In the beginning of February this year it was revealed Myanmar and Pakistan were negotiating a follow-on order for multirole fighter jets. As an initiative of the Myanmar Air Force, which flies both Russian and Chinese aircraft along with leftover antiques, the goal was to upgrade its capabilities with a low-cost design suited for a defensive role.
This makes the JF-17 an ideal choice for Myanmar. Originally a Chinese model based on the J-7, itself a MiG-21 derivative, a brief three-way involving Beijing, Islamabad, and Washington, DC during the late 1980s allowed the American aerospace firm Grumman to develop an improved fighter called the FC-1 that flew with Western-made avionics.
Though never fielded by the PLAAF, the FC-1 of the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation became a joint venture with the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in the 1990s. The resulting JF-17 Thunder entered service by 2009 and was positioned for export by 2010.
Pakistan intends to make the JF-17 and its subsequent Block II and III variants the cornerstone of its air force, which is reliant on single-engine models such as the Mirages, F-16 C/D’s, and nearly 200 Chinese J-7’s. The JF-17 is armed with a 23mm canon, supports three hardpoints on either wing, and a modest bomb bay. It runs on a Russian engine and its performance characteristics are comparable to the MiG-21PF or Fishbed D.
It needs to be clarified the JF-17 isn’t a fully indigenous fighter program from Pakistan. PAC only assembles its airframe, the engine comes from Russia, avionics are imported from France and Italy. Its missiles are made in China. Rumor has it a new twin-seater JF-17 is in the works.
In 2015 Myanmar ordered 16 for its own air force. This was a bargain since there are few third and fourth-generation single-engine multirole fighters available to developing countries in the current market. With the exception of the expensive Saab Gripen E, air forces without strong ties with the US are left to choose from surplus stocks offered by other states.
In Myanmar’s case, as one of the poorer ASEAN countries and neighbor to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and China, its borders are under enough threat as it is. Operating JF-17’s alongside its MiG-29’s would do much to protect its territory. Besides, its air force badly needs an upgrade 27 years after it splurged a billion dollars on now obsolescent Chinese J-7’s and Q-5’s.
Should the present negotiations with Islamabad and the PAC lead to an agreement Myanmar will have a golden opportunity for establishing a national aerospace sector. The exact number of JF-17’s requested by Myanmar is unknown but it’s believed the upcoming deal involves licensed production with help from second and third-party suppliers. This benefits the JF-17’s existing supply chain and improves its position as a low-cost multirole asset.