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PoliticsWorldHow sanctions on Russia grounded Pakistan's JF-17 fighter plan

How sanctions on Russia grounded Pakistan’s JF-17 fighter plan

A day after the Indian Air Force (IAF) successfully targeted the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror training camp in Balakot on 26 February 2019 to avenge the Pulwama terrorist attack, Pakistan launched an unsuccessful counterattack with F-16 fighters and JF-17 fighters south of Pir Panjal in Jammu and Kashmir, but the Chinese planes never quite worked. The root cause of that is geopolitical and looks prima facie unrelated: US-led global sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) relied only on F-16s to target unspecified targets in the Nowshera-Rajouri-Poonch sector across the LoC, an operation in which evidence shows that the JF-17 fighters were not involved.

Indian fighter planes intercepted the Pakistani strike, with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman shooting down a much superior F-16 before crashing his vintage MiG-21 Bison in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). While the US F-16 fired air-to-air missiles at Indian fighters, the much-touted Sino-Pakistani JF-17 was just for show. The Chinese jets did not witness the air battle, staying hidden behind the American fighters. 

And now, the Pakistani JF-17 programme is a non-starter. This happened because of a lack of spare parts for the Russian-made Klimov RD 93 aircraft engine that cannot sell till the time the US-led sanctions are on due to the invasion of Ukraine.

Stung by failures of the JF-17 aircraft time and again, mainly due to the serviceability of RD-93 engines, Pakistan had directly approached Russia for procuring the RD-93 engines, bypassing China. In the fallout of multiple negotiations by Islamabad with Moscow, Russian engine company Kilmov has now indicated its willingness to supply RD-93 engines and its associated repair systems and maintenance facilities to JF-17 aircraft.

However, in 2018, the US sanctioned Rosoboronexport, which is authorised to export defence equipment including RD- 93 engines and spares. This adversely impacted the sourcing of RD-93 engine spares by the PAF. The sanctions block Rosoboronexport from undertaking US dollar transactions, which the two governments and the banks concerned have now been attempting to sort out.

Regardless of its historically friendly relations with India, Russia has been strengthening its defence ties with Pakistan by letting it procure the RD-93 engine directly from it as opposed to using China as an intermediary as was the case previously. However, international relations are in a state of flux and strategic equations are changing fast with Russia coming under pressure from the West and looking for support from others. It is apparent that Russia is moving close to China in the evolving geo­ political matrix which is sought to be exploited by Pakistan.

Developed jointly by Pakistan and China, the JF-17 fighter jets were supposed to be a low-cost, lightweight, all-weather, multi-role fighter with a Chinese airframe. The project has now become a liability for Islamabad, as it failed to keep up with the hype of being the best fighter aircraft in the world.

Islamabad's experience with the JF-17 aircraft, particularly its Russian-made RD-93 engines, tells a completely different story besides casting serious doubt on the quality of these aircraft.

The Pakistan military leadership had expected a fighter aircraft, something akin to the Russian Su-30 MKI or the French Mirage 2000, but the JF-17 aircraft fell well short of their high hopes as the aircraft performed poorly against the IAF's Mirage 2000 and Su-30s.

Incidentally, since its induction into the PAF in 2009, the JF-17 crashed many times, raising serious doubts on the fitness of the aircraft as the PAF found much to its chagrin, that the JF-17 aircraft is nowhere near the boastful claims made by China due to problems encountered in the performance of Russian made RD-93 engines, installed in the aircraft.

Aggravating the problem, the PAF has been encountering challenges in the serviceability of the aircraft due to a shortage of spares and engines. Many Russian RD 93 engines installed in the JF-17 aircraft have developed cracks in guide vanes, exhaust nozzles and flame stabilisers, and the PAF has been struggling hard to replace these engines due to contractual obligations that force Pakistan to procure the RD-93 engines from Russia only through China. 

Adding to the trouble of the PAF, the China National Aero­ Technology Export & Import Corporation's (CATIC) tepid response in providing necessary spares and support for the RD-93 engines of PAF's JF-17 aircraft led to the grounding of more than half of the total number of these aircraft (137) held by the PAF.

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