In 1999, Pakistan and China signed an agreement to jointly develop and produce the FC-1 (Designated JF-17 "Thunder" by Pakistan) and equally share the cost. The FC-1 was planned to be a lightweight all-weather multi-role fighter, equipped with a Western avionics suite and powered by the Russian Klimov RD 93 aero-engine.
Pakistan envisaged a fighter aircraft comparable to the Su-30MKI, Mig-29 & Mirage-2000. China claimed that it would induct the aircraft due to its superior capabilities. Separating fact from fiction, the JF 17, is a glorified MiG 21.
The two most important parts of the aircraft, the engine and airframe are fraught with problems. The RD 93 engine with its high rate of unserviceability and recurring snags makes the aircraft costly to maintain. The engine smokes in-flight and the smoke trail is visible from afar.
When PAF found itself stone walled by China on improving the engine serviceability and reliability, it directly approached Russia for the purchase and repair of engines. On 14 November 2011, a JF 17 on a routine sortie broke up in mid-air due to a design failure, a fact not readily accepted by the Chinese.
China had not shared the wind tunnel tests results with Pakistan and only after detailed investigation, the aircraft was found to have experienced structural failure of the left wing.
The proposed Western avionics are nowhere to be seen. The JF-17 aircraft are now equipped with KLJ-7 radar, which is inferior to the LKJ-10 radar fitted on the J-10 aircraft. The radar has multiple modes, but exhibits degraded behavior and experiences multiple operational and maintenance problems.
Weapon integration and availability of weapons are other issues, which will hamper PAF from exploiting the full potential of the aircraft.
China, Pakistan's all weather friend, having spent a significant amount of money on developing a fighter, most probably forced Pakistan to accept Chinese avionics to offset some of its development costs.
The Chinese have yet to make any firm commitments on inducting the JF-17. They appear to prefer the more capable J-10 instead.
Chinese vested interest lies in the potential of the JF-17 to serve as a springboard for exports. Obviously for this reason JF-17 has been designed as a low cost fighter.
For Pakistan, the JF-17 will bolster its defence production and will bring in much needed foreign exchange. A number of African and Muslim countries have shown interest in the JF-17, but no sale has materialized as yet. But if JF-17 cannot compete on the basis of price, it may fail to take off entirely as it remains largely unproven and still under development.
The JF-17 saga however signals that Pakistan-China relations are moving from mutual aversion of India to self-serving interests. China appears to be using Pakistan in its quest to establish itself as a global power. On its part Pakistan finds China useful in its quest to be counted.
In other words both countries function in partnership of their usefulness to each other. But the unanswered question: Is Pakistan finding itself being arm twisted by its 'all weather' friend with the lure of a 'fair' weather economic package?
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