The multirole JF-17 aircraft Pakistan is building jointly with China is a mid-tech plane that fills in the gap between lower and upper technology, Brig. Shafqaat Ahmad, Pakistan's defense attaché in Washington, said.
Pakistan also is buying 24 F-16 jet fighters from the United States for its air force, leading to traditional rival India saying Islamabad has started an arms race in the region. Pakistan denies the charge.
"While we are acquiring the F-16s to meet our immediate defense requirements, the JF-17 Thunder aircraft that Pakistan is producing jointly with China has nothing to do with any arms race," Ahmad said.
He said some of the Chinese aircraft now in use in Pakistan would need replacement soon and the government had decided that sharing technology with China would be preferable to buying more aircraft. He said the bulk of these aircraft, three out of four, would go to China.
This explanation, however, does not satisfy India. Reports in the Indian media, quoting defense experts, say the JF-17s can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. The reports cited Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's remarks, during Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to the country last month, that Pakistan wanted to keep a minimum level of conventional and unconventional defensive deterrence. In New Delhi, this was interpreted that the JF-17 could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.
During the visit, Wen assured Musharraf China would help defend Pakistan's "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity." In India, this was interpreted as meaning while China wants to improve its relations with New Delhi, it will continue its decades-long close defense and strategic ties with Pakistan.
Other Indian experts, such as Ashutosh Mishra of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi told reporters there was no reason to fear the JF-17s. He said these are slightly improved versions of the F-7 aircraft, which were equivalent to India's Russia-made MiG-21s, Pakistan now needs to phase out. India's Mig-21s have been replaced by newer versions.
The joint China-Pakistan venture first began in the late 1990s when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif still ruled Pakistan. The aircraft was first called Super-7, then renamed FC-1 in 2001 and are now being produced as JF-17.
The planes are being built at Kamra, a cantonment located between Islamabad and the northwestern city of Peshawar at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, an organ of the Pakistan Ministry of Defense.
China's Nanchang Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. is also assisting Kamra in developing a new jet trainer known as Karakorum-8, or K-8.
Traditionally, Pakistan had depended on the United States for its weapon requirements, but when in 1990 the United States stopped all arms sales to Pakistan following a dispute over its nuclear program, Islamabad began to look at other options.
The sanctions grounded the F-16 aircraft Pakistan had purchased from Washington in the 1980s. Other mid-tech aircraft, such as F-6s, F-7s, A-5s and Mirages that Pakistan bought from other sources were aging and needed to be replaced. So in February 1992, Pakistan negotiated a deal with the China Aero-Technology Import and Export Corp., which had invited the Pakistan Air Force to invest in the Super-7 program in return for full participation in design and development, with exclusive co-production rights of up to 59 percent of the Super-7 airframe. The air force received Islamabad's approval in October 1994.
JF-17 is a lightweight, multirole, day-night, all-weather fighter with maximum takeoff weight of 2,700 kilograms, maximum speed 1.7 M, ceiling 16,500 meters, max weapon load 3,900 kilograms, range 3,000 kilograms. It would be equipped with a Russian engine, probably RD-33, that powers the MiG-29.
The Pakistani version would carry a European avionics suite that includes multimode Pulse Doppler radar, inertial navigation system and multi-function displays. Pakistan says it will fulfill 70 percent of its air force's operational requirements.
The JF-17 is designed to be fitted with a vast array of weaponry. Weapon load includes short- and medium-range anti-air missiles like AIM-9P/PL-9/Magic 2 and PL-11/Aspide/AIM-7E. In addition it includes new fly-by-wire flight control system and a true beyond visual range attack capability.
More important for Pakistan is that it will train the nation's engineers and mechanics in the art of aircraft making.
The first flight of the aircraft took place Sept. 04, 2003, and after flight testing, the Pakistan Air Force decided to start serial production. PAF plans to buy about 150 aircraft. China plans to acquire 250 aircraft.
Pakistani officials said they also intend to sell the JF-17 to other countries interested in mid-tech aircraft.
While briefing journalists at Kamra Monday, Air Vice Marshal Shahid Latif, the chief project director for the JF-17, denied media reports Russia had cancelled an agreement with China to provide engines for the aircraft. He said China continued to receive the engines and the supply will continue in the near future.
He said the JF-17 was a lightweight aircraft that can be refueled in the air.
"The JF-17 is strategically very important for our air force and it also has far-reaching implications both for the national defense and economic prosperity," he said.
He said under the agreement between the two countries, half the fighters would be produced on an assembly line in China while the other half would be made in Pakistan.
U.S. defense experts told London's Financial Times the JF-17 was no threat to the United States.
"If you want hundreds of planes to look size a sizable air force, it comes in handy," Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at the Teal Group, told the paper. "It does not come in handy in any other circumstances. If you put it head to head against an F-16 it would probably last about 5 seconds."
Michael O'Hanlon, defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the United States was less concerned with fighter jets produced by China.
"These are a couple of middle-range technological powers," said O'Hanlon to the newspaper. "I worry a lot more about Soviet-era MiGs and Su-27s and Israeli command and control and any help with their pilot training."