Top Fighter Defending Islamabad: First Look at the J-10C in Pakistani Colours

Following confirmation in December 2021 that Pakistan had become the first foreign client for China's J-10C ‘4++ generation’ fighter, the first images of the aircraft in Pakistani colours emerged on February 15. In December Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed stated that the a full J-10C squadron would be in service in time to participate in the country’s March 23rd Parade, following months of unconfirmed reports that Pakistan had purchased the fighters. Although the J-10C is a lightweight aircraft, it is still considerably heavier than Pakistan's other fighter on order the JF-17 Block 3. Acquired in much greater numbers, the new JF-17 variant has similarly advanced avionics and weaponry to the J-10C but uses a much smaller air frame and weaker engine - meaning it has much lower operational costs and maintenance requirements but is also overall less capable in combat.

The Pakistani Air Force has notably had experience operating alongside the J-10C during joint exercises with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which in the past deployed the fighters to Pakistani territory. The fighter is the lightest of three currently being acquired to modernise the Chinese fleet, alongside the heavyweight J-16 and the much heavier fifth generation J-20. There is little dispute that the J-10C will be the most capable fighter in Pakistani service by a considerable margin, and is capable of challenging the most capable fighters in the Indian Air Force including the lightweight Rafale and even the heavyweight Su-30MKI in air to air engagements. As it will enter service before the JF-17 Block 3, it represents Pakistan’s first fighter with AESA radars providing considerably superior reliability, electronic warfare capabilities and situational awareness than any other Pakistani-operated fighter.

The J-10C is expected to see its first deployments near the country’s borders with neighbouring India, the fighter units of which have retained a strong advantage over Pakistan for decades with the deployment of MiG-29 medium weight fighters from 1985 and later Su-30MKI heavyweights from 2002. The J-10C, and potentially moreso the JF-17 Block 3 due to its greater numbers, will do much to bridge the performance gap particularly as India has not moved ahead with plans to modernise its Su-30 fleet to the latest ‘4++ generation’ standard with new missiles, avionics and sensors. The J-10C’s most notable feature aside from its sensors is its integration of the PL-15 air to air missile, which has a very long range of 200-300km and its own AESA radar for guidance. It also integrates the complementary short ranged PL-10 which can engage targets at very extreme angles. Both are contenders for the top missiles of their kind in the world, and are also used by the JF-17 Block 3 and by China’s fifth generation stealth fighter the J-20. 

Pakistan’s previous top air to air missiles the American AIM-120C purchased for its F-16 fighters in the mid 2000s, and the PL-12 used by older JF-17 variants, had ranges of only around 100km. The Indian Air Force relies on Astra and R-77 missiles with similar ranges, although its new Meteor missiles acquired in small numbers for its Rafale fighters will provide a 200km engagement range. Pakistan’s acquisition of the J-10C may press India to proceed with plans to modernise its Su-30MKI fleet, integrating the Irbis-E radar or possibly an AESA radar as well as new generations of missiles such as the 200km range K-77M or the 400km range R-37M. Such steps would be key to preventing the balance of power in the air from being strongly swayed towards Pakistan by the J-10C and JF-17 Block 3 acquisitions. The Pakistani Air Force is expected to acquire 36 JF-17 Block 3 fighters, but may purchase more particularly as its ageing F-16A/B fighters, which are currently its heaviest in service, near the end of their service lives and come in need of replacement. 

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