The roles of the JF-17 for the PAF and PLAAF
In virtually every static display JF-17 mock-ups were featured in air to air configuration, with four AAMs (Air to Air Missiles) two for BVR-AAMs and two WVR-AAMs along with two drop tanks. Significantly enough the JF-17's first mock-up also exhibited mock-ups of PL-12/SD-10 (China's first active radar homing BVR-AAM) which was solid and final confirmation that a modern higher performance BVR-combat capability was a primary requirement. Though a multi-role configuration has not been displayed (with air to surface munitions) such a configuration is inevitable.
Another important factor regarding the FC-1/JF-17's role is what aircraft is expected to augment it. Originally envisaged as the Mirage 2000-5 no deal went ahead because of funding and political reservations. Recent deliberations have been mixed pointing to either surplus F-16A/B from operators other than the USA (Belgium or Holland for example) or purchases of the Rafale or Eurofighter/Typhoon. Still, the Mirage 2000-5 and even Mirage 2000-5 Mk.2 or SAAB/BAe Jas-39C/D 'Gripen' come up and the J-10 is also a candidate. Whatever aircraft is chosen, it's obvious that it will have a bearing on how the PAF deploys the JF-17. The Mirage 2000-5 was to have been primarily a strike/interdictor aircraft while the JF-17's primary role was to be interception.
Induction of the FC-1/JF-17 will mean different things for the airforces in question. For the PAF it will be superior to all fighters currently in service including the F-16A/B (whose only advantage will remain field performance). To the PLAAF however, it's not nearly as capable as other options available. Operationally speaking, it will represent the most significant upgrade to the PAF since the induction of the F-16A/B. In terms of range, payload, and manoeuvrability and transform the way in which the PAF operates as it will allow more options to be exercised and considered that was impossible with the PAF's mainstay F-7P/PG and Mirage III/5 fighter/bombers. Thus it will offer a capability closer in philosophy to the F-16A/B.
F-7P operations are often hazardous due to limited performance. A pilot would require a three tank ferry kit enabling only a pair of WVR-AAM (usually Aim-9P-4) and 120 rounds of 30mm rounds to be carried. Lacking in radar performance (even with the Grifo 7), the F-7P would depend heavily on GCI (Ground Control Intercept). Engagement of enemy forces would require 'racing' to merge WVR (Within Visual Range) of strike formations. Dodging escort aircraft (especially BVR-AAM equipped ones) would prove to be no easy matter while the amount of duel consumed would decrease combat endurance considerably.
Lack of firepower would prove fatal in combat, while the need to venture to the enemy would create tactical disadvantages such as being too far from base. This may result in orders by GCI to prevent F-7Ps from engaging distant enemy formations for fear of a trap or because they fall out of patrol perimeters. With lack of BVR-AAMs or the ability to use them, the Indian Air Force would effectively have safe air 'gaps' that are beyond the reach of the F-7P owing to its lack of endurance.
The situation is marginally improved in the F-7PG (with the Grifo 7PG) and in the ROSE 1 Mirage IIIO/OD or Mirage 5EF/IIIBE although the Grifo M3 radar of the ROSE 1 Mirages is excellent in threat prioritisation and detection (supported by Pakistan's GCI network). However, with only token numbers of BVR-AAMs, most engagements would have to be WVR. Furthermore, the Mirages lack the rapid acceleration performance required for BVR armed platforms. While the range of the Mirage exceeds that of the F-7P or F-7PG it is insufficient for sustained performance.
With the JF-17, the PAF would be capable of sustaining CAPs for longer periods of time. Its BVR-combat capability will allow engagement of strike formations at longer ranges without having to give up the advantage of position. It would also minimise or even deny all together, any 'gaps' for the Indian Air Force to enter through. With improved radar performance in the Grifo S7 the JF-17 crews can be instilled with a greater degree of autonomy over the hapless F-7P crews and even ROSE 1 Mirages. Another bonus is the ability to carry out all these operations in day or night and in all weathers, something not possible with the F-7P.
Though a common perception exists that the A-5C and the F-7P will be the first aircraft replaced it is misleading. While the JF-17 would be superior to the A-5C at CAS or strike missions, it would divert aircraft more urgently needed for interception and CAP missions. An A-5C replacement has not yet been defined, but was originally expected to be the 20 strong ROSE 2 Mirage 5EF. The F-7P on the other hand is still among the most youthful airframes in the PAF and despite its poor service life between major overhauls (a mere 800 hours) could serve on for another decade and half.
Meanwhile, the majority of the PAF's 160 strong Mirage III/5 must urgently be retired and most are long overdue. After 2010 only 40 Mirage 5EF/IIIBE (the last ROSE 1/2 examples delivered) and perhaps 16 Mirage 5PA3 (tasked with anti-shipping) would be airworthy. Given that the majority of the PAF's Mirage 5PA are strike dedicated aircraft. Replacing them with the air to air configured FC-1/JF-17 would disrupt the balance of the force and leave less aircraft dedicated for attack duties creating an overload at air defence and putting further strains on the remaining attack aircraft.
With these considerations it's likely that the FC-1/JF-17 will commence service, replacing the Mirages starting with the 100 series Mirage IIIEP aircraft (veterans of the 1971 war tasked interception) inside the 2005-2010 timeframe followed by the 500 series Mirage IIIO/OD (ROSE 1 ex-RAAF) and oldest F-7P airframes. From around 2010 onwards, a multi-role version of the FC-1/JF-17 should be available replacing the remaining 200, 300 and 400 series Mirage IIID/5PA/DPA series and possibly special customised version to replace the Mirage IIIRP and Mirage 5PA3 tasked with reece and anti-shipping.
The FC-1/JF-17 is likely to acquit itself well in the PAF and would remain (with updated variants) viable for the next three to four decades of service. Starting as an interceptor, the FC-1/JF-17 will be joined by a multi-role version and the original aircraft upgraded to the same status if the situation requires. It can be expected that the majority of PAF aircraft will be the multi-role model.
The main questions that remain are how many the PAF really requires and what aircraft should supplant them. An outstanding order for modest 150 airframes remains but this is widely believed to be exceeded, and could go beyond 200 airframes over the next two decades as newer versions are put on offer. The question of a supplementary aircraft has yet to be resolved and will probably be chosen between 2005-2010.
To the PLAAF, the JF-17 represents modest capabilities compared to the 'Flanker' series (Su-27SK/UBK, Su-30MKK, and their license built J-11 variants) or the J-10 being inducted at the present time. Although the PLAAF is committed to purchasing 200 JF-17 the Chinese government is apparently coaxing