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. This fighter jet surely fulfill the niche for many air forces, though it’s never meant to be an air superiority fighter and not pitched as a counterweight to many Western mutirole fighters. It’s very comparable to a F16 A/B without the western price tag. F35s have just cleared their IOCs last year, so they are not a mature platform either. Besides, Chinese have their J31s in testing without the mistakes made on F35 and lack the delays and cost overruns (concurrent production) that mired the costliest project in DoDs history. F35 lost to F16 in 2015 in an exercise, only to perform marginally better in 2017. So yes; JF17 is quite a capable aircraft considering the sticker price and dodge the political strings that comes attached with any western technology.

  2. What a ‘ senseless ‘ article Tom Demerly—and then to compare it with the F100—man—you are out of touch with reality–.
    First of all—not every country can afford the F35—second—it is not available to every country–.
    Same with the F16—F16 is not available to every country—and neither is a complete compliment of weapons—air to air—air to surface—air to ship.
    Your prejudice against this aircraft showed when you did not compare it with the well touted Grippen—.
    Paf studied the Grippen for 2 1/2 years before they started on the JF17—they also studied the FA18 for 1 1/2 years—and the F16—they already had it in service—.
    The weapons that the JF17 can operate currently are—
    Laser guided munitions
    SD10A air to air BVR fire and forget missile—same category as the aim120 C
    C802 anti ship missile with a 225 km range
    CM400AKG—a mach 5 AShM / air to surface missile with 350 miles range
    Hatf V111—a Pakistani ALCM with a 350—500 miles range
    Data Link capabily
    Turkish Aselsan Pod

    An aesa radar would be available in the next year.
    The JF17 and its weapons are SANCTION PROOF—if you understand anything about them.
    For an F16—the US will never sell its ALCM to any nation other than a select FEW.
    The U S will also have KILL SDWTICHES on the aircraft—to disable any and every function of the aircraft thru the data link or thru a pre programmed bug in the system—.

    The JF 17 does not have any of those restraints—. The aesa radar is not available to pakistan for its F16 BLK52 and neither is the AIM9X missile for high off bore sight shots—.

    The BLK 3 JF17 would have AESA radar—and would put the aircraft right in the middle of the F16 BLK52 and the BLK 60 in capability.

    Once the PL15 is ready for the JF17—with its aesa and data link capability—it would be superior to the F16’s.

    I hope that after this dose of reality—maybe you might have a change in your prejudicial thinking—but if not—no big deal.

    JF17 has already 3 confirmed orders from 1 asian country and two african nations—. It is going to beat the Grippen in total units sold—.

  3. How many wars has US won with their “technologically advanced” machines? Vietnam, where they were humiliated, Afghanistan where they are begging Pakistan to mediate …. is your machine actually worth a dime? I guess the US tax payers are so wealthy ;) that Lockheed jacks up the price and sells some sh&t :)

    M M Alam, the PAF Shaheen, has the world record of shooting down 5 Indian jets in less than a minute … how many records you have to show for? :)

  4. For the sane smart and sensible and not for the Indian paid trolls littering the internet with fake news.

    The JF 17 is a great plane.

    Nobody is comparing it to a F35 or Rafale but for 1 F35 you can buy x3 agile JF 17 jets.

    So every one has to mix it up.

    Indians are a joke in the recent surgical strikes when the JF 17s downed x2 Indian jets they had to hide they were JF 17 and made a hullabaloo around them being Pakistani F16s.


    Because it shows the world at the superiority of this planes in such scenarios.

    I mean you would not deploy an F35 or 5th gen MIG. In such scenarios neither a Rafale will do but is ideal for F16s and JF 17s.

    JF 17 is a great plane.

    Just ignore the Indian fake news touting trolls that have and I think I put it well “littering” the internet with their fake news.

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