Pakistan starts domestic production of JF-17 fighter

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Pakistan has begun domestic production of the JF-17 Thunder fighter, with its air force hoping to take delivery of up to 10 aircraft and form an operational squadron by year-end.

Jointly developed with China, where it is designated the FC-1, the aircraft will initially use Russian-made RD-93 engines - a move that has raised India's ire - but will eventually be powered by China's developmental WS-13.

Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed, air force chief of staff, says the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) will be able to manufacture 15 fighters within the next year, with the rate increasing to 25 a year by 2011.

Islamabad already has two JF-17s and will take delivery of six more from China by early February to test avionics and weapon systems. Under the terms of its contract with Chengdu Aircraft, Pakistan will buy 150 domestically produced JF-17s to replace its Chengdu F-7Ps, but it could eventually procure 300 aircraft to reduce its dependence on US- and Russian-built fighters.

The first 50 JF-17s will be equipped with Chinese KLJ-10 radars and SD-10 and PL-8 missiles. However, PAC is in talks with France's Thales to procure the RC-400 radar and with MBDA for Mica air-to-air missiles.

Tanvir says 60% of the airframe and 80% of the avionics will be indigenously produced by 2010, boosting Pakistan's budding manufacturing industry.

Both China and Pakistan plan to export the JF-17, with some reports suggesting the type has already been ordered by Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe.

Pakistan's use of the RD-93 engine has caused consternation in India - a major customer for Russian arms. New Delhi complained last year that China had breached its agreements with Moscow by exporting the powerplant to Pakistan, but Russia agreed last November to allow the re-export of its technology.

Some analysts believe India's displeasure could damage the chances of Russia's Sukhoi Su-35 winning its competition for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft, where it faces competition from the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16 and Saab Gripen.

Meanwhile, Pakistan will receive its first single-seat F-16C Block 52 fighter in early 2009, says Tanvir. Islamabad agreed last year to buy 12 Pratt & Whitney F100-powered F-16Cs and six two-seat trainers, plus several second-hand examples, while also orderind mid-life upgrades for its existing fleet of F-16A/Bs.