Shopping for Fighters: Is the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17 Thunder the Real “Joint Strike Fighter”?

Cheap, Easy, Available: Asia’s JF-17 Thunder Contrasts U.S. and Russian Tactical Aircraft.

Develop it faster, build it cheaper and make it more available. From electronics to automobiles, the Asian doctrine of the 20th century. With the rush toward globalization and the blurring of borders in the internet age, manufactured products in every category move across borders and subvert political boundaries with impunity.

Tactical combat aircraft may be the next category.

Traditionally, high level defense and aerospace programs have been slow to move toward global distribution largely because of regional security concerns, partially because of technology concerns, and definitely because of economic concerns. But those concerns may be taking a back seat to the new priorities of updating old air forces as new political boundaries and alliances are drawn, and old ones are erased.

Enter the Chinese and Pakistani co-manufactured PAC JF-17 Thunder tactical aircraft, also referred to as the CAC FC-1 Xiaolong or “Fierce Dragon”. The JF-17 is a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft developed from a joint venture between the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of China.

In the ethos of eastern imports competing with western aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program, the JF-17 Thunder can be hawked as “better, cheaper, faster” to many end users who could not afford to participate in the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter program for political or financial reasons or both. While the “better” and “faster” are certainly doubtful, the “cheaper” is set in stone. For many countries, that is the single most important acquisition metric; affordability.

Global political change has mandated the need for new mass-market, non-western import/export multi-role tactical aircraft. When the former Soviet Warsaw Pact defense industry collapsed along with the Iron Curtain at the end of the Cold War it left huge inventories of largely Russian-built tactical aircraft in service with third world air forces.

The Russian-built MiGs and Sukhois in African and Arab service were sturdy, easy to maintain and designed to operate in austere conditions. They were perfect for air forces in developing nations. When countries engaged in a greater or lesser degree of political alignment with the former Soviet Union, the price of the Russian-built tactical aircraft went down, sometimes to zero in lend-lease or other political machinations.

But those old Eastern Bloc, Cold War Russian planes supplied to banana republic countries and oil nations with shifting global agendas are wearing out, and many of the lines that separated the countries who use them have been erased and redrawn in the Arab Spring and the new Africa. These changes have created a market for a new, affordable, regionally capable fighter plane. The Chinese and Pakistani JF-17 may fill that need.

The JF-17 many fill a low-cost, more available niche for many nations (Photo: PAC/CAC)

The generic looking, “no-brand” JF-17 is what most people would sketch on a napkin to show what jet fighters look like. It is quite unremarkable by 5th generation combat aircraft standards. If U.S. wholesale retailers Costco or Sam’s Club sold fighter planes, they would sell the JF-17. The JF-17 probably may have more in common with the 1950’s F-100 Super Saber than the current F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In numbers, a JF-17 Thunder costs (approximately) between $25 million USD-$32 million USD, depending on the tranche and avionics version. Contrast that with the $94 million to $134 million USD price tag of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If you are a sales agent for the Chinese/Pakistan consortium building the JF-17 one of the first lines in your pitch at the Paris or Dubai Air Show will be, “For the price of one F-35 you can fly almost four JF-17s!” Then you open your slick PowerPoint (in one of 6 languages) and back up your sales pitch with shorter training cycles for air crew, lower maintenance cost, easier and faster acquisition, and on and on.

New upgrade proposals and capability expansion for the JF-17 program make a versatile and affordable option. (Photo: PAC/CAC)

If you are selling the JF-17 Thunder it is unlikely you will be courting the same prospective market as F-35 program participants. And you will certainly do well to also stay away from comparisons about capability, because comparing an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in any version to the JF-17 Thunder is like comparing a Bomar Brain pocket calculator from the 1970’s to a new MacBook Pro computer. They are completely different products.

But the JF-17 is still a capable aircraft that is well-engineered for a burgeoning market of basic tactical aircraft consumer nations. To date, operators include Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan. Countries that have indicated, at some point, an interest in the project include Argentina, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Qatar, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Uruguay.

Given the dynamic nature of global politics and fluid changes in alliances the JF-17 fills a niche for many countries. That alone is reason to be familiar with it.

Top image credit: Shimin Gu




About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on,, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.


  1. Looks to be an extremely useful platform. Especially a sanction proof one since it’s built in a modular fashion. Promising!

  2. Looks to be an extremely useful platform. Especially a sanction proof one since it’s built in a modular fashion. Promising!

  3. Let’s not be too fast to judge which will be the next MiG-21 cheap buy-in-bulk poor man’s fighter. A machine to compete with cheap Russian fighters, all of which are poorly built planes vastly inferior to Western aircraft in performance and quality. I am pretty sure India already signed a deal to take over production of the F-16. So?

    My guess is given lower labor costs and Tata Industries ability to produce quality high-end products (Tata will be the Indian manufacturer), F-16s made in India may become that next low-cost fighter that will be purchased by poor nations with low defense expenditures. All depends on what India will be selling the F-16IN for. There could be a tremendous export market for them, especially when they fly with upgraded systems (AESA, targeting pods, etc.).

    • First of all a F-16’s price whether built in India or not will never be comparable to JF-17.

      Secondly most of the market that JF-17 is targeting knows that F-16 or any other western plane will always be susceptible to sanctions. Yes India will not be quick to slap those sanctions but India won’t have the final say in a deal, it would always need approval from the US.

      Just like Grippen, now it is a Swedish product but just because its engine is a licensed production of GE F404 US can veto a sale or put sanctions on a country and stop Sweden from providing support and spare parts.

      This is not a situation most 3rd world countries want to get into. With China and Pakistan they get an assured line of supplies and spare parts.

    • Given India’s record at being sooooo… slow That might not happen for many a years. My guess. moving jobs to India would not happen under Trump, and the French are more likely to pay higher bribes.

  4. Now I ask – what would you rather own? Some reconfigured low-grade Chinese-Pakistan bastardized MiG-21 clone, the JF-17, or a proven hot-rod fighter-extraordinaire, the F-16? Buy an aircraft that is sure get shot down if put up against any Western machine (JF-17), or one that can beat even the best Russian-manufactured crap (F-16)? Which would you rather own?

    Well now just ask Leroy. I’d choose F-16 by a long shot! Especially if it came with Western or Israeli (India and Israel have close defense industry ties) A-A missiles. So let’s wait and see what India can do with the Viper (I am assuming a contract between LM and Tata is a go, and nothing will get in its way). It’s way too early to tell which will sell better. Especially if the sticker prices are close. They very well could be, in which case JF-17 will get creamed by India-manufactured F-16s. Kinda like what’s happening to Gripen now. Why buy 4th gen Saab when you can get 5th gen F-35A for just about the same price?

      • Well Abbasi till date 58 PAF JF-17s are crashed. It is Chinese outdated junk you should admit the truth. F16s are far away Old Mig21 would kill it easily.

        Keep your petriosm aside and think practically.

        Your country lost all 4 wars against India. Your current Chinese junk is useless in front of Indian Sukhois.

        • Indian Sukhois,hahaha,indian??????
          Stop reading biased indian books . Pakistan took 50% Kashmir from indian army, remember, when u went crying to UN General assembly. 65, Pakistan pulverized IAF, encroached more land, five time big infantry could not penetrate into pak army. What happened in kargil ask any of ur generals, if cannot, send me ur id, I ll send u link. Yes v lost in 71 but not from India, just from our own people. Remember v are still in pain for that, n with v ‘ll settle this score, gather whatever arm u can.

        • you must be smoking some good shit t o think 58 JF 17 were crashed. I guess you were reading India Today?

      • You people are still in your 1965 war which you terribly lost. Giving some examples of your side doing some incredibly fantastic warfights in previous wars doesn’t change the reality that the same army surrendered 96000 soldiers in 1971 war. That pain of losing a part of your country is still giving a heart attack to your army generals till now. Your next generation will always remember the fall of Dhaka and will continue to hate India

        • Its hilarious to see how propaganda effected Indians claims of wins. They dont have an iota of shame.
          Pakistan lost the war yet it captured almost 40% of Kashmir and was on verge to lose all of it but Nehru ran to UNO for a ceasefire. A winning side never ask for a ceasefire. We still regret the Jinnah’s decision to accept ceasefire or Pakistan would have had all of Kashmir.
          In 65’s war it was sort of stalemate, no side won any clear victory, India failed to capture Lahore, Pakistan failed to Capture Jummu or any other noticeable Indian city, but just rural lands.
          In 71 it was an internal infighting. If it wasn’t to that fact India would never had any clear victory over combined Pakistan. Had we attaked India in 1962 India China war, we could have easily captured whatever Part of Indian Punjab and Kashmir. But we are brave not backstabbers.
          One last thing Pakistan if 1/5th in size and 1/6th smaller in population we still dare to kick ass. Does India has balls to fight any country of its size like China? Shameless and cowards can’t fight, they will rather serve 1000s year as slaves to the bravehearts.

      • Its a record based on Pakistani claim never documented/acknowledged by any neutral or opposition groups. By the way Pakistan was a part of CENTO alliance(a knockoff of NATO). Under which PAF pilots were trained in US along with their top gun training instructors. Even if you look at your claim the planes India possessed in 1965 were Hawker Hunters(2gen) and Dassault Mystere(1gen).Compared to latest American tech(F86 and F104). Most crucial part was Hawker Hunters are designated ground attack crafts not interceptors and the surprise air raid was done to disable IAF forward bombers. Let’s accept all your facts but after 52 years at todays day and age I doubt the current crop of Pakistan pilots having the same skill given their sortie rates(cut down due to financial reasons) and training excercises. End of the day JF17 serves your need not the Chinese.

        • Haha. Who told you the Hawker Hunters were designed as ground attack planes? Please read before you start commenting.

      • You seems to be living in 1965! Poor paki, you forget, the only military surrender is executed by India, to Pakistan. With just one anti tank gun, we handled several batallions in Longewala. It must have not been told or discussed, India is far more Superior that you could ever imagine. With non combat M17 Helo, we have taken out siachen anti missile batteries. Come to reality, we don’t fight with hawker hunters, you don’t fight with sabers, now we have su 30MKI and you don’t dare to come with JF 17 kind of flying toys, beg US and get some sidewinders for your F16s and try your luck. Bonus fact – India house hold toilet cleaning industry size is $3.5 bn and Pakistan defence budget is $8.78bn.

        • But despite ,3.5 billion self proclaimed industry, Indians dnt have toilets. Doesn’t it hilarious. In fact indian are good at begging, su 30 mki a borrowed and begged.product. If Pakistan cannot come with jf 17, why the indian cowards are not coming with su 30 and rafale. Just come to Pakistan darling, v ‘ll serve u well.

      • Are you Pakistani? I’m sorry, but the U.S. produced planes like the JF-17 back in the 1960s. Your technology is hopelessly behind. Just like your military and economy. But don’t worry about the U.S., because you’re not at the top of our enemies list. However …

        You do need to worry about India, a country with far more population and a soon-to-be world top 5 economy. And they’ll have a 1st class military too. Pakistan will never have either.

        Sorry to have to report this to you ol’ chap, because I really don’t give a hoot one way or another (that means I don’t care) about the animosity between Pakistan and India. But I do know who the stronger country is, and it’s capital isn’t in Islamabad. So …

        Don’t make the Indians mad at you! Especially when they start pumping out F-16s. Probably have Israeli ECM and Python A-A missiles on them. Oh boy! You gonna be in BIG trouble. And Sikhs are some of the toughest fighters on the planet. Pakistanis confront them at their own (great) risk.

        • At least Pak were able to make a plan and being used by their air force. You guys been trying for 35 years and no such luck.

          • And what plan has the U.S. not been able to execute in 35 years? What are you talking about?

          • With help from China, the bootleg capital of the world…

            also you should look at how many aircraft designs (both experimental and actual service) the US has created since the 1950s. The JF-17 is pakistans FIRST aircraft

        • US is first class army but running away from Vietnam war especially poor veitcong.

          • In that terrible war the U.S. killed (est.) 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. When we left, the war was won. South Vietnamese forces then proceeded to lose it. So saying the U.S. “ran away” is a bit of a stretch.

            Anyway, Thailand has the strength of an army of peanuts. I doubt anyone is going to run away in fear from Thailand’s pitiful military. And you guys sure did surrender sovereignty to Japan quickly enough in WW-II. Thais are obviously cowards. Very small, poor, malnourished people. Why even bother showing your face on the Internet? Especially to criticize the U.S., the most powerful, richest country in the world.

            Oh, I’ve been to Bangkok. What a dump! Stinks from likely motorcycle pollution. Rampant prostitution because that’s the only way women can earn decent money. Over-run by aids too. I’d never go back. Enjoy your life!

        • Oh leroy! Why you are counting things? You have this chines and we have this Israel have this US have that Russia this. What blan blan all the time? Strengths are measured in battlefields! Ask your force to attack Pakistan because they got chines stuff or 0.01 generation fighter thunder. Your Karta Dharta (authorities) have strong realization what pakistan have! and rushing for rafale fighter because they know what pakistan got and they did see performance in anti terror operations. So Stop counting things grow up all who are counting things. Air-forces select and induct weapons when they feel strengthen with it, So If PAF more relying on JF-17 Thunder inducting Significant numbers there is no point of worry for any one. Haters will say they are mad! so this should be point of your joy! so go and ask your forces to attack pakistan

    • The PAF shot down the then latest MIG-21 of the IAF while flying F-86 and Chinese MIG-19 jets. So there is no guarantee that an F-16 will survive always.

      Even if one wanted the latest F-16s, their costs are extremely high and not affordable. If a country does manage to scrape together that kind of cash, western jets are notoriously susceptible to sanctions.

      So the purchase decisions for fighter jets are much more complicated than buying a car. You can’t just go out looking for the best car if you’re going to be denied after sales service. You buy the car that you can run. Simple.

      • By the way MiG21 and F86 fall under the same second generation unless upgraded with a fire control radar.Moreover based on facts MiG21 were first used by IAF in 1971. I don’t see any major success for PAF in that war.

        • The F-86 and Might 21 are NOT the same gen fighters…the Mig 21 is a full gen ahead.

        • Wrong.

          F-86’s are SUBSONIC fighters, comparable to MiG-15’s, NOT MiG-21’s.

        • The IAF operated the MIG 21 in 1965. In fact, the first MIG 21’s the PAF destroyed were air defence fighters which had landed at Pathankot just after finishing their patrols. Another was destroyed at Jamnagar and the IAF withdrew the rest in embarrassment.

          In 1971, the PAF shot down the MIG 21 while flying F-86 and MIG 19 jets individually. The IAF also lost huge numbers of SU-7 and Hawker Hunters, besides other aircrafts. The PAF made the IAF pay through the nose but the difference in size was too great.

      • What you – and many critics – miss, is the fact that a competent military knows that it isn’t procuring an economy car to commute to and from work. Survive-ability and effectiveness are the most relevant criteria for a fighter jet – or any other piece of military hardware. For me this means that the F-35’s 20:1 kill-death ratio speaks volumes on this topic. We’re not buying honda civics – this is about buying something that ensures you survive, your country survives, and I’d be willing to pay the cost to have the best technology.

        • You are right joe…for survivability of yours you’d be willing to pay the cost to have the best technology…but..what if you don’t have that much money at all…this is where affordibility comes into play…something is better than nothing.

        • F-35 has a 20:1 kill ratio??? IT HAS NOT EVEN ENTERED FULL SERVICE!

          I have not missed any point. Survivability is important but when Americans consistently block military supplies to their friends, it becomes MORE to important to seek out alternatives. Btw, Pakistan air force shot down much more capable Indian jets and the Serbian shot down American stealth jets using old SAMs so survivability is not guaranteed. Not even for the F-35.

          • Red Flag is as close as any Air Force can get to combat without actually having to shoot each other out of the sky. So when AARs come back stating that the F-35 had a 20:1 win loss ratio in the worlds most immersive, intensive, and in depth training/exercise operation… I’ll believe that more than some interwebs critic.

            Getting real tired of people pointing to that SINGLE loss of a SINGLE F-117 after more than 69 sorties in country and more sorties after that WITH NO LOSSES. That was by all accounts (when looked at it as a whole) is a bit of clever tactics, lots of mistakes, and one lucky shot. That doesn’t mean that stealth is useless. No, stealth doesn’t make you invulnerable or invisible but it greatly increases the chances of surviving. The USAF and anyone who goes up against stealth aircraft learn a very hard lesson, “You’re either stealthy or you are a target”.

          • Do try reading some credible sources.

            The first Red Flag for the F-35, for instance.

            “Btw, Pakistan air force shot down much more capable Indian jets and the Serbian shot down American stealth jets using old SAMs so survivability is not guaranteed.”?


            Second rate air forces compared to first rate western air forces?


            Try learning some facts, junior.
            The F-117 shoot down was caused mainly by USAF laziness and using the same flight routes daily.

            What’s the kill ratio for the F-16?

            Remind me.

        • “For me this means that the F-35’s 20:1 kill-death ratio” ?????

        • F35. is not Honda civic. it is look like pickup truck and fat I call it flying porkshop.

      • Omar is right. The F 16 of PAF was shot down by an ageing Indian MIG 21, so……and of course Pakistan doesn’t admit. They don’t even take bodies of their soldiers back.

    • consumers might be more interested in the economics of such a force, rather than if they need high tech air dominance. For instance once you have air dominance you might not need a highly capable air force. Just delivery platforms.

      • Exactly

        Also Asian countries have more man power so you will see their air forces growing at a rate Western AF will not.

        Fact is nobody is comparing a F -35 with a JF 17 other than the Indians that is.

        The discussion is economic worth of JF 17 and the consensus is yes and it is a great plane.

        X4 JF 17 for the price of x1 F35 I think the smart and sensible ppl and I refer to the non Indians and please dont fall for the paid Indians trolls in disguise a.k.a Leroy will realise it makes good sense to mix it up with some JF 17s.

        You need a mixture of F 35 for dominance, F 16s and JF 17s to maintain superiority and patrols

        JF 17 is a great plane and the block 3 with advanced long range missiles and radar is equal or superior to an F 16.

Comments are closed.