The export prospects of JF-17 Thunder continue to grow. Successful sales of 16 aircrafts to Myanmar and 3 to Nigeria (with option for more) have been concluded.
Currently, publicly we know that the talks are going on with Argentina, Azerbaijan and Iraq. JF-17 was also the leading contender for Malaysia’s procurement program but the deal could not materialize due the the South China sea dispute and ultimately JF-17 tender was not submitted by Pakistan or China.
Argentina: Fuerza Aérea Argentina (Air force) has had a tough time trying to re-arm it’s combat forces due to budgetary constraints and export restrictions by UK. This leaves Argentina with very limited options of trying to procure a capable fighter aircraft. All these factors play to the strengths of JF-17. Pakistan faced similar scenarios of import restrictions and budgetary constraints and JF-17 project was designed from get-go to counter these factors. Argentina has allocated USD 664 million for purchase of 12 JF-17 Block IIIs. USD 20 million is for supporting infrastructure. This allocation has been made but the final decision is yet to occur. Argentina would find it difficult to procure any other aircraft that matches the capabilities of JF-17 Block IIIs at such prices. However, political opposition is still possible. US would likely make an aggressive proposal to counter the expansion of Chinese defense exports in South America.
Azerbaijan: The defense attaché of Azerbaijan recently reiterated the interest in buying JF-17. Politically, the relations between Pakistan and Azerbaijan have improved greatly over the last few years especially after Nogorno-Karabakh conflict, where, Pakistan, along with Turkey & Israel provided significant support politically and in military’s equipment and training to Azerbaijan leading to a complete Azerbaijanian victory over Armenia and restoring Azerbaijan’s sovereignty in the region. There was little political cost for this support for Pakistan, given that internationally, the region was recognized as Azerbaijan’s territory and Pakistan does not have significant economic links with Armenia. This upsurge in relations could possibly help close the deal. Currently, Azeri air force is equipped with obsolete 5 Mig-21s, 10 Mig-29s and 12 Su-25s. Jf-17 Block IIIs would provide significant upgrade in combat capability of Azeri air force.
Iraq: There have been reports of significant talks between Pakistani and Iraqi defense officials to conclude a deal to purchase 12 JF-17s Block IIIs. Officials on both sides remained tight-lipped publicly as is often the case with defense related purchases. Iraqi airforce has been one of the largest in the Arab world if not the most modern when compared with the rich Gulf states. Post-war, IQAF’s most significant purchase has been of around 36 F-16IQ Block 52s. The lack of Lockheed-Martin contractors support due to budgetary and security issues has led to significance downgrade operational readiness of the F-16s. Less than half of the F-16 fleet has some semblance of combat readiness operationally currently. JF-17 Block IIIs compared to Block 52s are not only cheaper to procure (~$50m vs ~$85m) and operate, but also provide significant avionics advantage. Block IIIs are equipped with AESA radar compared to F-16’s pulse dopplers, providing a generational gap in radar technology. JF-17 Block IIIs will also come equipped potent arsenal. F-16s delivered to Iraq are without AIM-120s, lacking capability to engage in beyond-visual range combat, while JF-17s could come armed with PL-15 Long range air-to-air missiles. In modern air combat, that’s as good as being un-armed, as if entering a combat with a sword while your opponents are carrying rifles. JF-17s would also come with no political strings attached.
So overall, there are talks ongoing, but as is the case with defense procurements, there are often strong elements of geo-politics overshadowing the capabilities of the platform. Until a deal is inked and planes have landed at customer locations, things remain fluid, nothing is done until everything is done.