Part one of this article is available here:
The Chegdu FC-1 is positioned to become the backbone of the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) for the next twenty-plus years. Pakistan has standing orders for 150 of the aircraft, which may yet increase to a maximum of 250 aircraft.
Unfortunately, the FC-1, known to Pakistan as the JF-17, is an inferior aircraft, and almost overwhelmingly so when compared with its principal rival, the Indian Air Force's (IAF) Su-30MKI.
The MKI has many advantages over the FC-1 (it should be noted that the two aircraft are not competing on the open market for export orders, so financial comparisons between the two are not included here). The MKI offers much greater combat persistance, with a 12 AAM load compared to the FC-1's 6. An MKI can be fitted with up to 8 BVR AAMs, twice the load of the FC-1. The MKI already features IFR capability, giving greater endurance, although IFR has been mooted for future FC-1 production blocks.
One further distinct advantage is in the radar of the MKI. The MKI's N011M Bars radar set is a PESA, and can detect 20 targets while conducting four simultaneous engagements. Maximum detection range is in the 200 kilometer range, with detection of an F-16 size target being possible up to 160 kilometers. The FC-1's Chinese radar set has been claimed to be able to detect a fighter sized target at 75 kilometers, while tracking 10 targets and prosecuting two simultaneous engagements. Given the larger numbers of MKIs being fielded at present, and their greater radar performance specifically with regards to the ability to engage four targets versus two for the FC-1, the MKI has a distinct advantage in direct air-to-air combat.
This, of course, does not take into consideration support assets and the aircraft's EW suites. The FC-1 does appear to have a comprehensive EW suite, as does the MKI. One internet blogger has surmised that the FC-1's EW suite should have an advantage when combating a Russian-armed aircraft like the MKI as China does have extensive knowledge of Russian air-to-air weaponry.
Here's the problem with that argument.
The Bars radar has Jet Engine Modulation (JEM) technology, allowing for a target to be identified at range by simply analyzing the radar returns from the target's engine compressor face. The FC-1's engine face is currently shielded somewhat thanks to the DSI inlets, but if the inlet trunks are not RAM coated then radar returns will still be able to propagate back and forth through them. Simply hiding a compressor face is not enough.
There is also the passive engagement option for the MKI, something else speculated for future FC-1 blocks. The MKI has a very good IRST system, enabling target prosecution using passive sensors and weapons. The MKI can also act as a "mini-AWACS", passing targeting information to other aircraft operating "blind".
The FC-1 also currently suffers from having a highly reflective steerable planar array radar set. This is a major source of radar reflectivity and will compund the RCS of the airframe. In the MKI, the passive phased array set is angled downwards slightly, helping to reduce this effect on the FLANKER's RCS.
Okay, on paper, that might not really be a fair comparison. The MKI is, after all, a heavy fighter, with a larger airframe bestowing a greater number of weapons hardpoints and a larger radar set. But the simple fact is that if the FC-1 were to go into combat, it'd likely have to deal with the MKI, so a comparison is wholly justified.
What about the F-16? Or the other Chinese product, the J-10? The F-16 Block 50/52 being purchased by Pakistan benefits from years of constant tweaking and updating based on countless combat operations, and is a wholly mature weapon system. In terms of paper capability, the FC-1 only really lags far behind the F-16 in terms of stores capacity, and perhaps system reliability thanks to combat experience. The J-10 is a far more advanced aircraft than the FC-1, featuring greater payload capacity, nearly double the operational radius according to some sources (it does have a significantly higher internal fuel load), and a more robust, capable avionics suite.
The real problem with the FC-1 is the fact that it appears to be a cheap, exportable miniaturization of the far more capable J-10. Pakistan has already shown interest in acquiring the J-10. With a possible 250 FC-1s, one would have to wonder why they would feel the need to pursue yet another fighter aircraft, especially when an advanced Block 50/52 F-16 purchase is being made as well. The PAF's infatuation with the F-16 is well known. The J-10 would be a better option than the F-16 from a political standpoint, but mention cancelling an F-16 buy to the PAF and see what happens. There is a far smaller possibility of J-10 support being rescinded should a war break out, after all, given that Pakistan's chief antagonist is no friend of the Chinese government either.
In this analyst's opinion, had Pakistan held out for a large export order of the J-10, things would be a lot different. People will throw out the argument that the PAF needs a high-low mix of J-10s and FC-1s. That doesn't necessarily wash, as one major combat type would prove to be far cheaper to operate over the long run. The FC-1 would be suited in small numbers to serve in a supplementary role as a point defense aircraft given the horrifying lack of a robust SAM network in Pakistan, but the heavy work should be left to the J-10 or a similar aircraft. Unfortunately, with a potentially 250 aircraft purchase of the FC-1, there will not be enough money in the fighter budget for enough J-10s to make a serious difference on the subcontinent, not when the IAF is buying around 250 MKIs.
That is not to say that the FC-1 is without merit. This is a cheap, export-class light fighter capable of BVR air-to-air combat. If it is fitted with a Chinese engine, which is in the works to sidestep the RD-93 issue mentioned in the first half of this article, the FC-1 may enjoy export success around the globe as a MiG-21 and J-7 FISHBED replacement. Production of the FC-1 will also breathe much-needed life into the stagnant aircraft industry in Pakistan. But when compared to the primary threat aircraft in Pakistan's primary antagonist, the FC-1 simply falls short, and as such is an inferior aircraft for Pakistan. It might be a great fit for a nation like Ecuador or even Cuba, but Pakistan needs a capability set that the FC-1, at this point in time, decidedly does not offer.
Much has been made of the FC-1 recently, given that the aircraft is being exported to a nuclear state in a potentially volatile region of the world. Part of the issue is that neither the Indians nor the Pakistanis can wholly separate themselves from a propagandist standpoint when describing their latest purchases. If you believed either side, you'd believe that they would win an air war in very short order. Unfortunately for the armchair generals of the world, and the interweb fanboys, it's just not that simple.
Ultimately, success in the air will be determined by not only system effectiveness and capability, but by pilot skill, and the parameters of the engagement. That being said, it doesn't help to voluntarily go into a fight with one hand already tied behind your back, does it? In reality, a major conflict on the subcontinent will probably end up with a nuclear exchange, and all of this will be rendered moot anyway.