are thought to have benefitted greatly from the advanced state of the Chinese military aviation industry needed to develop fifth generation aircraft. Beyond its sensors, its new air to air missiles the PL-15 and PL-10 provide an overwhelming advantage over both prior JF-17 variants and standard fourth generation aircraft such as the F-16C, Mirage 2000 or J-10B. The PL-15 is the only active non-Japanese air to air missile confirmed to use an AESA radar for guidance, and although estimates of its range vary widely from 200-300km even the lower estimate would still provide a considerable advantage over Western and Russian missile designs. The new American AIM-120D has an estimated 160-180km range, while the much more widely used AIM-120C relied on by Pakistan's F-16 units can engage at only 100km. The R-77-1 used by the Russian Air Force from 2015 can engage at 110km, which is similar to the estimated range of India's ASTRA missile currently under development. 

For visual range engagements the JF-17 Block 3 compensates for its unremarkable manoeuvrability with a state of the art helmet mounted sighting system and an infra red guided air to air missile class widely considered by many be the world’s most capable - the PL-10. The missile uses aerodynamic and thrust-vector controls, which are paired with advanced helmet mounted cueing systems to exploit its extremely high manoeuvrability, allowing it to engage targets at very extreme angles without the need to manoeuvre the fighter itself. The PL-10 was described by the British think tank IISS as having “provided a marked improvement in performance over the previous generation of short-range missiles… its development has placed China among the handful of nations with a defence-industrial base capable of producing such a weapon.” The missile provides a comfortable performance advantage over the American AIM-9X and Russian R-73 as a clean sheet design developed several decades later.

The JF-17’s Block 3’s relationship with the J-20 somewhat resembles that between the Swedish-American Gripen E and the American F-35. The lighter pre-fifth generation aircraft strongly emphasise low operational costs and maintenance needs but still have important advantages over much heavier aircraft due to their fifth generation level avionics and weaponry which in many respects resemble those of the stealth fighter programs whose technologies they benefitted from. The JF-17 Block 3 fighter is expected to be acquired in larger numbers by the Pakistani Air Force than prior JF-17 variants, as an asset which is almost certain to be considered more cost effective, and is also expected to see considerable export successes allowing countries to field fighters with truly state of the art avionics and weapons at a very low cost. Its PL-15 missiles and AESA radar in particular are expected to be its strongest selling points. 

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