Inducted in the PAF as a medium-tech combat aircraft in 2010, the JF-17 Thunder’s production has been gathering pace ever since the launch of the Block-2 standard aircraft on 18th Dec 2013. Significant improvements have been incorporated in the ‘Block-II’ variant such as a more powerful radar (KLJ-7 V2), improved electronics package (EW pods and enhanced sensors), enhanced databus for launch of Precision-Guided-Munitions (PGM – also known as Laser-Guided-Bombs) and long range/stand-off weapons such as the Glide-guided-bomb (LS-6), strengthened wing roots to carry an additional load of up to 3000lbs and last but not the least, the only prominent external add-on; the air-to-air refueling probe (for increased range and loiter time for Combat Air Patrols).
In the recent edition of Zhuhai Air Show 2014, China, CATIC had displayed an array of new weaponry for the JF-17. As compared to the weapons package that was put on display in the previous edition, it seems clear that the PAF, which has invested a heavy capital and human resource over the last decade, wants to get ‘a lot more’ out of the Thunder Programme. The LS-6 Glide-guided-bomb, PL-5EII SRAAM, SD-10 BVRAAM, MAR-1 ARM and C-802 Anti-Ship missile, all have been tested and configured with the JF-17. Weapon testing of CM-400AKG; a 900kg Stand-Off-Missile (SOM) with an impressive range of 180 -250 km is already underway in China.
Extending the reach:
Among the only major external improvement in the Block-II standard JF-17 is the addition of an in-flight aerial refueling probe. Integration and testing work is underway at PAC (where the air-to-air refueling probe is being integrated on the starboard side of the fuselage just behind the canopy) with joint-collaboration from a South African company. This modification shall help the JF-17 extend its range and increase its on-station time by air-air-refueling with IL-78 tankers, already in service with PAF.
Two JF-17s are being used as test beds for in-flight-refueling probes. The flight trials with IL-78 tanker are scheduled in the first half of 2015.
More Thunder inductions:
Since its formal induction in the PAF in February 2010, JF-17 has been extensively used in air-defence and fighter-training roles. As the aircraft is maturing into a potent platform with no outside ‘political strings’ attached, the PAF is at a leisure to phase-out its aging fleet of Mirage and F-7 aircraft.
PAF shall receive the long-awaited third squadron of JF-17s end of December. This time the Thunder will join the elite faculty of Combat Commanders School (CCS) where it will replace the F-7 CCS squadron. Formerly known as the Fighter Leaders School (FLS) in the late-1950s, with the expansion and modernization of the PAF there was a need felt to have a specialized institution where experienced fighter pilots could be trained not only as instructors to supervise the training programme of fighter squadrons but also to provide combat leadership in the air. In 1976 FLS was renamed Combat Commanders School (CCS) with a mission to go beyond the stated aims and objectives at the time. Hence, the roadmap of providing fighter pilots with comprehensive courses in combat leadership and advanced fighter tactics got underway.
With two Thunder Squadron’s already operational (No.26 ‘Black Spiders’ and No.16 ‘Black Panthers’), having a CCS JF-17 Squadron as the third unit to equip the type makes sense and fits the bill for two reasons; Firstly, while the two operational squadrons can focus on ‘polishing’ their pilot skills in the air-to-air and air-to-ground arena, the advanced concepts and tactics which will be validated from the CCS’s Thunder Sqn can then be propagated professionally among the other Thunder Squadrons. Secondly, another major role of the CCS is of conducting weapons trials and surveys.
As the Chief of Air Staff ACM Tahir R Butt was quoted in Flight International (July 2014 issue – interviewed by a British military-aviation journalist Alan Warnes):
“I felt it was too much for a squadron to expect them to be operational, train pilots, visit air shows and do testing, so i split it.”
“These aircraft will bring us newer capabilities with different weapons,” Tahir says. Once the weapons testing parameters are achieved and become operationally ‘fit’ they will be incorporated into the PAF’s combat doctrine and thus help in ensuring the Thunder takes on the same role as that of the F-16, of becoming a true multi-role combat aircraft for the PAF.