On January 5 this year during the visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Colombo, Pakistan entered into a landmark deal to sell eight JF-17 Thunder fighter jets to Sri Lanka. The two countries signed a number of agreements to boost cooperation in the fields of education, science and technology, health care, agriculture, tourism, sports, cultural exchange, peopleto-people contacts, trade, science and technology, combating terror financing. Sharif said both sides expressed satisfaction at the existing bilateral cooperation in the field of defence. He conveyed his desire for more frequent port calls, participation in military exercises, defence seminars and military training. Islamabad and Colombo grew closer during Lanka’s civil war by supplying arms to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The JF-17 Thunder is a multi-role combat aircraft developed jointly by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group of China and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, reportedly with some assistance by the Russian Mikoyan Design Bureau. The aircraft is fitted with Russian Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine, a derivative of the RD-33 that powers the MiG-29. The JF-17 project was launched in 1999 and the first prototype undertook its maiden flight in 2003 two years later than the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas, a product of the Indian aerospace industry that took to the skies for the first time on January 4, 2001. Its official Chinese designation is the Fighter China-1 (FC-1) Xiaolong which traces its origin to the Super-7 programme which was a joint Chengdu-Grumman development project to upgrade the Chinese J-7 fighter. Although the joint programme was cancelled in 1990, China continued the Super-7 project and renamed the design as the FC-1.
In the period 2007-08, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) received the first eight aircraft that were built in China at Chengdu. In 2009, PAF placed an order for another 42 aircraft that were built under licence by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. By the end of last year, PAF had 60 JF-17 Thunder jet fighters on its inventory. The JF-17 Thunder programme of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex is clearly way ahead of the LCA Tejas programme of the Indian aerospace industry. However, the LCA Tejas is said to be nearly a generation ahead of the JF-17 Thunder. The PAF has plans to induct a total of 250 of these, all produced indigenously. But even while there is a large backlog of order from the PAF, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex has been aggressively pursuing the export option, offering this platform as a low-cost alternative to combat aircraft from Western manufacturers.
Pakistan showcased the JF-17 at the Paris Air Show held from June 15 to 21, 2015, where Nigeria, Bangladesh and Tajikistan also evinced interest in the aircraft. Morocco has invited Pakistan to showcase the JF-17 at the Rabat Air Show in 2016. This has generated speculation in the country that the JF-17 Thunder is being considered as a replacement for the F-5E Tiger II fighters in service with the Moroccan Air Force. It would be pertinent to mention here that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China has no plans to induct the JF-17 Thunder.
As per reports appearing in the media in March 2015, Myanmar had become the first country to place orders for 16 JF-17 Thunder fighter jets from Pakistan with the final order going up to 24 platforms. Myanmar was also desirous of setting up a production line with the assistance of China and Pakistan to build the aircraft for its own Air Force. With the cooperation of the Chinese aerospace industry in the past, Myanmar had already produced other Chinese fighter aircraft for its Air Force such as the J-7 air defence aircraft and the Q-5 ground attack aircraft. Information on whether there has been any progress in this regard is not available in the public domain.
Sri Lanka’s decision to buy the JF-17 Thunder from Pakistan has, in all likelihood, been inspired primarily by financial considerations as with a price tag of under $30 million per aircraft, the aircraft is far more affordable when compared with American, European and Russian platforms of equivalent performance parameters. This factor is all the more important as the economy of Sri Lanka is severely cash-strapped and is under heavy debt burden. Quite understandably, the move by Sri Lanka to buy the JF-17 Thunder fighter jets from Pakistan has been a matter of concern for India. Some reports in the media indicate that there has been “ferocious opposition” from India and that New Delhi even demanded that the deal be cancelled. Other reports suggested that India had offered the LCA Tejas as an alternative possibly with India even prepared to finance the deal.
The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) founded in 1951 has around 160 aircraft on its inventory which includes 22 combat aircraft. The SLAF fighter fleet consists of nine IAI Kfir jets from Israel, seven Chengdu F-7, the Chinese equivalent of the Russian MiG-21 acquired through Pakistan and six Russian MiG-27. The SLAF is looking for a replacement for the IAI Kfir and has zeroed in on the JF-17 Thunder. Apart from the low unit cost, the SLAF will have better commonality of the fighter fleet. One possible alternative could have been the LCA Tejas; but its rather unimpressive pace of development and possibly high cost, did not inspire the necessary confidence.