Structural Cracks Appearing on Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder’s Vertical Stabilizer

On 15 September 2020, a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) JF-17 Thunder jet crashed near Pindigheb. After flying in the air since 2017, a single-seater JF-17 Block II Serial No. 17-241​ was lost to an accident due to cracks on the vertical stabilizer. photo by Dawn news.

The Pakistan Air Force now faces serious difficulties. Its frontline fighter, the JF-17, developed with the help of the Chinese, has maintenance problems that are getting worse every day.

The key reason cited for JF-17’s poor performance is that the aircraft has a single Russian RD-93 engine and structural integrity, which is known for its poor serviceability.

As a way out, the PAF and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation or CATIC are trying to replace the Russian RD-93 engine with a Chinese version. Still, Pakistan questioned the reliability of the Chinese WS-10 engine. Engines need to be overhauled; they need to be replaced after a certain number of flying hours. And only Rosoboronexport can ensure overhauling and provide new engines for JF-17.

China, on its part, plans to replace the engine with a Chinese WS-13 under development. Therefore future Chinese support for the RD-93 may not be readily available as China would want operators to replace the RD-93 with WS-13. The high rate of unserviceability, recurring snags on the engine, and poor spare supply make JF-17 aircraft costly and a less reliable platform. It also reduces the availability of combat aircraft.

Problem with mission management computer

The critical part of the JF-17 avionics is the KLJ-7 Al radar and Weapon Mission Management Computer (WMMC), and both face several problems.

While KLJ-7 radar shows degraded behavior and also faces several operational and maintenance problems, the WMMC has limited capacity and has shown a high rate of failure of a number of its modules, including the Main Computer module.

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According to Pentapostagma news, “Malfunction of the WMMC has caused Launch Zones of Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missiles to shrink during combat exercises. Due to its unreliability, PAC is now attempting to indigenize the WMMCs.

There are a number of other nagging problems on the JF-17 which have not been resolved. The Nose Landing Gear shimmies while taxing, and several aircraft experience nose wheel vibrations. Ventral tails have been found to be cracked, indicating poor metallurgy or design. Even the four aircraft gifted to Myanmar by China have developed cracks in the Ventral Stabilizer. Though Nigeria is procuring three aircraft, Sri Lanka was wise enough to shelve its plan. Nigeria’s experience with the Super Mushshak trainer aircraft that it bought from Pakistan was also not pleasant. The aircraft was plagued with numerous maintenance problems and extremely high maintenance costs charged by the Pakistanis. 

Pakistan’s JF-17 “Thunder”, which was supposed to be a low cost, lightweight, all-weather multi-role fighter with a Chinese airframe, has now become a liability for Islamabad due to its high Operations and Maintenance cost as compared to the modern weapon systems.

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