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Export potential of the JF-17 Combat Aircraft

JF17

China has been trying to export the JF-17 aircraft – which is jointly developed with Pakistan – and received its first export order from an unnamed Asian country at the Paris Air Show two weeks ago.

Three JF-17 combat aircraft were displayed at the air show from 15-

20 June 2015, including one that conducted aerial displays in order to appeal to potential customers.

What is the JF-17s market position? Could this lead to other export orders?

Given their presence at the Paris Air Show and the fact that they have secured one successful export order, it is clear that China and

Pakistan see significant potential for the JF-17 on the international fighter market. There have been reports of interest from Azerbaijan,

Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, and Malaysia, while MPI has previously reported about possible interest from Argentina, Myanmar and Saudi

Arabia.

First Export Order

The first export customer for the JF-17 has not been named. All that has been reported is that the order comes from an “Asian country” for around 18-24 aircraft. A few defence publications initially speculated that the customer was probably Myanmar. However, recent news stories by major publications in Pakistan, China, and Sri Lanka have claimed that the launch customer was in fact Sri Lanka.

According to Want China Times, “Rumors that Sri Lanka might be the first to export the JF-17 arose earlier this month when a photo of the office of a Sri Lankan air force commander revealed a scale model of the JF-17”. Meanwhile, Pakistan based news reports and Sri Lankan national newspaper Hiru News have said, “The Pakistan Air Force announced that they will begin delivery of the JF-17 to Sri Lanka from 2017.”

Note: There is no way of knowing for sure as to who the launch customer is. The case of both Sri Lanka and Myanmar, among other countries, are examined below to assess how and why they might buy JF-17s. Production and export hurdles. The JF-17 is an advanced combat aircraft that was jointly developed by China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAIC) and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). Pakistan was the launch customer for the platform, which was originally called the FC-1 (redesignated the JF-17 for service in the Pakistan Air Force). After a small number of aircraft were completed in China, final assembly shifted to Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra, which also builds a number of components in Pakistan. According to Forecast International estimates, the PAC assembles the aircraft locally, producing about

60 percent of the airframe and 80 percent of the avionics. The air display and export of the JF-17 shows that China has resolved earlier export hurdles caused by the use of Russian-made engines in the aircraft.

The aircraft displayed in Paris carried a new Chinese medium-thrust turbofan engine. This now means that the aircraft can be exported by China and Pakistan without any restrictions from Russia over the re-export of its engines.  According to estimates from news reports in 2014, the standard export price for the JF-17 Block 1 is USD20 million, with the Block 2 being USD25 million.

Assessment of the market:

Myanmar: The Burma Times reported in June 2014 that Myanmar plans to build an unspecified number of JF-17s under license. There was no further report about this until some speculations emerged that Myanmar may in fact be the “Asian customer” announced during the Paris Air Show. Myanmar has always been on the top of the list of possible customers, given that their past procurements indicate a trend of acquiring Chinese-made aircraft. Assessments by The Diplomat and data from the IISS Military Balance show that Myanmar has previously operated or currently operates a number of Chinese-made aircraft, including NAMC A-5C fighters,

Chengdu F-7M Airguard fighters and Y-8 medium-lift transports. Myanmar was also reported to have bought Sky 02A Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from China and replicated them domestically. There is absolutely no indication that Myanmar can afford the cost of the aircraft, but given close defence ties with China, it can only be assumed that it is a recipient of loans and long-term repayment options from China.

Sri Lanka: Despite foreign media reports that claim Sri Lanka will be the first foreign buyer of the JF-17 Thunder, there has been no official confirmation of this from the Sri Lanka Air Force. It is no doubt that they are a potential customer; both China and Pakistan have offered the aircraft to the Sri Lanka Army Air Force (SLAF). The SLAF has been planning to procure additional MiG-29s from

Russia. There has been no public report of a deal having gone through as of now. This is a gap that the JF-17 would try to fill as it is being marketed as a competitor to the MiG-29 in many markets. Sri Lanka maintains close defence ties with China and Pakistan. The

SLAF currently operates Chinese made aircraft including J-7 fighter jets, nine Y-12 transport aircraft, and has placed orders for two MA60 transport aircraft.

Argentina: In 2013, Argentine and Chinese authorities were in talks over a possible co-production of the JF-17 aircraft in China. The aircraft produced in Argentina were to be renamed Pulqui-III. The deal has not yet gone through for a variety of reasons including political, economic, and technical considerations (i.e previous problems surrounding the re-export of Russian engines). Argentina, in principle, still remains a potential customer for the JF-17s. Defence relations between Argentina and China have been growing over the past decade and it has come to include joint-production. In 2011, Argentina’s Fabrica and China’s AVIC signed a co-production deal for the CZ-11 single-engine light multi-purpose helicopter. The two countries are also partnering in the space technology sector. China is building a strategic Southern Hemisphere tracking and control facility, and Argentina could get access to China’s growing surveillance satellite network. Nigeria: The Nigerian Air Force currently operates Chinese fighter aircraft. Its inventory includes F-7NI (export designation of the J-7) combat aircraft and FT-7NI trainers China. News reports coming out of the IDEAS 2014 exhibition in Karachi suggested that Nigeria has shown significant interest in the JF-

17, seeking to purchase up to 40 aircraft. However, the country did not follow through with signing a contract.

In April 2015, Nigeria was cited as a “potential buyer” by China Military

Online. However, it does not look like this is going anywhere given that

Nigeria is mired in its own political troubles and security priorities within the country. It is unlikely that Nigeria has the budget to follow through with this procurement at present. Azerbaijan: Media reports have been circling for some time about a potential Azerbaijani purchase of

JF-17s. News reports as early as 2007 indicated Azerbaijani interest in the JF-17, and the national Azeri- Press Agency stated in 2009 that the Air Force would be acquiring JF-17 aircraft from Pakistan by 2015 as part of its modernisation programme.

In late 2011, Azerbaijan’s state news agency News.Az reported that government officials had held multiple rounds of discussions with officials from the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at the Dubai

Air Show regarding a potential purchase of JF-17 aircraft. According to the report, the size of the initial order had been determined, although a deal had not yet been signed.

Saudi Arabia: Pakistan’s media reported in February 2014 that the country would engage in talks with Saudi Arabia over a possible sale of JF-17 aircraft at the back of a discussion over Pakistan’s procurement of Saudi Arabian Al-Khalid main battle tanks (MBTs). While the two countries enjoy close defence relations, MPI assesses that it is less likely that Saudi would be a JF-17 customer. Saudi Arabia’s inventory includes a mix of European- and US-manufactured fighter jets including the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F-15s. It even has a total of 30 Eurofighters and 84 F-15s on order (i.e yet to be delivered to Saudi Arabia).

Market pointers – light armoured vehicles in Asia

Historical data from Forecast International and the IISS

Military Balance suggest some interesting trends about the market for light armoured vehicles in Asia. Procurement stories covered by MPI over the past decade have been indicative of the fact that the increasing popularity of these vehicles is providing various opportunities for minor players and new entrants to carve out a viable niche market.

Stratification

Forecast International notes that a stratification of contractors and products is emerging. In the lower half of the market, the contractor offers relatively cheap, simple armoured vehicles to a potentially wide customer base – in effect, trading unit price for volume. This trend is reflected in various procurements in emerging markets such as the Philippines.

An example is provided in the article below about the possible procurement of APCs and MRAPs in the Philippines where a potential replacement would cover the Army and the Police. The emerging “family of vehicles” concept offers a cost-effective additional alternative, potentially supplanting much of the low-end and high-end market segments in the future. In the People’s Republic of China, the People’s

Liberation Army (PLA) is already implementing this concept on an

Army-wide scale. Singapore and Malaysia have taken a similar route.

The Asian market is largely characterised by a demand for cost-effective solutions emanating through various procurement initiatives, as opposed to any one major programme covering a large quantity (such as some joint programmes in the US). There are some exceptions such as the LAND

400 programme in Australia, which is in principle at the high end of the market where the contractor offers state-of-the-art vehicle systems with decidedly steep unit prices. (Source: MPI – Hawk Information)

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