(Air Marshal Retd Shahid Latif )
Pakistan Air Force has always endeavoured to meet the national expectations on guarding the aerial frontiers of our beloved homeland. In order to shoulder this sacred responsibility onerously, the PAF leadership displayed an extra-ordinary vision by embarking on a journey of collaborative development of a fighter aircraft with China. The objective was not only to acquire an aircraft that would enhance our operational capabilities; the aim was much higher that encompassed the following:
- To gain exposure in the complex field of fighter aircraft design and development through participation in a joint programme with China.
- To develop local aviation industry by co-producing the aircraft in Pakistan through transfer of technology from our Chinese partners.
- To gain self sufficiency in the production of fighter aircraft, which constitutes a major step towards our national indigenization campaign?
- Make a humble contribution towards economic prosperity of Pakistan through an active sales and marketing programme launched for the aircraft.
The offer for joint development of a fighter aircraft was made to us by our Chinese friends in 1992 and for the next six years, the programme was being pursued by the PAF through an MoU signed between the two countries. However, there was a turning point in the joint programme in 1998, when it was enhanced to the status of a national project. The then Prime Minister in his visit to China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China for the co-development and co-production of JF-17 aircraft. The required funds were placed at the disposal of the project and JF-17 Board of Directors was given autonomous powers for execution of the programme. Finally, the contract for development of JF-17 was signed in June, 1999.
At the outset, the programme suffered a serious set-back due to US sanctions imposed on Pakistan in October, 1999. During the period from 1999 to 2001, the airframe development work moved at a rather slow pace as the non availability of avionics and weapons, which were supposed to be procured from the West, remained a serious impediment. There was a fear that the programme might be suspended due to this problem, which in turn, was to have a direct impact on the availability of a fighter aircraft, direly needed to meet the future PAF requirements of periodically replacing its ageing fleet after retirement.
Due to the continuing adversity caused by sanctions, the approach to the JF-17 programme was modified in January, 2001 when it was decided to de-link avionics from the airframe development. The new approach provided a fresh impetus and accelerated the pace of development work. As a consequence, the first proto-type aircraft was completed in a record time-frame of just thirty months, an achievement, which is unprecedented in any modern fighter aircraft programme. The historic maiden flight of JF-17 was undertaken on 3rd September, 2003, which surprised the whole Western world that never expected this extraordinary feat to be achieved by Pak-China joint effort due to a modest aviation capability of our lead partner, China.
As mentioned before, the non-availability of avionics and weapons from the west, which remained a lingering irritant throughout the airframe development period, was addressed by the PAF with the same vigour. Our Chinese partners were encouraged to look into the possibility of development of avionics package and weapons integration for the desired capability on JF-17 aircraft. The benefits of an indigenously developed package and its future potential for securing international market were also explained to them. With our rich experience of operation and maintenance of advanced western avionics along with their weapon systems, we were able to guide our Chinese partners towards improvements in their existing capabilities in this field and make them commensurate with the requirements of JF-17 aircraft. They took up this challenge willingly as the suggested approach by Pakistan was found to be mutually rewarding. Both sides worked in close coordination and harmony with each other and finally a viable solution was achieved by 2002 in this important field.
With such an astounding success by PAF in the completion of this programme, the President and the Prime Minister of Pakistan along with the Cabinet members were invited to the Air Headquarters for a comprehensive briefing on the JF-17 programme, where they were presented the plan for co-production of these aircraft in Pakistan. The President felt proud and was pleased to accord approval for the complete programme. This was reflective of the resolve of our national leadership to promote indigenization and take a giant step towards self-reliance in the vital field of building the country’s own air power, which had assumed the status of a back-bone in its overall defence capability.
As envisaged in our objectives, Pakistan has gained self-sufficiency in the production of fighter aircraft to strengthen its spine in the field of air power, which plays a decisive role in the modern day warfare. The days of land battles are now a story of the past and with the indigenous capability to enhance its own air power, Pakistan cannot be exploited by the USA or the Western powers. Hence, we can truly adopt the long desired trajectory of a sovereign, self respecting and an independent state to earn a respectable position in the comity of nations.