The JF-17 fighter jet, known as the "pearl" of Pakistan's Air Force, is under threat due to US sanctions and disrupted supplies of spare parts in the global market

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed marking the demise of one of the most powerful states in the world, Russia experienced many financial difficulties on its course to capitalism. Many strange decisions were taken to survive in the conditions of total privatization and unprecedented withdrawal of funds abroad.

It was then that a shift occurred within the sphere of global military aviation, when the Russian Mikoyan Design Bureau, famous for its superior aircraft designs, found itself in a dilemma. Rather than selling its own aircraft across the globe as it had always done, the bureau was forced to hand over some of its technology to China.

The Russian company received a certain amount of money for this transfer of technology, which led to a significant collaboration resulting in the production of the JF-17 Thunder jets. A decade later, China teamed up with Pakistan to design an upgraded version of these jets.

The JF-17 Thunder is not only remarkable for its speed and range, but also for its multifaceted armament, as it can carry a wide variety of weapons, including guided air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, as well as aerial bombs, thus making it the backbone of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).

Pakistan has 146 such jets in service, but many of the JF-17s are currently out of order due to a number of factors. Russia can help and is willing to aid PAF in the maintenance of the JF-17, but Islamabad is reluctant to engage due to the US sanctions.

JF-17 Program

The JF-17 Thunder, a multirole fighter jet, has been the subject of great interest and pride for Pakistan's military and aviation enthusiasts. However, recent reports have raised concerns about the operational status of these aircraft.

The JF-17 Thunder program, also known as the FC-1 Xiaolong in China, was initiated in the early 2000s with the aim of producing an affordable and capable fighter aircraft for Pakistan's air force. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China collaborated to develop and manufacture the jets.

Since its introduction into service in 2007, the model has become a key component of Pakistan's aerial defence capabilities. While the program has achieved notable success, it has also faced several challenges, some of which have contributed to the current inoperability of certain aircraft.

Maintenance And Spare Parts

One of the primary issues affecting the JF-17 fleet is the unavailability of spare parts and maintenance capabilities. Pakistan relies heavily on China for these components and delays or disruptions in the supply chain can lead to grounded aircraft.

A report suggested that Pakistani officials have made requests to their Chinese counterparts to commence maintenance on the engines as soon as possible. However, the reasons behind China’s reluctance to address the issue is so far unclear.

Meanwhile, the jets remain grounded, causing a significant disruption to the country's defence forces.

JSC UEC Klimov, a leading Russian designer and producer of gas-turbine engines for military and civil aircraft, has expressed willingness to assist Pakistan's Air Force in the maintenance of these super jets; however, no agreement has been reached so far.

Software Glitches And Pilot Training

Keeping the JF-17 fleet up-to-date with the latest technology and weapons systems is crucial for maintaining its operational effectiveness. Retrofitting older aircraft with modern upgrades can be a time-consuming process.

As with any complex military equipment, technical issues can arise and these may range from software glitches to hardware malfunctions, requiring extensive maintenance and repairs.

Furthermore, adequate training for pilots and ground crews is essential to ensure the safe and effective operation of the JF-17, hence, training programs need continuous support and investment.

US Sanctions Prolong Issue

The exact number of inoperable JF-17s has not been publicly disclosed by the Pakistani authorities, but reports suggest that a portion of the fleet is currently grounded due to the challenges mentioned above.

Efforts are being made to address the challenges faced by the JF-17 program, with Pakistan exploring options to diversify its supply chain for spare parts, maintenance, and reducing its dependence on a single source.

Attempts to upgrade existing JF-17s with enhanced avionics and weapons systems are in progress, ensuring they remain relevant in modern combat scenarios. Lastly, continuous training and capacity-building programs are being conducted to maintain a highly skilled workforce for JF-17 operation and maintenance.

Russia can aid Pakistan in all of the above mentioned issues, however, the dilemma lies in the fact that JSC Rosoboronexport, which is the sole state intermediary agency for Russia's exports/imports of defence-related and dual use products, technologies, and services is currently under US sanctions.

Thus, the Pakistani authorities, who are already gripped with an economic crisis in the country, are worried that the US may implement heavy sanctions on Islamabad should they opt to collaborate directly with Russia.

Nevertheless, the JF-17 Thunder remains a significant asset for Pakistan's Air Force, despite the challenges it faces, while the country continues to invest in its domestic defence industry and seeks to diversify its supply chains.

It is likely that the program may see increased reliability and operational readiness in the future, if Pakistan can find a reliable and helpful partner to aid it in the country's defence capabilities.