Colombo: On Wednesday, The Air Force of Sri Lanka denied an Indian news agency’s report that Lanka had entered into a deal with Pakistan to buy the Sino-Pak JF-17 third generation fighter aircraft.
The report also said that the deal was sealed during talks the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had with Lankan leaders here on Tuesday.
The Command Media Officer of the Lankan Air Force, Group Captain Chandima Alwis, told Express: “ There has been a lot of speculation in the media on this. But the fact is that we are still in the process of evaluating the various offers made by neighboring countries. We are looking for a suitable aircraft. But no decision has been taken yet.”
Significantly, purchase of JF-17s by Lanka is not one of the eight agreements which Sharif signed in Colombo.
The latest wave of speculation about a deal over JF-17 was triggered by a report in IHS Jane’s 360 dated December 29, which said that Sharif will press for the purchase of the aircraft during his visit to Lanka between January 4 and 6.
But a seasoned Lankan defense analyst had told Express that though Lanka is keen on replacing its ageing Israeli Kfirs and Russian MiG 27s, it is unlikely to go in for the JF-17s, for two reasons: First, there is India’s opposition. And Second, there is the cost factor, with the fighters going at USD 35 million apiece.
Official Indian sources denied any knowledge of Lanka’s intention to purchase the JF-17s from Pakistan or even India’s counter offer to provide its Light Combat Aircraft “Tejas’.
The Lankans are probably aware that the “Tejas” is still under development. While the JF-17 is a fully developed aircraft in operation with the PAF since 2010, Tejas is still correcting the flaws discovered by the Indian Air Force.
While Pakistan has to sell the JF-17s to justify the existence of a production facility on its soil, and may even offer buyer’s credit, the Lankan defense expert quoted above wondered if Lanka will be able to afford the aircraft given the fact that it is in the doldrums financially with huge international debts to repay.
Additionally, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s priority seems to be to give his island nation a Blue Water navy to safeguard it more effectively, and also to play a meaningful role in international maritime security as desired by the US.
It is also said that, given the current delicate relations between India and Pakistan and Nawaz Sharif’s eagerness to mollify India after the Pathankot terror attack, Pakistan is unlikely to rub India the wrong way by pressing Lanka to buy its JF-17s.