Pakistan Quietly Grounded All JF-17 Block I Fighters

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.

According to a Pakistani report, 40 percent of JF-17 Thunder fighter jets of the Pakistan Air Force is grounded due to multiple reasons. Most grounded aircraft are Block I variants.

In 1999, when Beijing and Islamabad signed the deal on joint production of the JF-17, it was touted as a combat jet comparable to Su-30 MKI, Mig-29 and Mirage-2000. The reality, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is finding out much to its chagrin, is nowhere near the boastful claims made by the Chinese, Daily Sun reported.

The Single-seat variant Block I jets were produced in 2006, and later assembly started in Pakistan in 2007. A Block 1 JF-17 costs approximately US$15 million per unit, similar to a Chinese L-15 light combat aircraft.

The JF-17 RD-93 aero-engines propensity to emit black smoke can make it an easy target for the enemy during close aerial combat. As time passed, Islamabad complained multiple times to Beijing about the aircraft and its engine’s vulnerabilities, China tried to replace the engine. But as the engine RD-93 is a Russian one, Beijing faced difficulties in accessing spare parts and other assistance from Russia due to sanctions.

Now, Beijing is developing Guizhou WS-13 Taishan, a new engine to replace the Russian engines from JF-17. But this will take a long time as the engine is still to be developed, reported ANI news.

A Russian engine powers a fighter jet, and considering that JF-17 is single-engine aircraft, 60% availability is not a bad number.

But only if this availability issue occurred due to poor maintenance or the scarcity of spare parts, as mentioned in the report, these jets are grounded due to structural issues.

There are problems in the fuselage area, with cracks being detected in the lower area. Cracks were also noticed in the strake areas, which could be in the fuselage or wings.

These are the areas that face intense stress in the air when pilots pull extreme G-load manoeuvres.

The problem of cracks in the airframe of an aircraft that is only 10-13 years old confirms how bad the aircraft quality is.

The structure of JF-17 is made up of metal rather than composite material, but even the metallic Airframes didn’t crack so easily.

There are also cases of anchor breakages in the JF-17. This is another sign of structural weakness. The radar and its attached equipment are heavy and are clearly too heavy for that part of the fighter, sources said.

The JF-17’s canopy electrical system is malfunctioning. This is also the case in the JF-17B, the dual seater. This is a potential danger as it makes ejection by the pilot in case it is required either difficult or almost impossible.

There is no quick fix for this structural issue. The jets need to be refurbished to again fly in the air.

As many aircraft are on the long-term ground, the availability of aircraft will definitely be below 60 percent as the rest of the jets also need to be maintained regularly.

However, what the Pakistani Air Force can expect from a made in Chinese product, they only care about quantity, not quality.

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