Why Pakistan’s Chinese-Origin JF-17 Thunder May Never Replace US-Origin F-16 Falcons?

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) loves its F-16 Falcons, which serve as its top-of-the-line fighters. However, contrary to speculation, the China-Pakistan joint venture JF-17s will not replace the Falcons but will complement the US-made F-16s in their missions.

According to the Guinness World Records, the US F-16 is the most widely produced western fighter, with 24 air forces, besides USAF, putting their trust in this aircraft to defend their homeland and strike terror targets.

While the US Air Force itself has around 1,348 F-16s, more than 4000 units have been sold worldwide in over 110 different versions.

The aircraft, nicknamed ‘Fighting Falcon’, that was initially developed for air defense role is now a fullfledged multirole platform offering a variety of mission profiles with precision.

Whereas the JF-17, also called the ‘Thunder’, is a lightweight aircraft that was developed to replace the aging A-5C, F-7P/PG, Mirage III, and Mirage V in Pakistani service: much like India’s Tejas which is intended to replace the Indian Air Force’s MiG-21 fleet.

Upon its inception, the United States Air Force (USAF), four of its NATO partners, and Pakistan, a major non-NATO ally, were the primary operators of General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. And subsequently, other militaries started using them too after Washington rolled out its FMS (Foreign Military Sales) program.

The United States had agreed to the sale of F-16 jets to Pakistan for two major reasons: to counter the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s traditional arch-rival India, which was the first customer for the MiG-29 from the erstwhile USSR.

Currently, the Pakistan Air Force operates around 75 F-16s of various variants, including newer and modern F-16C/D Block 52s.

As a member of the now-defunct Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), Pakistan had managed to increase its ties with the western nations and received adequate financial and military supplies.

The F-86 ‘Sabre’ and F-104 ‘Starfighters’ were some of the major highlights showcasing the US as a major military partner for the country.

Pakistan signed a deal for 40 units of the F-16 in the early 1980s under Foreign Military Sales (FMS) ‘Peace Gate’. By 1987, the airframes were received in two batches.

Unfortunately, the additional orders placed under Peace Gate were unexpectedly canceled by Washington itself after a conflict relating to the Pakistani nuclear program.

However, the aging airframes of the service needed to be replaced as India had upgraded all of its MiG-29s to UPG standard. To cope up with modern-day combat scenarios, a Mid-Life Upgradation (MLU) for F-16 Block 15 aircraft took place in 2009, enhancing it to Block 20 standards that included the mission computer upgrade, avionics, Electronic Warfare (EW) suite, and integration of new AN/APG-68v9 radar system, leading to the compatibility of platform with AIM-120 AMRAAMs and supporting Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS); allowing it to nearly match the latest Block 52 in terms of combat ability.

In 2016, a further upgrade was done on these Block 20 aircraft, focusing on enhancing operational capabilities.

While not all of the Pakistani F-16s are of the Block-52 standard, most of them are now fitted with advanced weaponry capable of launching BVR missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM, air-to-ground missiles like AGM-65 Maverick, AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile, and various precision-guided and unguided bombs and rockets.

The Pakistani F-16 jets came in sudden limelight during a counterstrike operation on February 27th, when an India’s Russian-origin MiG-21 Bison was shot down and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, captured.

However, despite its love for F-16s, the Pakistani Air Force looked at developing its own single-engine fighter jet with China, due to Washington’s growing proximity toward India and higher costs for the upgrade work.

There were various reasons for the service to switch to the JF-17:

  1. Non-NATO members need to undergo rigid diplomatic processes for new weapons integration. For any further upgrade of the airframe or integration of any new armament, it is necessary to seek prior approval from the original manufacturer, that is Lockheed Martin in this case.
  2. F-16s can’t conduct mid-air refueling with PAF’s Russian Il-78MP tankers.
  3. Incompatibility with indigenous homegrown datalink, called Link-17 whereas F-16 uses Link-16.

Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, the F-16 is “needed” for the PAF to slightly plug its capability gap of not having a dedicated twin-engine heavyweight fighter like the Indian Su-30MKI.

Compared to the Chinese systems on the JF-17, the F-16 can carry more armament due to the presence of more hardpoints and better take-off weight capacity, and a significantly better American tried-and-tested engine.

Moreover, there is a common misconception that the JF-17s would eventually replace the F-16s in Pakistani service, while it’s the other way around: the Thunders are supposed to replace the older Chinese and French jets and actually complement the Falcons in their missions.