The much-awaited version of the Sino-Pak fighter jet i.e. JF-17 Thunder Block 3 took its first flight on 15th December 2019 at CAC airfield in China. This latest iteration of the popular JF-17 is expected to have a new radar, updated avionics, structural upgrades, and new weapons. Pictures of the first prototype (#3000) have begun surfacing on the internet showing some of the new upgrades featured by the fighter jet. However, there has not been any official confirmation about the exact number of upgrades as of yet.
One of the most evident upgrades is a next-generation wide-angle Heads-Up-Display (HUD). It appears to be similar to the one installed in China’s J-20 stealth fighter. According to unofficial sources, this is the latest Aurora EHUD-2 Difractive HUD system. It can be assumed that the latest block of JF-17 may have an updated cockpit with a single large Multi-Function Display (MFD), which is a common feature of many modern fighter jets.
The prototype also exhibits new forward MAWS (Missile Approach Warning System) receivers on side intakes. It is speculated that JF-17 Block 3 is featuring a Turkish EW suite. The aircraft is also featuring updated LED lights on its nose landing gear similar to the ones on dual-seater JF-17Bs. The material composition of the JF-17 appears to have changed as well with increased usage of lightweight composite materials. The Block 3 variant is powered by the same Russian RD-93 engine. However, some have speculated that Block 3 may feature an upgraded variant of the RD-93 engine, possibly with FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control).
The most anticipated, and in fact the most crucial upgrade in Block 3 is an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar. Although AESA radar has been officially confirmed several times to be a part of Block 3, it is not confirmed whether the prototype (#3000) is fitted with such a radar or not. The details of the AESA radar have also been kept secret. However, it is widely speculated that the JF-17 Block 3 will feature either KLJ-7A or LFK-601E AESA radar. AESA radars are superior to the Pulse-Doppler radars because they have multiple solid-state TR (Transmitter/Receiver) Modules. The TR Modules can emit multiple beams of radio waves at different frequencies simultaneously. This makes AESA radars less prone to detection and jamming. None of the fighter jets in PAF inventory boasts AESA radar as of now, including the F-16s.
The latest AESA radars will have a better detection range. This will allow PAF to integrate next-generation air-to-air missiles onto JF-17 Block 3. It is speculated that PAF is interested in Chinese PL-15 missiles. PL-15 not only out ranges F-16s AMRAAM missiles, but also the MICA missiles carried by Indian Mirage 2000 and Rafale fighter jets. This will provide Block 3 with the ‘Shoot-First” capability against its adversaries. For WVR (Within Visual Range) combat, PAF is aiming to incorporate HMDS onto the Block 3 variant accompanied by a new HOBS (High Off Boresight) missile. However, the status of these upgrades is unknown as of now.
Like dual-seater JF-17B, the Block 3 variant also incorporates full authority FBW (Fly-By-Wire) flight control system. An important thing to note, however, is that the JF-17 Block 3 does not have swept vertical tail like the dual seater JF-17B. Since the reveal of JF-17B, many people wrongly assumed the swept tail to be a part of the FBW system upgrade. However, it turns out that the swept tail is only added to adjust the aerodynamic characteristics of JF-17B which holds an additional seat for a second pilot.
Another important upgrade is a new data-link system. Similar to the Link-16 in PAF F-16s. This will enable the JF-17s to communicate effectively in the air which will enhance the overall situational awareness and effectiveness in combat situations. Although not confirmed, Block 3 fuselage incorporates a chin-mounted hardpoint to carry targetting/EW pods. This will allow the fighter jet to carry sophisticated pods on missions without sacrificing space for munitions or external tanks.
Since February 2019 skirmishes, the significance of air dominance has increased greatly in the region. The inclusion of JF-17 Block 3 at this stage is very crucial for national security as well as to maintain the balance of power in the region. Some of the JF-17 Block 3 features, therefore, may be kept secret and the details of many sub-systems may never be revealed to the public. However, there should be no doubt about the capabilities of the fighter jet as the previous blocks of JF-17 (Block 1 and 2) have already proved themselves during the skirmishes in 2019. The JF-17 ‘The Pride Of Pakistan” is on its way to becoming the leading fighter jet of the Pakistan Air Force.
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