Stiff opposition from India has forced Sri Lanka to drop plans, at least for now, to buy JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft from Pakistan.
The Indian Sunday Express has learnt that New Delhi shot off a diplomatic missive a few weeks ago to Colombo on why it should not buy the JF-17 Thunder, including a negative technical assessment of the aircraft. It was also pointed out that the country’s defence requirements did not need fighters.
While questions were raised in Sri Lanka too about the reported $400-million deal, India’s forceful opposition, conveyed through a non-paper, was one of the likely reasons that made Sri Lanka drop the plan for now.
The Pakistani media were reporting that the deal for JF-17s would be signed during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s three-day visit to Colombo which ended Wednesday.
Despite its own financial crunch, Pakistan was also said to be ready to extend a line of credit to Sri Lanka for the aircraft.
On Tuesday, Sharif and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Defence Minister, signed agreements under eight heads in Colombo, but the sale of aircraft was not one of them.
The Indian government delivered the non-paper — diplomatic parlance for a white sheet of paper without a letterhead or signature — to Colombo at the highest levels about three weeks ago after reports that Pakistan was seriously engaging the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) on the Chinese fighter aircraft to replace the SLAF’s ageing fleet of Israeli Kfirs and MiG-27s.
Pakistan had been pushing for the sale of 10 to 12 JF-17s, each priced about $35 million. Talk of the deal gained ground after a visit to Pakistan by SLAF chief Gagan Bulathsinhala last November. He was invited to send a team to assess the aircraft at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra.
Kamra is where the PAC and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) co-produce the aircraft. But defence experts believe that the aircraft are more or less only assembled at Kamra from readymade Chinese kits. Taking up the Pakistani invitation, a team of Sri Lankan Air Force officials visited Kamra to test the aircraft and run simulation tests.
New Delhi has opposed SLAF plans to buy the J-17s on the ground that Sri Lanka does not need fighter aircraft. It is six years since the war against the LTTE ended. Since then, Sri Lanka’s defence spending has increased. For 2016, it is an estimated $3 billion.
Sri Lankan sources said India also put forth a technical argument that the Russian engines of the JF-17 were not the best, that even China does not use these aircraft. Earlier, some Sri Lankan reports had said India had offered its own Tejas to the SLAF instead.
India is also concerned that the deal, if it goes through, will enable the PAC, and perhaps even the CAC, to set up a facility in Sri Lanka for maintenance and training, and increase and widen contacts between Pakistan and Chinese security forces and Sri Lanka.
In 2014, the then Sri Lankan government had cleared a proposal for China to set up a maintenance-cum-servicing facility for its aircraft that are part of the Sri Lankan fleet in Trincomalee. The SLAF has in it fleet the Chengdu F-7 fighter aircraft, and the Y-12 and MA60 transporters. India had raised concerns then about the plan and the Sri Lankan government had said it would be manned only by SLAF personnel. With the change in government, that plan was shelved.