This article attempts to highlight key aspects of the JF-17 and analyze its performance & capabilities, market potential, geo-strategic implications and potential future developments. I attempt to answer detractors of the program. Last but not the least, I look at who the key people worth following on the web are, and on whose’ knowledge this article is largely based on.
There are four other planes in the super light category competing along with the FC-1: the Tejas – incomplete and poorly designed; the Korean A-50 - yet to transform into a true single seat fighter; the FCK-1 – short legged beyond effective combat outside Taiwan; and the Gripen – the epitome of what a super light fighter should aim to achieve. Each of these planes has something that the FC-1 does not, and yet the FC-1 remains the best blend of compromises. Let us start by taking a closer look at the FC-1.
The FC-1 has a GPS based navigation system. It also has a backup navigation system in case GPS is not available. It remains to be seen if the US GPS system becomes an issue in a future conflict, however, the question of using the US GPS system is also becoming less relevant as the Chinese Beidou Satellites comes into service.
JF-17's EW combines radar warning receiver, ECM, RWR and missile proximity receiver to form an integrated surveillance network. The level of integration is of the ECM, RWR, MPR and others can be considered to be at the same level as those of the modern 4.5+ and 5th generation combat aircraft.
The RWR is of note in that it is not only part of an integrated system, but also gives 360 degree range for missile approaching warning system with infra-red and ultra-violet spectrum detecting with a detection range of > 20km. It can not only detect but also track and position approaching missiles. A computer controlled infrared interference system, calculates the right timing to release countermeasures. A “focused interference system”, that can directionally beam energy is included and creates the same impact as a large electronic warfare airplane in that particular direction. In comparison, only recent combat aircraft like the Rafale and the F-22 have anything similar. Going back half a generation to the F-18E/F and F-16 E/F, these planes do not come with anything similar.
With Link-16 type networking and DRFM or similar equipment on the FC-1s, networked with Eireyes and F-16s, the effectiveness of the EW system as a whole is likely to be a good notch higher than their counterparts. Also to note is China’s familiarity with Russian equipment, particularly radars and modern AAMs; these seem to suggest that Chinese EW is likely to be considerably effective against Russian (and for Pakistan, Indian) aircrafts and missiles. One commentator writes in his blog that Indian modifications are likely to nullify this. While to some extent this may be true, Indian modifications have been made around the fundamentally Russian architecture, making this argument less relevant. Further, the active BVRs are not modified and must contend with Chinese EW systems. Given that China has very likely reverse engineered Russian seekers, this can become a major source of concern for the Indians.
The control panel has 3 MFDs (20.3cm x 20.3 cm), and each screen can be redefined, adjusted, or swapped. The HUD looks modern, similar to what is fitted on the Grippen. The HUD seems to be better than the one on the latest Indian Flanker; It is said to display both raw and processed information. The FC-1 has full HOTAS Control and an all digital avionics system. Data buses exhibit a distributed structure with two independent but STD-MTL-1553B data buses each with an independent control computer. There are rumors of provision for 3D digital map.
To begin with diverter plates are used to separate the "boundary layer" of air that comes off the body of the aircraft in front of the inlet. This is slowed and chaotic air that can choke an engine.
In the earlier FC-1 version a gap between the body of the aircraft and the diverter plates maintained a separation of the boundary layer airflow. The newer FC-1 prototype uses a DSI bump, using the shape of the bump to deflect the slowed air. The openings of the inlets are now angled forward, rather than perpendicular. This is related to the DSI bump.
The DSI increases the efficiency airflow intake and engine performance across a range of altitudes and speeds. Commenting on the effect of using DSI intakes on the F-16, the test pilot described that it felt like the more powerful GE engine rather than the Pratt & Whitney on the test plane was powering it.
The FC-1 program has from the very beginning been designed as a “plug and play” platform, with modularization being taken as far as possible. The chief designer has already stated that the radar, avionics and engines can be changed with minimal redesigning. The plane can therefore be customized to a far greater extent than anything that Chengdu has produced before. Coupled with this is that the plane has minimal restrictions and red tape, as say compared to the J-10.
Þ The seat is inclined more than the standard 13/14 degrees, but perhaps not as inclined as the F-16’s.
Þ The KLJ-7 radar has multiple modes and can handle greater than 40 targets, tracking 10 of them and guiding 4 BVR missiles to attack 4 of them at the same time. The detecting range for a typical air target of RCS 3 square meter is > 75 km; look-down-shoot-down range is > 45 km; range for sea target is > 135 km
Þ The FC-1’s computer has the capacity to store 300 existing radar signals for identification
Þ Maintenance friendly automatic detection equipment, simplifying diagnosis with displayed parameters.
Þ Every weapon point has the data bus interface, i.e. each point can carry guided weapons.
Þ Pitot head in the latest JF-17 has been replaced by a Rotary Multi-functional Probe.
Þ The FC-1 has been designed with a FBW optimized with two wingtip AAMs, similar to how the F-16 were designed.
The FC-1 has very few aerodynamic vices, thus the reason for the quick development time frame and the ease with which it started doing aerobatics early in its development. This allowed the flight testing stage to go past quickly and moved the plane ahead into weapons and avionics integration.
The FC-1 has a "clipped" delta wing, almost identical to the F-16, with the exception of the LERX.
The FC-1 is clearly optimized for low speed turn performance.
JF-17 vs F-16 turn rate as shown on this youtube comparision (thanks to Usman, of Pakdef) shows a good comparison:
One must note that this is in comparison to the JF-17 not having past IOC and is unlikely to be even near its design limits. On the other hand it may be that the F-16 is not doing so either, however, it still gives a good indication of the comparable maneuverability of the FC-1.
LERXs would have certainly improved the high AoA handling of the plane, while the DSI would have improved the low end acceleration and power curve of the engine, while reducing weight by removing variable intake mechanisms. As the LERX would have increased the lift and move the center of lift forward, the DSI would have reduced frontal weight further. That may affect the relaxed stability margin of the plane.
The avionics are coming off surprisingly nicely. I think the PAF has been pushing the Chinese avionics industry harder than the PLAAF. The cockpit seems more cleaner and "glassier" than the J-10 or even the J-11B, though it would be nice if the FC-1 gets the J-11B's wide angle HUD, a request that can be fulfilled in a moment's notice if the PAF asks for it. I like the low visibility radome, and the small pitot (used to measure angle of attack) won't interfere on the radar returns as much as the pitot on the J-10.
The KLJ-7 radar has an amazingly compact and well packaged back end, neat and small, not like the jungle of wires and switches like the radars on the J-8F and JH-7A, or for that matter on the Indian LCA.
Pitot head in the latest JF-17 has been replaced by a Rotary Multifunctional Probe. This new probe was produced by Chinese Department of Comprehensive Planning Department, China Aero Products Division, and Department of airborne equipment and technology development and in consultation with French company Thales.
The basic reason for the large scale changes to the FC-1 has been that Pakistan found her requirements going up, given the new Indian military buildup, with Su-30MKI and Mirage-2000s being fielded in numbers. Secondly, The US decision to sell advanced F-16s to Pakistan. Both these factors forced the FC-1 project team to improve the FC-1 to stay relevant.
LGBs for the FC-1The LS-6 appears likely to be the bread and butter precision bomb kit for the FC-1. The program was begun in 2003 and testing has now been completed, perfectly timed with induction of the JF-17s in Pakistan. Guidance is provided by a dual inertial package coupled with satellite navigation. The weapons family will be capable of using three GPS systems, including the U.S. GPS, the Russian GLONASS and China's own Beidou system. The 500-kg LS-6 has a maximum launch range of 60 km.
A truly remarkable feature of the FC-1 has been the willingness of its development team to improvise. Significant changes have been made mid-program and even at the very end of the program timetable.
This is in contrast to Western design houses where original frameworks are strictly maintained – notice the F-22 and the Eurofighter, where certain design parameters where doggedly followed when they could have clearly done better by changing course midway.
This reminds me of my Organization Behavior and Organization Theory class; the western style of planning is culturally different from the eastern style – objectives are fixed at the beginning while in the east, we are willing to move the objective around a bit. Obviously, neither is “better” than the other, but each has its benefits and costs. However, I think the JF-17 benefited from this immeasurably. Otherwise Pakistan would be taking delivery of the original Super 7 airframe at perhaps $20 million per plane.
The FC-1 has come under a lot of fire from every quarter that one can think of. One prominent quarter was from Mr. Aboulafia of the Teal Group. He originally wrote:
"If you put it (JF-17) head to head against an F-16, it would probably last about five seconds”
Thinking perhaps that he has not been aware of the later developments of the FC-1, I contacted him to find out more, and whether he was still sticking to his guns. This is the response I got from him:
I do [still stand by my statement], with twosmall caveats. One is that although we aviation fans love our planes, the side with the superior AWACS/AEW, satellite, and C3I links is going to have a huge advantage. But assuming we're looking at two planes with equal amounts of external sensor access (or no access), and assuming equal pilot training, the F-16 would win in seconds. For beyond visual range combat it's APG-68/AMRAAM combination would out-shoot the Elta 2032/AMRAAM wannabe on the FC-1 (other radars proposed for the type are worse, particularly the Grifo). For closer in combat the F-16's thrust-to-weight ratio outclasses the FC-1's. In either case the F-16's EW systems are considerably more sophisticated. Also, the FC-1 and its systems have never been tested in combat, which makes a huge difference in effectiveness.
The second caveat, of course, is which F-16. An early A model would have a harder time than a recent C model. All of this ignores the much greater reliability of the avionics and engines on the F-16. We have no idea what mission capable rates are on an FC-1; I suspect they're relatively low, especially for the RD-93.
Lets take a deeper look at the arguments:
“For beyond visual range combat it's APG-68/AMRAAM combination would out-shoot the Elta 2032/AMRAAM wannabe”
Firstly, the FC-1 and Elta pairing is old news and has been proved otherwise. The radar you’re comparing with is the KLJ-7. Leaving aside the fact that it is appalling for an aviation expert to not know this, it is not improbable that the KLJ-7 is of the same generation as the APG-68, given recent comparison statements by the PAF.
And even if at the end of the day you have marginally better radar, it in no way means you’re going to thump your opponent (and that too in mere 5 seconds). If that were the case then the F-15s would be swatting out the F-16s in air combat training, which goes against results from virtually every Red Flag event. Further, with AWACS on both sides, you might find that you don’t have a better situational awareness in any case because AWACS has evened the field (again, all this is merely considering a theoretical marginal advantage in detection range).
Comparing the AMRAAM to the SD-10 is another major question mark. The SD-10 has greater range while being more bulky. This means that AMRAAM may be slightly more agile. No clear advantage exists for either except that AMRAAMs are battle tested. Last but not the least, it may be of some interest to Mr. Aboulafia that even in the highly unlikely event that F-16s are knocking out FC-1s like flies, for an AMRAAM to launch and reach a target 50 Kms away, it would take more than 5 seconds for sure.
“For closer in combat the F-16's thrust-to-weight ratio outclasses the FC-1's”
We all wish WVR combat were that simple. With modern high off-bore sight missiles maneuverability becomes less relevant. Even if we take the unrealistic view that such missiles will not be available, you still find that a TWR margin of 0.07 at best will only give you a marginal advantage. Clearly, nothing that would be a decider in combat.
Again, one can look to Red Flag results.
“The F-16's EW systems are considerably more sophisticated.”
Perhaps the most solid part of Mr. Aboulafia’s rather flimsy argument is this. China has traditionally lagged behind in EW. However, the new generation that the JF-17 entails is a couple of generations ahead of anything seen before. This includes a fully integrated EW suite, the level of integration being in the same plain as the Rafale or the Super Hornet. A good deal of information has emerged on the surprising advancement in this regard. For instance, one such advancement is that the EW system can directionally beam energy, creating the same impact as a large electronic warfare airplane in that particular direction.
The whole point becomes moot in any case because Pakistan would never receive the full EW suite but only a monkeyfied version of it, given the sensitive technologies involved. The US is unlikely to package its F-16s with anything that would be something new for the Pakistanis / Chinese to discover, come next U-turn in the mercurial Pakistani-US relations.
Mr. Aboulafia, we expect better from a serious aviation analyst. But then the Teal Group has never been known for its balanced views when it comes to a product competing with LM or Boeing.
There are indications that Chengdu is becoming a major cooperation hub for Pakistan and China. Hints are flying that more is brewing at Chengdu than the FC-1 and the J-10 sourced from the ever reliable pshamim of pakdef. Apparently a consulate and a halal restaurant is opening up to accommodate the soft side of all these project ventures. Personally I would like to see a single engined stealth fighter come out of Chengdu, as much as the reports are that its going to be a twin engined plane. Whatever is cooking in Chengdu, its likely to be halal for the PAF.
I think the future modernization of the JF-17 in PAF service will be along two more blocks – first 50, next 100 and final 100. It may be that the first 50 will be modernized after the last block.
The first 50 will include Chinese avionics and weapons, RD-93 engines and at best a foreign IR missile. The second block is likely to incorporate the WS-13 engine, Western radar and missiles and various augmenting sensors. These may include the Selex Vixen radar and the MBDA Meteor or perhaps the AMRAAM. The reason for this is that the SD-10 is untested, and AESA radar development is still not mature in China. Further, the SD-10 is a bit heavier than its Western counterparts and is less suited for the light fighter class than say, the Mica or the AMRAAM would be. AMRAAM of course would be ideal given that there would be commonality with the F-16s. Even if an AESA is not bought for the second batch, a western radar that allows the integration of the AMRAAM, even if it is not necessarily more advanced than the KLJ-7 would definitely be welcome. A HMD/S such as the Guardian or the Cobra with a HOBS missile would also be something the PAF is likely to be looking at. Some minor stealth features may also be incorporated in the second block.
The third block would possibly incorporate a Chinese AESA and perhaps a Chinese ramjet BVR missile (given that the speculated Meteor buy does not go through).
It is also likely to be more stealthier than any previous blocks. I would personally like to see provision for two BVRs to be kept semi-recessed, centerline and one behind the other, while the IR missiles stay on the wing tip. This could be a good trade-off between stealth and performance on a limited airframe.
A few readily available upgrades can also be borrowed from the J-11 program, including the new 3D holographic wide angel HUD and the optical missile approach-warning receiver. These should go into the JF-17s from the very first block.
One of the bigger issues with the RD-93 is its inability to be completely smoke free. While it has been significantly decreased, some smokiness still remains. No such problem is likely to exist with the WS-13. Reliability and MTBF as well as better fuel efficiency are key elements where the WS-13 also likely trumps the RD-93.
What is however truly impressive about the RD-93 and even considering all its misgivings, is the acceleration and quick response it can achieve. The engines' response is virtually instantaneous. Whether the WS-13 can match this would be interesting to note, although perhaps not as relevant or important. Below are the available specifications of the WS-13 and the RD-93.
Thrust (Afterburning, kN)
Thrust (Dry, kN)
It is therefore likely that the potential for the WS-13 to improve in this quarter is reasonably good. Further, its higher dry thrust would be more useful to the FC-1 because of its limited fuel. The biggest factor however, would remain reliability. The reported 33% rejection rate with the RD-93s is mind blowing. At the end of the day, it is likely that the PAF will choose the more reliable engine.
Other Features of Note
Single crystal turbine blade technology
8 axial pressure compressor
Engine cavity metal-ceramic heat shield
As a MiG-21 and F-5 replacement, there is obviously a huge market, perhaps a lot larger than everyone realizes. The large number of lesser-known Third World airforces in the world could all chip in to make a significant order. It is my belief that the FC-1 final count could be closer to1500. Below is indicated potential sales count by country that the FC-1 could possibly expect over the next 2 decades.
However, there is a caveat. The FC-1 is unlikely to get to these sales figures with the RD-93.
The bottleneck is not just Russian politics, but the quality and reliability of the engine itself. One cannot viably create a single fighter success story with an engine that has a rejection rate of 33% rejection rate, low MTBF, and costs more than the AL-31. The Taishan engine is ideal in this regard as it also opens up a future maintenance legacy, given that it will be used in the future Chinese twin-engined fighter.
Within the PLAAF, it is unlikely that China will go for the FC-1 from a purely technical perspective – given the range requirements related to the size of the country. However, at least 150 will be acquired, as the Chinese are known to honor their contracts. The other factor that could be a viable reason for acquiring the FC-1 would be political – the PLAAF would want to maintain its political clout and this often relates to a numbers game. While a smaller fighter force centered on the J-10 would be technically more favorable, it would mean that the PLAAF will be a small force, and as such will be seen that way by the other Chinese arms and within the CCCP politicos. However, there is one wild card still out there that has not been factored into either this discussion thus far or by any other commentator – the replacement for the J-10s and the Taishan engine. Let us consider this in some depth.
While originally the Taishan engine can be considered an additional appendage or a non-consequential sideshow, it could quickly evolve into a reason why the FC-1 can win out with the PLAAF. Consider that the J-10 ends production at around 500 and Chengdu begins producing J-XXs with twin Taishan engines. The ideal sidekick for such a plane would be a single engined fighter built around the Taishan. PLAAF gets this in the FC-1 and kills two birds with one stone – better logistics and employment for the thousands of Class B fighter squadrons. China’s fighter force does not go down, pilots do not end up getting laid off and ending up in foreign countries, China gets a viable export fighter and logistics for the PLAAF is significantly simplified.
This would be a far bigger strategic issue and perhaps I will need more time to think about it and figure out the ripple effects of this. One that comes first to my mind is pshamim’s hint that there is more brewing in China than the JF-17 and the J-10. Clearly, the PAF is also thinking longer term (as they are known to do) and are perhaps investing in countering the PAKFA and the mysterious MiG-E. I can clearly envision a future JF-17 iteration (Perhaps a JF-XX) that would follow the archetypal single engined fighter line and take it into the 5th generation.
I also see the PAF buying a future twin-engined stealth plane, perhaps as a high end, but most because psychologically every nation (or individuals even) tend to over the longer term imitate their enemy. This in fact is perhaps the biggest consequence of hate. If one looks at history, the US and Soviet militaries became mirror images of each other, by and large. I see a similar scenario in the Subcontinent. Thus do the Anakin Skywalkers of today become the Darth Vaders of tomorrow, hating till hate consumes them. How different are the Jews today vis-à-vis the Palestinians as they were to the Germans? Military tactics, equipment and even the very helmets they were look strikingly similar. Or the walled prison-cities of the Gaza Strip – they are no different from the walled and wired areas provided to them by the Germans. How different are US Evangelicals from Islamic Extremists? Ah, but perhaps I have gone of the topic here a bit.
There have been various comparisons between the FC-1 & J-10 pairing, including the F-16 & F-15 pairing and the F-20 & F-16. However, one comparison pairing still to be analyzed is the MiG-29 and Su-27 pairing. If you think about it, the FC-1 is the equivalent of a single engined MiG-29 and the J-10 a single engined Su-27. The difference between them is relatively (and admittedly not absolutely) the same. Given that the modern equivalents of these planes – the MiG-35 and the Su-35 are even more closely matched in terms of performance, radar capability and range, the point of painting the FC-1 & J-10 pairing black seems perhaps a bit more tenuous.
True, if we classify both the FC-1 and the J-10 as lawn darts, both seem fall in the same category. But the point here is, (1) can they be both considered lawn darts? And (2) Is the vague classification of a lawn dart relevant extraneously derived from a 1960s study? In fact, if you take a modern J-10, it is very likely going to out-range a legacy F-15A. The FC-1 better fits a category best described as “super light” while the central theme of a “lawn dart” (that of being short ranged point to point intercept) seems irrelevant to the J-10 that has enough legs to do more than a few circles around the lawn. The below table gives a comparison of the FC-1 and J-10 specifications.
Wing Span (m)
Wing Area (m2)
Empty Weight (Kg)
Normal Takeoff Weight (Kg)
Maximum takeoff weight
Design Max G
+8.5 -- -3
+9 -- -3
This article would not have been possible without the contribution of some very knowledgeable people, who have given their time to explaining them to us. Chief amongst these individuals is crobato. Without crobato's vast knowldege and notable analytical skills on the FC-1 (and for that matter anything from ancient Chinese blades to modern military aviation), I definitely would never have been able to write half the issues given in this article. I would also like to name a dozen other individuals who deserve special mention, and who one as a Chinese / Pakistani aviation news and analysis informed follower should watch out for. These are given below, in alphabetical order. These fine gentlemen can be found at keypublishing, pakdef, sinodefenceforum or china-defense, amongst other forums.
“Pakistan and China agree on new fighter jets”, Bokhari and Sevastopulo, Financial Times, May 9, 2005