F-16, JF-17, the US, China and Pakistan: A political and technical comparison

Pakistan has been leveraged by the US to maintain defence autonomy in external defence relations by keeping engaged with all the sides

On 8 September, a US State Department notification referred to a proposed foreign military sale of USD 450 million to Pakistan to sustain the F-16 programme of the latter’s Air Force.. According to the Congressional notification, the proposed sale will keep Pakistan Air Force (PAF) interoperable with the US and other partner forces.

A statement from the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) clarified that “the proposed sale does not include any new capabilities, weapons, or munitions.” In recent years, Pakistan has developed close defence relations with China in air combat platforms. Daniel Markey at USIP typified the sale as “a willingness to open narrow areas of cooperation”.

The following note discusses the technical comparison and trends in USA and Chinese combat aircraft operated by PAF and evolving undercurrents in the defence management of the Pakistan Armed Forces.

F-16 and JF-17: A brief note on technical aspects
Both F-16 and JF-17 are multi-role single-engine combat aircraft. PAF has 75 US-made various variants of F-16 Fighting Falcon. With the JF-17 Thunder and J-10C, the Chinese inventory in PAF stands at approximately 150 single-engine combat aircraft.

The approximate defence spending on combat aircraft in Pakistan from China stands at USD 2.3 billion comprising 145 aircraft, while the inventory of the US-based platforms is around USD 1.5 billion. Assuming JF-17 to be a more advanced multirole single-engine aircraft as it developed after J-10C, one can compare other technical aspects of F-16 and PAC JF-17.

JF-17 with a Chinese engine of Taishan WS engine series, provides an average thrust of 100 kN, while F-16 block 52 provides a thrust of 129 kN. The radar cross section (RCS) of the JF-17 is almost twice the size of the F-16, which means the F-16 is stealthier. The top speed achieved by F-16 is 2.05 (2500 km/hr.) Mach while that of JF-17 is 1.6 Mach (1976 km/hr)

The collaboration between Pakistan and China started in 200. While Pakistan has been using F-16 since the Soviet annexation of Afghanistan, both aircraft are equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radars and have potential use for PAF in the evolving air warfare which is based on decisiveness, less expensive operations and limited window opportunity.

However, with a soured relationship between the US and Pakistan, Islamabad may collaborate more with China as the threats of sanctions to supply-chain and logistics have been witnessed with the US.
The current approval of the military sale from the US is a necessary and crucial aspect of that supply chain and the sustainability dependence of Pakistan on the F-16 defence platform. The same may not be a major problem for JF-17 as it is assembled in Pakistan. It is also an opportunity for Pakistan to keep its lot with China and the USA.

Pakistan’s effort to participate and contribute to a viable industrial chain in emerging economies can be achieved through an extended network of Chinese weapons. Pakistan could as well be the front face of providing Chinese air-combat weapon platforms operated in case China is coerced in other aspects of a trade by the USA.

J-10C, which is also manufactured by China and Pakistan, has been enquired about by various developing nations. In the backdrop of shifting geopolitics and world order, developing economies are not only looking at the USA but towards Russia and more intricately looking up to China. Other than China, Pakistan keenly engages and cooperates with Turkiye. Assimilation of defence cooperation and collaboration with multiple partners from the US, and China to Turkey, gives Pakistan the required edge in keeping up with its defence preparedness. Continued cooperation on the F-16 platform, being the most experienced and advanced tactical combat aircraft will also give Pakistan the diversity of engine and electronic warfare suits available in its kitty.

In conclusion
With two out of three-combat planes being Chinese, Pakistan has come closer to China in its defence preparedness and procurement. In a regional context, Pakistan needs to balance against Dassault Raffaele recently acquired by its eastern neighbour along with indigenously developed LCA Tejas firmly in production. The faster and more manoeuvrable F-16 can be juggled with JF-17s to create an effective firepower and attack group to defend against any all-out offence by an adversary.

Another reason is the US’s counter-terrorism efforts in the middle east and keeping radical Pakistan away from violent extremism. The possible coordination between Pakistan and US is again important now especially when the US has repositioned itself in Afghanistan and the Middle east. The US-Pakistan relationship is changing, a robust and transactional yet critically important aspect will define the US-Pakistan relationship in the times ahead.

Sebastien Roblin, “Inside the Combat History of the Pakistani Air Force’s F-16 Fleet,The National Interest,30 September 2021
Pakistan Air Force CAS outlines next procurement steps,Quwa, 26 May 2019
Anwar Iqbal, “$450m package to maintain Pakistan’s F-16s,” Dawn, 9 September 2022
US budget 2016-17: Obama proposes $860m aid for Pakistan,The Express Tribune, 10 February 2016
Sajjad Hussain, “Pakistan Air Force to get JF-17 Thunder fighter jets developed with China,The Week, 9 February 2022
Ayesha Siddiqa, “‘Sale’ of F-16 spares is US way to keep Pakistan where it wants to be—between China and West,The Print, 16 September 2022
Pakistan Reader is an academic exercise at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in the Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore, India. The objective of this alert – “Pakistan Reader – Evening Brief” is to update the readers on contemporary developments within Pakistan, on a regular basis. The PR Evening Briefs are a part of the focus on Pakistan at the International Strategic and Security Programme (ISSSP) within the NIAS.


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Ankit Singh

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