JF-17 – The Success Story
The JF-17 Thunder is a third-generation fighter aircraft jointly developed by Pakistan and China. It can be considered a showcase of Sino-Pak defence cooperation. The JF-17 outwardly appears to be a combination of the Chinese fighter F-7P and the American F-16 both of which were used as a platform to evolve the JF-17. The costs were kept low by borrowing technologies developed for Chinese J-10 fighter. This fly-by-wire 1.6 Mach fighter is powered by Russian RD-93 turbofan engine. Russia has cleared up to 400 engines to be supplied to Pakistan. The aircraft has a wide angle Head-Up Display, aerial refuelling, a datalink, a Thales RC-400 multi-mode radar, MICA Air-to-Air missiles, a host of air-to-ground weapons and an electronic warfare suite. The aircraft can carry external load of 3,100 kg.
There is a need for the IAF to build up force levels quickly lest it gets left too far behind…
China and Pakistan are aggressively trying to find possible export customers. Targeted countries are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. The reasonable price makes it attractive. Comparisons are being drawn between the JF-17 and India’s Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ LCA Mk I. Both aircraft use a foreign engine and airborne radar. The Tejas uses many new technologies including large amounts of composite materials, advanced avionics and a unique aerodynamic configuration, and has a good potential to be expanded into variants. A ship-based version of the aircraft has already been released. The JF-17 is the aircraft of today and the Tejas, the aircraft of tomorrow. At a unit cost of around $15 – $20 million, the JF-17 seems a little cheaper than the LCA’s reported cost of $25 million apiece.
Sino-Pak Air Exercises
The PAF and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) began Shaheen series of Exercises in 2011 to improve inter-operability to enhance response to ‘mutual threat’. The missions have included air combat, surface attack, air-refuelling and logistic support missions. Shaheen-I was held in Pakistan. Shaheen-II was held in September 2013 in Hotan in Western China. PAF had then sent Mirage III EA and F-7G aircraft. PLAAF fielded J-10 multi-role fighters and J-7C aircraft on the airframe of which the JF-17 was based. The more manoeuverable J-10s acted as the aggressors. The three-week long Shaheen-III exercise held in May 2014 was at PAF Rafiqi airbase in Western Punjab. This exercise was important to the PAF as it gave them exposure to fly against Chinese Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30MKK aircraft which are similar to Indian Air Force (IAF) frontline SU-30 MKI aircraft.
Over the last few decades, China has systematically been working to encircle/ contain India…
Aerospace Implications for India
Sino-Pakistan ties create the threat of a potential two-front war. India thus needs to re-examine its force structure. The PLAAF is the world’s second largest Air Force, with 2,500-plus aircraft and has been under aggressive modernisation. Combined with 450 aircraft of the PLA Navy, and the soon-to-be inducted state-of-the art aircraft carriers, makes it a great air power for the IAF to contend with. The IAF is down to 34 squadrons and is reportedly at the bottom of the numbers curve.
The PAF has plans to increase from 22 towards its target of 28 squadrons. The current IAF: PAF ratio of 1.5:1 is a far cry from the once 3:1 dominance. The IAF immediately requires advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. The IAF has also been trying to convince the Indian government that there was a need to eventually increase the combat squadrons from currently targeted 42, to around 50 squadrons. To achieve this, the defence budget must be increased to at least three per cent of GDP from the current 1.67 per cent. Also, we need to hasten procurement processes. The Defence R&D and Indian aircraft industry too would have to get their act right if ‘Make in India’ has to succeed. There is a need for the IAF to build up force levels quickly lest it gets left too far behind.
Chinese and Russian Interest in Pakistan
Over the last few decades, China has systematically been working to encircle/contain India. It is also to increase its sphere of influence in Indian Ocean Region, and in turn, prevent United States (along with friends) to encircle China. Pakistan is critical link in this plan. China has been overtly/covertly helped it build aircraft industry, missile technology and nuclear power among others. The China-built and operated strategic Gwadar port in an otherwise turbulent Baluchistan will become significant when the US pulls out of Afghanistan. The aggressive expansion of the PLA Navy is part of this grand strategy.
The close nexus between India’s two estranged nuclear neighbours will engage the Indian strategic establishment in times to come…
“China and Pakistan should deepen and broaden military cooperation in such fields as joint exercise and training, so as to enrich the strategic cooperation between the two countries”, said Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Pakistan in April 2015. Hailing the important role the Pakistani military has played in the development of China-Pakistan relations, Xi said that the understanding and support of the Pakistani military is necessary for the two countries to forge a community of shared destiny. Pakistani military leaders affirmed their support for consolidation of the friendly cooperation between China and Pakistan, and staunchly backed China’s efforts to counter terrorism. Earlier, Pakistan had escorted the Chinese President Xi’s plane with eight fighter escorts as mark of the military’s respect and gratitude. Pakistan believes that America’s influence and support in the region should be counterbalanced by China.
With India closing towards USA, Russia and Pakistan signed their very first military cooperation agreement in 2014 and laid out future avenues of cooperation, ending years of reality wherein Islamabad remained closer to the US and Moscow to India. Joint naval exercises, military officers exchange, arms sales, counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism cooperation are envisaged between Russia and Pakistan. The sale of 20 Mi-35 transport helicopters to Pakistan and Pakistani interest in the Su-35s are being discussed. Russia wants to be active in the region when the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. Yet Russia’s interest in India dominates as in 2015, India purchased $3.8 billion worth of Russian arms – still far ahead of the $981 million worth it purchased from the US. Russia’s direct exports to Pakistan were mere $22 million. Russia plans to court both the countries.
Implications and Options for India
Baluch nationalists have been protesting that the Pakistan government is conspiring to plunder the province’s natural resources. Wealthy and connected Pakistanis are being accused of a major land grab exercise all along the so-called economic corridor. India with its zero-sum mind-set is deeply concerned over the project. Any enhancement of a Sino-Pak relationship could damage India’s aspirations to be the pre-eminent power in the South Asian and Indian Ocean Region. The Corridor running through the Karakoram affects India’s claims over the territories of the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the Northern Areas. Three parallel corridors will give strength in depth and Indian military concept of slicing through the country will become redundant.
India is crucial to the US in its desire to create a stable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific…
India’s policy makers are also worried about a possible two-front war in future. Any Indian protests are unlikely to yield anything. India may instead progress its own Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) corridor for continuation of economic integration of regional markets at a faster pace to stay relevant. After PM Modi’s recent visit to Iran and signing of an MOU, India should accelerate the Chabahar port project located 170 km West of Gwadar in Iran that was partially built by India in the 1990s. India aspires for an important role in the Asia region. Simultaneously, India is crucial to the US in its desire to create a stable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and needs partners like India to shore up its sagging credibility in the region in face of Chinese onslaught. US-India military relations derive from a common belief in freedom, democracy, and the rule of law and seek to advance shared security interests which include maintaining security and stability, defeating violent religious extremism and terrorism, preventing the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction and associated materials.
Yet India should be conscious that American capacity to shape global outcomes (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine) has had its limitations. India being a large country attaches importance to safeguarding its national interests with its own strategic objectives and imperatives and it will act only where interests converge. India’s desire to sit on the global high table with membership to United Nations Security Council; getting an upgraded position in trade and investment fora such as the World Bank and IMF; admission into multilateral export control regimes (NSG, Australia Group) are possible only through active US support. In recent years, India has conducted large joint military exercises with the US in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.
In June 2015, Ashton Carter became the first American Defence Secretary to visit an Indian military command. Later, in December Manohar Parrikar became the first Indian Defence Minister to visit the US Pacific Command. In March 2016, India rejected the US proposal to join naval patrols in the South-China Sea alongside Japan and Australia. Singapore’s Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen observed, “By virtue of its economic and military heft, China’s leadership role in international affairs is a given. We cannot pretend that China is just like any other major economy.” Engagement may thus also be an option. As China surmounts the need to go through the Malacca Strait, and with Pakistan’s help, gets a strategic entry into the Indian Ocean, India has a geo-political dilemma looking for answers and alliances. The close nexus between India’s two estranged nuclear neighbours will engage the Indian strategic establishment in times to come.