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Azerbaijan Considers Procurement of JF-17 Fighter Jets From Pakistan

Originally shared on social platforms, the news quickly gained traction in major media. After much anticipation, a significant opportunity has emerged as Azerbaijan requires a fighter jet urgently, and Pakistan’s proposal, valued at USD 1.6 billion, appears notably persuasive.

The Russian Decline and The Pakistani Offer

The Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) highlights the shift in Azerbaijan’s arms procurement away from Russia, driven by global demand for replacements for ageing Soviet and Russian aircraft due to the Ukraine conflict. Azerbaijan’s upgrades to its fleet, including MiG-21s, MiG-29s, SU-24s, and SU-25s, are essential as these aircraft are over 30 years old and face parts and ammunition supply challenges from Russia. Therefore, investing in Russia’s newer Su-57 or Su-75 fifth-generation aircraft appears increasingly unlikely.

The JF-17 Block III (Thunder) is a collaborative effort between the China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). The integration of Chinese systems into the aircraft grants it a claim to 4.5 generation capabilities. Pakistan’s proposal represents a significant advancement compared to Azerbaijan’s current fleet and will revolutionize aerial combat dynamics in the Caucasus region.

JF-17 Block III – Picture Credit to the Respective Owner

The latest iteration of the Thunder, the Block III version, was put into service in 2023, showcasing enhanced capabilities as claimed by Pakistan. Notably, improvements include a wide-angle holographic head-up display system and various features contributing to beyond-visual-range capabilities. The fighter is equipped with a KLJ-7A X-band 3D active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, allowing pilots to lock onto multiple targets beyond 150 km. Moreover, the Thunder can carry long-range guided missiles like the PL-15, altering its operational profile significantly. Former Vice Chief of the Pakistani Air Force Saeed Khan emphasized the importance of beyond-visual-range capability, stating that it now determines the outcome of aerial battles.

Additionally, the Thunder incorporates an Aselpod targeting pod from Turkey’s Aselsan on its centreline hardpoint. Serhat Guvenc, Professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University (Istanbul), suggests that Turkey might become the future supplier of the jet fighter’s engine.

The Thunder has already been procured by Nigeria and Myanmar, with ongoing negotiations with Iraq. Iraq has been offered 12 jet fighters for USD 664 million, highlighting the affordability and strategic value of Pakistan’s offer. This deal signifies that Azerbaijan could overhaul its entire fleet, establish the necessary infrastructure, and train a new generation of pilots for USD 1.6 billion. Ultimately, acquiring a fighter platform entail building a lasting relationship, and Pakistan’s proposition promises a competitive aircraft adaptable to various combat scenarios, priced attractively, and backed by a resilient supply chain to counter potential sanctions threats.

JF-17 Stop Gap Solution

The potential sale of Pakistani fighter jets to Azerbaijan has been a topic of ongoing speculation for more than ten years, reflecting the strategic nature of their diplomatic relationship. Pakistan played a pivotal role as the second country, following Turkey, to acknowledge Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, leading to the collective reference to these nations as “The Three Brothers.” However, Armenia obstructed Pakistan’s potential affiliation with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2017 due to Baku’s close alignment with Islamabad.

Pakistan has consistently supported Azerbaijan in its disputes with Armenia, notably concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. This support was evident during the 44-day Second Karabakh War in 2020, during which Pakistan dispatched military advisors to Azerbaijan, resulting in significant territorial changes. The visit of Pakistan’s Army Chief General Syed Asim Munir to Baku in November 2023, where he met President Aliyev, hinted at a potential major deal, as highlighted by Umer Karim, a former Royal United Services Institute Southeast Asia analyst.

Azerbaijan remains committed to Turkey’s TAI Kaan 5th generation fighter program, which is Ankara’s sole indigenous jet fighter initiative launched in 2010. However, Turkey’s exclusion from the US F-35 program in 2019 has left both Turkey and Azerbaijan without access to 4.5 to 5th generation jet fighters. Options from France, Sweden, and Germany are limited or blocked, necessitating a temporary solution until the delivery of the first batch of Block-1 Kaan aircraft around 2024 to 2033.

TAI Kaan – Wiki

The approach to this issue may differ between the two countries. The Pakistani JF-17 Block III (Thunder) is often seen as a development of the J-7 Chinese platform (MiG-21) and heavily relies on Chinese systems, whereas Turkey relies on platforms compatible with NATO standards. Heydar Mirza, a military analyst, and war correspondent in Baku, points out that Azerbaijan doesn’t view the JF-17 Block III’s reliance on Chinese systems as a political concern.

Professor Guvenc highlights that the Three Brothers, referring to Pakistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, have different “path dependencies.” Pakistan leans more toward China compared to Turkey. The foundational expertise of Turkish and Pakistani pilots is rooted in their shared experience with the US-made F-16, which serves as a common workhorse.

For various reasons, both Pakistan and Turkey have faced challenges in upgrading their F-16 platforms. While Turkey recently signed a deal with Washington in early 2024 for the upgrade of 70 F-16s to Block-70 and the acquisition of 40 new units, delivery delays could pose issues with this interim solution.

Pakistan is pursuing a different strategy by developing a platform that allows for more customization, enabling countries that adopt the JF-17 Block III program to utilize their existing missile systems. This aligns with Pakistan’s non-aligned defense approach. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is breaking from tradition by acquiring a non-Russian platform for the first time, offering a cost-effective solution suitable for its operational needs. However, the significance of the JF-17 deal extends beyond the platform itself; it contributes to deepening the complex relationship within the emerging military-industrial cooperation between Pakistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.

Discussing the Azerbaijan deal with former Vice Chief Saeed Khan reveals that the JF-17 Block III platform is informed by experiences gained from engagements with the Indian Air Force, adding a strategic dimension to its value.

Pakistani pilots have gained extensive experience in combat scenarios against Indian adversaries, and to a lesser degree, Iranian opponents. This experience involves dealing with a variety of fighter aircraft from France and Russia, as well as navigating through a range of indigenous and Russian legacy surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. Pakistan leverages this expertise as part of its sales strategy. Pakistani pilots have encountered and operated multiple fighter platforms that Azerbaijani pilots are likely to face. Additionally, they have dealt with many SAMs that Armenian or Iranian pilots might deploy against Azerbaijani pilots. Moreover, training Azerbaijani pilots on Pakistani platforms proves to be cost-effective, as these platforms are not only cheaper to procure but also to operate, allowing for increased flight hours.

The involvement of Pakistani developers in the Kaan project has garnered significant attention. Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Defence Celal Sami Tüfekci highlighted in an announcement on 2 August 2023 that around 200 Pakistani officials and engineers are actively engaged in the Kaan program. Furthermore, an implicit advantage of this collaboration is the integration of tactical and strategic practices among the “Three Brothers,” which includes the utilization of Turkish drone systems. Turkey’s Kaan program is exploring the concept of a ‘loyal wingman’ drone, which is being tested across diverse terrains and against various technologies to enhance its performance through data acquisition.

Also Read, Burgeoning India-Philippines Ties: Stifling The Dragon

The Strategic Significance Of The Sale

Investing in a fighter platform is essentially investing in a partnership. While Azerbaijan acknowledges Russia’s regional influence, it remains independent from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and adheres strongly to a non-aligned stance, preferring the plurinational “3+3” diplomatic approach. This perspective is not unique to Azerbaijan, as many countries also embrace this framework. Against this backdrop, the acquisition of the JF-17 could be viewed as a pivotal test case. With Russia’s procurement capabilities diminishing, countries like Uzbekistan and other members of the Organisation of Turkic States emerge as potential future clients.

The JF-17 platform is engineered to offer significant beyond-visual-range capabilities and a competitive edge in theaters where cutting-edge Western systems are not readily accessible. Pakistan aims to address the growing void left by Russia and provides a sanctions-resistant supply chain that can be tailored to accommodate diverse ammunition types.  The JF-17 platform has generally been offered to states that are politically Rear view of a JF-17 of the Pakistan Air Force’s No. 16 squadron ‘Black Panthers’.

The JF-17 platform is typically offered to politically neutral nations with modest economies, wary of potential Western sanctions. Initial clients included Myanmar and Nigeria, with Iraq likely to follow. Argentina was also considered until a recent government transition. This modular platform allows for increased Turkish involvement and development, maintaining NATO data integrity. Additionally, the Pakistani agreement fosters a growing military-industrial alliance among the trio. While seen as an interim measure, the JF-17 could serve as a temporary solution ahead of the anticipated Kaan 5th generation fighter.

India has consistently voiced apprehensions about Pakistan’s decision to sell JF-17 fighter aircraft to Azerbaijan. The JF-17, a collaborative effort between China and Pakistan, serves as a versatile combat aircraft that Pakistan has actively marketed to various nations, including Azerbaijan.

India’s primary worries stem from its strained relations with Pakistan, particularly concerning issues like terrorism and the ongoing conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. The sale of JF-17 aircraft to Azerbaijan is viewed by India as potentially escalating regional tensions and upsetting the existing balance of power.

It is likely that India has communicated its concerns through diplomatic channels, emphasizing the importance of responsible arms transfers and highlighting the potential repercussions of such transactions on regional stability. Furthermore, India may be looking to strengthen its own defense capabilities in response to perceived threats, possibly through strategic partnerships and defense procurement endeavours.

Also Read, Armenia Azerbaijan Tussle: An Opportunity In Disguise

In recent years, Pakistan has made efforts to strengthen its relationships with other non-Arab Muslim-majority nations like Azerbaijan and Turkey. Interestingly, this aspect of Islamabad’s foreign policy has prompted a reaction from New Delhi. When Pakistan intensifies its engagement with a particular Muslim-majority nation, India tends to increase its interactions with that country’s rival. This dynamic is evident in two specific pairs of nations: Turkey-Greece and Azerbaijan-Armenia.

PM Modi and Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens

The cooperation between Turkey and Pakistan has notably deepened over time. In 2016, the two countries signed an agreement for Turkey to modernize Pakistani submarines, followed by another deal in 2018 for Turkey to build four corvettes for Pakistan. This naval program began in 2019, with the first vessel delivered in September 2023. In return, Islamabad provided Ankara with trainer aircraft. There are also indications of collaboration between Islamabad and Ankara in drone production. Alongside defense partnerships, Turkey has voiced support for Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir issue.

Concurrently, Islamabad has reached out to Baku. Pakistan not only expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia but, more significantly, it has reportedly agreed to sell JF-17 aircraft, jointly developed with China, to the Azerbaijani military.

However, there is one area that will undergo an impact: defense cooperation between Turkey and India. New Delhi is making efforts to avoid engaging in military transactions with a nation that also supplies similar equipment to Pakistan.

In 2023, a planned deal for India to procure fleet support ships from Turkey was scrapped, and it’s difficult not to link this decision to the collaboration between Ankara and Islamabad. On the flip side, it’s worth noting that India reluctantly tolerated the United States exporting military goods to Pakistan (and some minor Russian exports to the same nation) – all while India remained a significant buyer of arms from both the U.S. and Russia. The rationale behind this is straightforward: the U.S. and Russia are powerful nations and crucial partners for India, compelling New Delhi to accept their dealings with Pakistan. However, the same leniency may not extend to a country that lacks the same level of power or importance to India.

It is plausible that the threat of CAATSA sanctions played a role in deterring Baku from acquiring more Russian military equipment, evidenced by a decrease in signed orders with ROE after CAATSA came into effect in early 2018. By 2022, Russia had committed its military to operations in Ukraine, redirecting its production lines primarily toward supporting frontline forces and replacing battlefield losses, including a significant number of combat aircraft.

In other contexts, strained relations between Azerbaijan and France rule out discussions regarding the Rafale, and it’s improbable for Azerbaijan to receive approval for American-made aircraft like the F-16. Azerbaijan has strengthened its connections with Italy’s Leonardo recently, finalizing an agreement for C-27J transport planes last summer. However, negotiations for the company’s M-346 advanced jet trainer, which has combat capabilities, seem to be stalled. Consequently, the process of elimination has favored the JF-17.

The reported cost of a JF-17 is around $25 million per aircraft, although this estimate likely doesn’t include all associated expenses such as training, spare parts, missiles, and other enhancements that could significantly raise the total cost beyond the base price. For comparison, Iraq is reportedly considering purchasing 12 JF-17 Block IIIs for $664 million, averaging roughly $55 million per unit.

Estimating based on this information, an Azerbaijani order, if it materializes, would likely be for at least three dozen aircraft, marking a significant milestone for Azerbaijan as it would fully renew the nation’s air fleet. Such a large export deal would also be a notable accomplishment for PAC, marking its largest export transaction to date. A sale to Azerbaijan would provide a boost to the JF-17 program, which has seen slow export sales, and would benefit Pakistan’s economy, which is facing crises.

Also Read, China’s Rising Naval Power: Beyond Numbers Lies the True Test

The Broader Picture

Azerbaijan’s procurement of the JF-17 and Armenia’s quest for a response reflect the ongoing arms escalation in the Caucasus. The involvement of India and France indicates the increasing geopolitical interest in the region, where major powers often compete and form alliances. The outcome of this fighter aircraft competition could profoundly alter the power balance in this historically turbulent area.

Conclusion

The result of this fighter jet rivalry remains uncertain. Will Armenia obtain the necessary capabilities to counter Azerbaijan’s military edge? Can India or France step up to the challenge, or will new actors emerge?

These answers will not only shape the trajectory of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict but also influence power dynamics and security considerations across the broader Caucasus region in the years ahead.

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Sheikh Akhter

Warfare & Defense Systems l Military Equipment Intelligence | OSINT I Content, Insights & Strategy | Leadership | Solutions | Policy | A&D Consulting

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