The Pakistani Air Force (PAF) has been taking delivery of the first few examples of its newest fighter jet, the FC-1 (also known as the JF-17) recently. While other nations have been taking delivery of modern, advanced fighter aircraft recently, Pakistan has settled for a clearly inferior product.
The FC-1 has a relatively long history. It began life in China as the Super-7, an enhanced and modified version of China's MiG-21 FISHBED clone, the J-7. At one point China was working with the American aviation industry to design and outfit the aircraft. The similar PEACE PEARL project was also underway at the same time, which would have seen J-8II FINBACK-B interceptors refitted with AN/APG-66 radar sets. All that cooperation ended when the United States condemned the Chinese government's response to the Tianamen Square incidents, which included running over protesters with tanks. Human rights issues aside, this led to a curtailment of work on both the J-8II and Super-7 upgrade programs. The J-8II would at least end up receiving some attention at the hands of Russia, with the proposed F-8IIM aircraft featuring new Russian avionics and weapons, like the R-27R AAM. Eventually, J-8II upgrades featured native systems and weapons, and today J-8II's can be seen carrying the Chinese PL-12 active-radar BVRAAM, for example. The Super-7 was not so lucky, being consinged to the virtual scrap heap for a period of time. Work was done to update the J-7, but none of it was as substantial as the plans for the Super-7. One of the most advanced designs, the J-7MF, finally featured capabilities similar to those planned for the Super-7, and in some circles has been mentioned as a fall-back should the FC-1 have failed.
Enter MiG. The MiG design bureau had designed a lightweight fighter roughly analogous to the F-16, the MiG-33. Powered by a single RD-33 engine, the MiG-33 design, which never amounted to more than a paper project and a few models inside of Russia, has a number of design features virtually identical to those on the FC-1. Namely, the original FC-1's dogtooth LERX fairings, the tailplane-fuselage joint, and the cockpit canopy, to name a few. This does not imply that MiG aided in the design of the FC-1, far from it. But it does open the possibility that the FC-1 is representative of an amalgamation of the Super-7 and MiG-33 designs. Around the time that China was rethinking the Super-7/FC-1 design, they were renewing defense ties with the Russian defense establishment, purchasing numerous SAM systems, aircraft, and naval vessels. Technical advisors could easily have been on the list at some stage.
Regardless of the design history, the first FC-1 prototype took to the air on 25 August 2003. The design was flawed, and in April of 2006 a modified design appeared in the sky in the form of the fourth prototype. The original aircraft had a top speed of Mach 1.6, with the modified fourth prototype being able to attain Mach 1.8 thanks to the incorporation of new divertless supersonic intakes. The wing-fuselage junction was also altered, and the rear fueslage was modified as well. Lastly, there is a new apparent ECM/ESM fairing atop the tail fin. The latest aircraft delivered this year to the Pakistani Air Force are representative of the fourth prototype's aerodynamic configuration, suggesting that the design may have finally been frozen after years of design work and flight test.
The powerplant issue was once thought to be a major problem for Pakistan. Russia, the RD-93's manufacturer, had initially refused to allow China to re-export the engine. In April of 2007, however, the re-sale of the RD-93 to Pakistan was approved, as part of a defense agreement allowing China to market products with Russian components to nations in Southeast Asia and Africa which are typically strong Chinese customers, including Pakistan. Russia's initial reluctance to allow sale of the engine to Pakistan is understandable, as Pakistan's chief adversary India is a major Russian defense customer. However, the Putin government has apparently changed their position on the matter, and their defense contracts with India do not appear to have suffered. At any rate, it is not outside the realm of possibility that an indigenous Chinese engine, or simply an unlicensed copy of the RD-93, will eventually power the FC-1, to enable the Chinese to market the aircraft outside of Southeast Asia and Africa, most notably in the Middle East where Iran could be a potential client despite persistent propagandist spoutings about indigenous fighter aircraft of their own.
Part 2 of this article will address the shortcomings of the FC-1 design, as compared to the Su-30MKI, the F-16 Block 50/52, and the J-10.