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SOURCE: THE WEEK

Chinese state-run media confirmed on Tuesday that the newest variant of the JF-17 fighter had made its maiden test flight in December. The JF-17 was developed by China and Pakistan and has been in service with the Pakistan Air Force since 2011. It was believed to have been used in the aerial skirmish in Kashmir with the Indian Air Force last year.

Images of the purported first flight of the JF-17 Block 3 emerged on social media on December 27.

China’s Global Times reported that the JF-17 Block 3 prototype made its maiden flight at Chengdu in Sichuan province. The publication added that the JF-17 Block 3 featured a “new and larger holographic wide-angle head-up display (HUD) and integrated cockpit display similar to the one used by the J-20”. The J-20 is China’s first stealth fighter. A HUD is a display unit that shows all flight- and mission-related information to the pilot, removing the need for the pilot to ‘look down’ on individual dials and equipment.

The Global Times added the JF-17 Block 3 also features a missile approach warning system used on the J-20 and other Chinese fighters. Wang Ya’nan, an aviation journalist, told Global Times, “China has made a large amount of achievements in the development of the likes of the J-10 and J-20, resulting in many mature technologies and equipment… If they can be used on the JF-17, the pilot could enjoy a significant efficiency increase in flying, which will also boost its combat efficiency.”

Renowned aviation publication Flight International reported that the heads-up display on the JF-17 Block 3 appeared “considerably larger” than ones on in-service aircraft. The publication also noted the new aircraft appeared to have radar-warning receivers aft of the aircraft intakes and on the tail. Radar-warning receivers alert a pilot on being tracked by an enemy aircraft or missile, enabling immediate evasive action.

The nose cone of the new JF-17 variant is also longer, making it likely that the fighter will incorporate an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. In an AESA radar, the antennae are able to aim their radio beams in multiple directions without having to move physically. AESA radars are considered to be more reliable and efficient than older mechanically steered radars and are also more resistant to electronic warfare by enemies.

In March last year, Global Times reported the JF-17 Block 3 would feature an AESA radar and helmet-mounted sight (HMS) system. The two upgrades would improve the JF-17’s capability to use both short- and long-range air-to-air missiles. Then, Chinese analysts claimed the JF-17 Block 3 would be able to match an “improved F-16”. The US-built F-16 is Pakistan’s most advanced fighter.

Though design work on the JF-17 started in China, the programme has become famous for its Pakistan link. According to Aviation International News, nearly 58 per cent of the aircraft’s parts are manufactured in Pakistan. These include the “wings, horizontal tail, vertical tail, and forward fuselage”, with the remainder coming from China. More than 100 JF-17s have been built by 2019, the vast majority for the Pakistan Air Force. Myanmar and Nigeria have bought small numbers of JF-17 fighters; the aircraft is not in service with the Chinese military.

The JF-17 uses a Russian-supplied engine and is equipped primarily with Chinese weapons. In terms of numbers, it is the workhorse of the Pakistan Air Force.

Aviation International News quoted the chief of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex as saying “Production of subassemblies has already started for the first two 50 Block 3 aircraft, to be assembled next year, and will be followed by another 12 in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024.”

Last week, Pakistan rolled out the first batch of eight twin-seater JF-17B fighters at a ceremony near Islamabad.