The conversation in recent days, as more and more news and information trickle out about the DCS: JF-17 by Deka Ironworks, has shifted towards two big questions. Is the real JF-17 any good and why are so many people excited about it coming to DCS World? Let’s dig into both the real world and the simulation world to find out a little more.
What is the JF-17 and what is its history?
The JF-17 is a joint Pakistan-China developed fourth gen, multi-role, light fighter, designed to be affordable yet capable enough for the modern early 21st century air force on a budget. The jet has been slated to replace several aircraft in the Pakistani Air Force and its developers hope to be able to sell the aircraft to other countries looking for more inexpensive multi-role fighter options.
That’s the jet but what about it’s history? I found that to be an interesting one as the JF-17’s history is one of several false starts, stops, and restarts of a project that has been developed jointly. The fighter was designed for Pakistan (and by Pakistan in some elements) with plenty of support by China and some support from Russia thrown in for good measure too. At various points, Western companies such as Grumman and Pratt & Whitney were also involved in the development of the project’s predecessor, the Super-7, although it seems that ceased after successive waves of sanctions against Pakistan in 1989 and 1998 and against China in 1989.
The project really got underway in 1999 when a contract between Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) and the Pakistani Aeronautical Complex (PAC) was signed and development of the new FC-1/Super 7 began. Chengdu still refers to the aircraft as the FC-1 while the JF-17 ‘Thunder’ is the designation in Pakistan with JF-17 standing for Joint Fighter 17.
The project would draw upon a design lineage tracing its way back to the Russian MiG-21. Chengdu’s reverse engineered MiG-21, called the J-7, was widely exported to many countries looking for fighters on a budget in the 1980s. Pakistan was one such customer.
This 1960s Russian design formed at least some sort of basis for the JF-17 though one need only look at the wings and divertless intakes and conclude that this is a very different, far more modern, aircraft design. Design work was done jointly but it is apparently Yang Wei, Chengdu’s chief aircraft designer, that contributed significantly to the design of the aircraft. Wei has become known as the China’s ace aircraft designer being compared to the likes of Kelly Johnson and Willy Messerschmitt. Wei is also one of the key designers behind the J-10 and J-20 fighters.
Avionics and weapon systems are primarily Chinese in origin which allows the aircraft to avoid any potential difficulties with a Western based supply chain while the engines are Russian.
The JF-17 is powered by a single Russian RD-93. This offshoot of the RD-33, powering the MiG-29, was designed to offer increased thrust with a slight reduction in engine life though I’ve read that in actuality there has been little or no reduction in life. The RD-93, critically, doesn’t have the intensely smokey engine exhaust that is so typical of MiG-29’s powered by the RD-33 and a quick viewing of the JF-17’s performance at this year’s Paris Air Show certainly shows that to good effect.
The first JF-17 squadron became operational in Block I form in 2010. The aircraft has since seen several upgrades which have added features such as mid-air refueling in the Block II. Plans for a two seater and a more advanced Block III are now well underway. It’s the Block I variant that Deka Ironworks is building into the DCS World simulation.
The JF-17 is a relatively small and lightweight fighter weighing only 14,000 lbs empty (versus the semi-comparable F-16C Block 50 at 18,900 lbs empty). The JF-17 can also carry a relatively heavy loadout with 8,000lbs of air-to-air and air-to-ground ordinance.
Speaking of ordinance, Deka Ironworks released this chart showing off the aircraft’s hardpoint capabilities.
In the air to air role the aircraft can carry the SD-10 which is an export version of the PL-12 BVR missile produced by China. The missile has various performance stats associated with it including a maximum range of 70-100km (or about 54 nautical miles) though the export version features reduced range and, as always, these numbers are under extremely favourable conditions.
Speculation within the DCS World community suggest that the SD-10 in DCS World will perform at a level approximately similar to something in between the AIM-120B and AIM-120C.
It can also carry the PL-5E II which is a development of the Russian AA-2 (itself a reverse engineered AIM-9B) that has been continually upgraded. The PL-5E II variant packs a dual-band sensor and is about equivalent to the AIM-9M with a range of 0.5km to 18km (again depending on target aspect, altitude, etc.).
There’s also a huge range of air-to-ground options for the jet. Western MK-82’s, MK-20’s, GBU-10, 12 and 16, and Hydra 70 rockets are on the list. So is the Chinese LS-6, a GPS or laser guided glide bomb, C-802AK/AKG (which was documented in a recent video) which is a stand-off anti-ship and man-in-the-loop TV guided missile. The jet also has the LD-10 anti-radiation missile which gives the aircraft SEAD/DEAD capabilities.
The JF-17 has a targeting pod though I was able to find only limited information about that. Meanwhile, it also has a KLJ-7 radar with approximately 200km maximum range and the ability to track 40 targets simultaneously or 10 targets while in track while scan mode. It can also apparently support engaging two targets similtaneously.
The jet is typically armed with a 23mm GSh-23-2 twin barrel cannon in a pod recessed under the fuselage. A 30mm GSh-30-2 twin barrel cannon can apparently be fitted in its place though it’s unclear if we’ll be seeing that in DCS World or not. This cannon is the same as fitted to the DCS: MiG-21bis and is extremely effective in DCS World.
The RD-93 engine that powers the JF-17 can offer up to 11,105 lbf of dry thrust and 19,180 lbf of thrust with afterburner propelling the jet up to a respectable Mach 1.6 and a very average thrust to weight ratio of 0.95 . These are decent numbers but if we compare to the GE F110-GE-129 on the F-16 we see that the F-16 packs far more power (with 17,155lbf dry and 29,160lbf in afterburner).
The service ceiling is also quite good at 55,000 feet.
As for maneuverability, there are various reports. An interview with a JF-17 pilot by Hushkit leaves me with a variety of thoughts. The takeaway from that conversation appears to be that JF-17’s performance versus both the F-16 and M-2000 is very good. It seems to suggest that the jet can’t pull quite as tightly as these aircraft in the initial turn-in but it can keep up, sustain and potentially beat both in a more prolonged turn fight.
I question that a little, given the F-16’s added power and ability to use that to push its way through a turn, but it still gives us an idea of the kind of agility that the JF-17 can bring to the table. In other words, it’s no slouch and it may even best some other highly agile fighters in specific circumstances or at certain flight regimes.
Why is everyone so interested? Is the jet really any good?
There are a bunch of reasons why the JF-17 is an interesting aircraft to flight sim fans of DCS World and perhaps not all are immediately obvious.
First, for myself and many others that I’ve talked to in recent days, the JF-17 is something unique and different. Being designed by Pakistan and China, with avionics that feel familiar yet have their own take, in a nearly completely glass cockpit, on a jet that we just don’t see all that often holds a certain appeal.
Second, it has a capable array of weapons with performance that puts it in range of the F-16 and F/A-18. It’s not necessarily a superior fighter but if it’s modeled at all like it’s real life counter part, it comes close enough that it makes itself competitive with the best available in DCS World right now. That’s great because it will make competitive combat both interesting, with dissimilar types engaged in combat, and challenging because pilot skill, tactics and teamwork will be the greater determinate on who wins in competitive challenges.
Talking more about those competitive situations, many multiplayer servers have dissimilar aircraft setup along “REDFOR” and “BLUEFOR” lines. Typically these feature Russian aircraft on the Red Team and American aircraft on the Blue Team with some unique mixes sometimes including the F-14 and M-2000C on Red (representing Iranian F-14’s and the wide variety of Mirage users).
It’s expected that the JF-17 will slot into the multiplayer mix on the REDFOR side at least on some servers. With it’s fourth gen air-to-air capabilities, datalink, SEAD, anti-ship, guided bombs and missiles, and a targeting pod all at DCS World levels of clickable cockpit fidelity, the JF-17 represents an impressive increase in ability for that “side.” That’s a very appealing mix and above and beyond the more specific and limited Su-27, J-11A, and Su-25/25T that are more typically seen on that team. It’s not that the JF-17 is specifically a better fighter than say the Flanker but rather that it has more broad based abilities that make it stand out.
The other unique feature is the promise that Deka Ironworks intends to have 90% or more capability on the module from day one of early access. Though some are skeptical of that claim, our first two academic videos certainly show the jet to already have a targeting pod, guided missiles following waypoints, and GPS guided munitions striking pre-planned positions.
The JF-17 holds a lot of promise for DCS World fans with everything from its uniqueness to its about on-par capabilities with the best multi-role jets in DCS World mean that a lot of eyes are on this project and a lot of people have said that they will be buying this module as soon as it becomes available.
Others are more cautious and are looking at reviews before purchasing and I will certainly be providing both my immediate feedback as well as more detailed experiences with the module as time goes on.
Deka Ironworks is going to be under intense scrutiny from the community around the time of this module being launched. The building hype around their module, as each new piece of information about their module comes out, is beginning to set high expectations and it’s my hope that they can meet them. Deka Ironworks has a chance to establish itself as a top developer for DCS World and, at the same time, slot their new module into a highly desired role within the competitive multiplayer community.