Wednesday, April 18, 2007

China, Pakistan, and the FC-1

A few weeks or so ago, China delivered the first two FC-1 fighter jets to Pakistan. The FC-1, also known as the JF-17 to Pakistan, is a Chinese designed single-seat fighter jet. It's powered by a Russian-made engine and equipped with Chinese avionics and weapons (although the prospects of Pakistan incorporating Western kit isn't out of the question).

Now, the idea of Pakistan receiving a modern, lightweight fighter jet would seem to be ideal, as their air force is severely lacking in terms of quality equipment. Their current air arm relies mainly on comparitively ancient aircraft like the Mirage III, A-5 (a Chinese variation of Russia's MiG-19), and F-7 (a Chinese variation of Russia's MiG-21). Sure, they've tried to keep up appearances by continuing to operate a small fleet of early-block F-16As and upgrading their other aircraft with newer systems, but truth be told, the PAF has some serious shortfalls to address. Pakistan even lacks any sort of BVR AAM, internet propagandist spoutings to the contrary. So reequipping with a modern fighter would seem to be a logical step, given that Pakistan's main rival India has an air force festooned with modern high-performance aircraft (the Mirage 2000, MiG-29, and Su-30MKI, to name a few).

That all being said, the FC-1 is clearly viewed as an inferior product by Pakistan. If the FC-1 was a top-tier fighter jet, then why in the world would Pakistan be consistently pushing for the acquisition of more F-16s from the United States? FC-1 fanboys will allege that Pakistan wants to replace the old Mirages, A-5s, and J-1s with a mix of both FC-1s and F-16s. Okay, sure. Then why is Pakistan also trying to acquire China's other new fighter, the J-10? Do they want a three-jet fleet? Or is the J-10 intended to backstop a potential failure in the F-16 acquisition plans? Something is clearly amiss here. If the FC-1 was the superfighter that some Pakistani aviation fans would want you to believe, then why aren't they clamoring for more FC-1s in place of those F-16s? Or is Pakistan's infatuation with the F-16 just so intense that not even the vaunted FC-1 can break it down? But enough of that, let's examine some of the FC-1's current problems.

1-it has a limited weapons load, and to tote a large payload it needs to waste hardpoints with fuel tanks. This is somewhat curtailed by the fact that the FC-1 would not have to go very far to find its targets in or over India, however.

2-the FC-1's flying ability is at the mercy of Russia at the moment, given that Russian engines are used to power the aircraft (as of right now Russia is apparently turing a blind eye to China's re-export of said engines, but that could always change).

Then there's the issue of the FC-1's true effectiveness in combat on the subcontinent. Pakistan wants about 150 of them. Unfortunately for them, India is buying and license building a similar number of a true 4.5 Generation fighter jet, the Su-30MKI. TVC, a PESA, and a robust long-range weapons fit for both A/A and A/G combat make the Su-30MKI a world-class fighter jet, and pretty much hands air superiority over the subcontinent to the Indian Air Force, easily. Sure, people will argue that "the FC-1 is smaller so it'll be able to get really close before the Indian pilots see it". Wow. Ignorance reigns. As if it worked that way. By that logic, the B-2 should be really non-stealthy as it is rather expansive. Oh wait, it's not, claims by bitter anti-American internet ranters like Venik (who, amusingly enough, apparently lives in Philadelphia...) about Serbian B-2 shootdowns over the FRY notwithstanding. Read up on RCS, aspect angles, and PESA before assuming that just because Pakistan bought it it has to be just fabulous and the best of the best, geniuses. Lots of corner reflectors, external weapons carriage, and other features of the airframe make the FC-1 a pretty decent radar target. For that matter, they make the Su-30MKI a decent target as well, and then it comes down to avionics fit and weapons load, as well as pilot ability.

Let's put the whole force into perspective. You've got FC-1s and F-16s on one side, with Su-30MKIs, MiG-29s, MiG-21BISONs, and Mirage-2000s on the other. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that it's not the numerical advantage that gives India the edge here. Inserting the FC-1 into this environment is foolhardy; the J-10 would be a far better option, being more capable of dealing effectively with other truly modern fighters. The J-10 is part of that peer group, while the FC-1 is the cheap alternative. So, if Pakistan wanted to make strides towards being able to actually combat the Indian Air Force, they need something better than the FC-1 and something more politically reliable than the F-16. That would be the J-10. They won't be able to match the IAF on a 1 for 1 basis, but they'll be far more capable than an FC-1 force would be. Of course, they could always plan on sticking to the nuclear deterrent option, in which case they could justify the cheaper FC-1 as merely attrition and life-cycle replacements for their older legacy aircraft. This of course is contingent on Pakistan's actual firing off of a nuclear weapon in the event of a conflict, otherwise they'd pretty much have had it. Not that they wouldn't go down if they did start lobbing nuclear weapons around, falling themselves under the Indian counterstrike, but at least in that case they'd take India down with them. That all depends on the fortitude of the leadership in Pakistan, I guess. They had no problem taking over the nation and harboring Al Qaeda and the Taliban after ENDURING FREEDOM though, so I would think they'd have no issues with unleashing a nuclear exchange.

Now, in reality, both India and Pakistan need to learn a thing or two about actual air defense. Neither one of them has a real air defense network. India has a small edge by having numerous S-125 SAM sites around major airbases, compared to Pakistan's solitary HQ-2 site in Islamabad. An actual air defense network with a few modern, long-range SAMs like the S-300PM-1 or HQ-9 would make a lot of difference and help even things out a bit, since Indian air combat aircraft would have a new issue to contend with beyond how many FC-1s they can shoot down at range.

Personally, I think China should just back off of the FC-1 project. Granted, the cheap FC-1 represents a potential export success as a J-7/MiG-21 replacement across the globe. But there are better options. For a little more cash, a nation could have China's real fighter jet, the J-10. Dropping the FC-1 would enable Chengdu, the FC-1 and J-10 manufacturer, to concentrate more on improving and perfecting the J-10. A mixed force of J-10s and various FLANKER iterations would be a very effective combat force to replace the older Q-5s, J-7s, and J-8s. The FC-1 just doesn't have a place in the PLAAF except as a token political buy to give faith to Pakistan and other export customers. If the PLAAF truly desires a short-range fighter for point defense, to replace the J-7, then the Hongdu L-15 supersonic trainer provides a far more logical basis. For one, it keeps another type out of your inventory, cleaning up your logistics. Also, it provides an export product to take the FC-1s export niche if foreign nations cannot afford the J-10.

Remember, the FC-1 is the final iteration of a US-Chinese project in the 1980's that would have modified and updated the J-7 design to feature a large nose radar and side-mounted intakes. Tianamen Square ended that partnership, and China turned to Russia for a time for advanced fighter jets, buying Su-27SK and Su-30MKK/MK2 aircraft. At some point the Chengdu team began work on the new design, possibly with help from Mikoyan, and the FC-1 was born. However, it still represents a sub-par fighter jet, clearly targeted for less propserous buyers who can't afford top-tier kit like the J-10. It might end up with a great avionics fit, and decent Chinese weapons, but the aircraft is still not on par with the rest of the world's latest fighter aircraft. Especially the J-10 and the Su-30MKI.

So, China should give up the ghost and drop the FC-1. Yes, they view Pakistan as an ally against India. But there are other products much more suited for Pakistan, like the HQ-9 long-range SAM and the J-10 fighter jet. But that's alright, Pakistan wanted to go for the inferior product, and that's their prerogative. Maybe they just don't have the revenue to make a large enough J-10 buy, what with their lack of recent exports of nuclear technology and their love affair with the F-16.

And really, why we want to sell F-16s to a nation that is clearly neither democratic nor an actual ally (have they rounded up the Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Waziristan? No? Sheesh...) is beyond me. We picked the wrong ally in that fight. Better to cut ties with Pakistan and move on to a better relationship with both India and China. Perhaps increased diplomatic and economic ties with both nations could lead to a mending of fences, helping to further isolate and marginalize Pakistan.

Until they start selling nuclear technology again, of course.


PLA-MKII said...


The problem with your discussion is that you have not qualified why the FC-1 is, compared to what the Indians field, obsolete / ineffective / outdated. If range is not an issue, given theatre limitations and IFR, then the argument seems to become even less relevant. It would be a lot more interesting if you qualaified your statement by saying say, for instance that the SD-10 would not be effective or that the radar on the FC-1 would not be able to lock-on to IAF aircraft.

For me, to simplify, I'd think an SD-10 launched from an FC-1 is as likely to shoot down a counterpart as an SD-10 shot from a J-10, more or less.

Sean O'Connor said...

You raise a good point; I tried to stay away from a long-winded technical discussion to keep the length down. I'll tell you what though, I'll make it a point this week to sit down and discuss what I think of the FC-1.

PLA-MKII said...

Hey SOC,
Still waiting for your discussion..

Sean O'Connor said...

Whoops, sorry about that, this one got bumped off of the front page and I just now thought to check some of the older postings for new comments. I'll make this tomorrow's topic.

Faruq said...

Both countries are moving towards refuelers and AWE&C type assets. Both countries have clearly mentioned to move on to AESA type radar systems. A major part of your article seems to rely on outdated information. I don't blame you if you don't follow th developments and what their officials say but then i don't see how you can get the time to sit down and write an article like that.
You have even contradicted yourself on a couple f things. For example you mentioned FC-1's lack of range as one of the reason then you go and say range might not be an issue for FC-1 in Indo/Pak scenario.
Regarding your political commentary on Pakistan. I have more than once tried to answer you on KeyMags but you neither engage on the points you make nor you are willing to reconsider your assertions as you come back with the same again.

Anonymous said...

I think you have something against pakistan aparently! lol

the articles about fc-1 etc etc
where does selling nuclear come into play? where does "we picked the wrong ally in war" come into play?

Anonymous said...

Picked a wrong ally?

Dont blame your mistakes on others. You ha them corneered in Tora bora, you failed to stop them crossing into Pakistan at first place.

You insult the death of our soldiers, the deaths of innocent Pakistani civilians are die because of suicide bombers...these bombers tell us that kill us because of our support to you...

Mr. SoC is a misguided gentlemen, When terrorists and USA Government themselve say Pakistani is activly supporting America, SoC can say all the shit he wants, facts will remain facts.

Sean O'Connor said...

Pakistani extremists have been blowing things up and killing innocents before the USA went into Afghanistan. Ever heard of Kashmir?

Also, due consider that it was Pakistan's lack of border security that allowed foreign extremists to cross into its territory in the first place. Or was it that they turned a blind eye?

Faruq, the rest of the article is in the works. I don't want to deal with this over on Key's forum simply because of the potential fallout.

Anonymous said...

Wrong Ally !

Insanity !

I think Pakistan picked the wrong ally. We should never had given America our airspace to attack a soverign nation in the first place.

Secondly, Marginalize Pakistan. Haa.. you are funny. using our Airbases and wish for a love affair with India. Thats a new one.

Pakistan has helped America enough, now its time to "marginalize" the role of uncle sam and keep good relations with other more responsible nations of the world.