China's FC-1 Xiaolong (JF-17) two-seater variant of the fighter

ISLAMABAD -- The Pakistan Air Force expects next month to add 50 JF-17 fighter jets built jointly with China to replace old aircraft and upgrade capability against India's missile defence system.

According to Pakistani defence sources, a rollout ceremony was held in December and the new JF-17 jets will fly at the national day military parade on March 23.

JF-17 production began in the late 1980s in a $500 million China-Pakistan joint venture. More than 100 of the aircraft have been commissioned into the PAF since 2007, of which 26 were added in 2020 as part of a so-called second block. The latest 50 are the third block.

The airframes, front fuselage, wings and vertical stabilizer were built by state-owned Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. Other components were supplied by China's Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, a subsidiary of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China. All assembly takes place in Pakistan.

The latest jets have improved "high off-boresight" capability, which means they do not have to be pointing in any specific direction to target an adversary. The aircraft can fire from whatever position, and its missiles will adjust thrust, speed and trajectory to hit targets. This greatly enhances PAF operability.

Light composite materials enable the jets to carry five beyond-visual-range missiles, a significant improvement on earlier aircraft. Data fusion technology has also been incorporated to improve communications and decision-making times.

Taimur Fahad Khan, a research associate with the Centre for Strategic Perspectives at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, said the multirole fighters will improve PAF capability against India's new S-400 air defence system.

"S-400 has been found to be largely ineffective against some of the advanced, multirole fighter jets with near stealth features," Khan told Nikkei Asia. "These jets possess capabilities that make them the best option to counter S-400."

"JF-17 block three fighters are near stealth with advanced software and radar capabilities that can be used to deceive the tracking system of S-400 missiles, among other systems," he said.

According to Khan, the new fighters can detect enemy jets at long distances and launch attacks pre-emptively. The liquid-cooled airborne fire control radar system improves detection of adversaries by 65%, and can target an enemy aircraft from 170 kilometers.

Many observers believe the new jets demonstrate Pakistan's growing self-reliance in weaponry.

"Pakistan Armed Forces have reasonable capability against any aggression," Tanveer Sultan Awan, chairman of Hajvairy Technologies, an aviation company, told Nikkei. "The Pakistan Air Force, in particular, is working in the direction of self-reliance, and production of the JF-17 is a demonstration of this policy," Awan said.

Apart from bolstering the PAF, the JF-17 project has export potential. "It has helped Pakistan build its own capacity for defence production and create a military-industrial complex -- something its archrival India still lacks despite large military resources," said Khan.

Chinese assistance has also enabled Pakistan to export military hardware to other countries. Myanmar and Nigeria have already procured JF-17s, and Argentina has recently expressed interest in the new generation. Argentina's ambassador to China visited China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation in Beijing in January, and reportedly discussed a possible order.

"Chinese military hardware is now in the league of hi-tech Western equipment," said Awan, himself a former officer in the PAF. "In years to come, the dependence of Pakistan on Chinese military hardware will be significantly more than on Western equipment."

Despite the benefits of Chinese assistance, Pakistan remains concerned about the range of weapon procurement options available to India.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at Wilson Centre, says that Islamabad will continue to look at India's acquisitions with concern -- not just because of French Dassault Rafale jets.

"India has the luxury of a diversified group of arms suppliers from Russia and Israel to the U.S. This is why Pakistan won't be prepared to rest easy anytime soon," he told Nikkei.

Kugelman said that while the jets are important, and serve a major need for Pakistan, Islamabad is still not at the point where it views China as a replacement to the U.S. as a security provider.

"It would be wrong to assume that Pakistan is prepared to shut the door on the U.S. simply because it is getting these jets and other important defence products from China," he said. "If Pakistan were presented with an opportunity to acquire U.S. arms, it certainly wouldn't dismiss it."