According to media reports coming out of the first day of the Paris Air Show, the Chengdu/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex JF-17 Thunder jet fighter has secured its first confirmed export deal. The deal was concluded with an unnamed Asian country. Per client request, the lead sales and marketing official for the JF-17, Pakistan’s Air Commodore Khalid Mahmood, declined to specify the customer and the number of aircraft ordered, divulging only that deliveries will begin in 2017.
This prompts the natural question, Who is the buyer?
To begin with, only a handful of countries in the Asia-Pacific Rim region procure military hardware from China, and fewer still buy aircraft from Beijing. The buyers include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Of these four countries, Cambodia spends the least on defense, with a military budget of just $428 million in 2014. Therefore, any deal concluded for the JF-17 would have to include the extension of a generous credit line to the Cambodians, financing that would also have to underwrite training, the building of infrastructure to operate and support the new fighters, and maintenance costs. Thus Cambodia would appear the least likely customer of the four.
Although Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are in the market for new fighters and both already operate the Chengdu-produced F-7, each appears more interested in other platforms.
Bangladesh has recently increased the flow of Russian-sourced military hardware into its Air Force thanks to a generous $1 billion credit line extended to it by Moscow in January 2013. Under its planned Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) program aimed at replacing its aging Chinese-built fleet of A-5 and F-7 fighters, the Bangladesh Air Force is rumored to be considering alternatives such as the Saab Gripen, Lockheed Martin’s F-16, the Chengdu J-10, the MiG‑29SMT, and Sukhoi’s Su-30.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, appears most likely to opt for upgrades to its existing mixed combat fleet of Israeli-sourced Kfirs, MiG-27s and F-7s, or to consider procuring replacement alternatives from either China or Russia. But any new fighter procurement does not appear a pressing matter for Sri Lanka at the moment.
That leaves the most obvious candidate, Myanmar. Shunned from most international arms markets due to concerns regarding military interference in the governance of the country and its human rights record, Myanmar has had to turn to arms suppliers willing to overlook such transgressions. These include China, Russia, North Korea and Pakistan.
Financing an expensive procurement such as the JF-17 is less a problem for Myanmar, as many of the nation’s parliamentary seats are filled with military appointees, thus making the defense budget approval process an exercise in rubber-stamping.
Further, in the past Myanmar has reportedly evinced interest in acquiring the technology transfer from China and Pakistan that would allow it to license-produce JF-17 multirole combat aircraft at its own Myanmar Air Force Aircraft Production and Maintenance Base in Meiktila. The lightweight, single-engine fighter would serve as a complement to the existing fleet of MiG-29SMTs procured from Russia’s state arms export agency Rosoboronexport in December 2009.
So it would appear, for all intents and purposes, that the “unnamed” customer too sensitive about its disclosure would be Myanmar.
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