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IDEAS 2016 Had An Al Khalid Tank Outside Its Venue

December 1, 2016


As throngs of visitors made their way inside the Karachi Expo Center for IDEAS 2016 (November 22 to 25), the largest arms show in Pakistan, they were greeted by armored vehicles on static display at the main entrance. These included the Al Khalid, Pakistan’s first indigenous main battle tank and arguably the best of its kind in the region.

21st Century Asian Arms Race (21AAR) is a media partner for IDEAS 2016.

IDEAS 2016 is held every two years. For its ninth iteration 159 exhibitors from all over the world crowded the show floor to receive guests and attendees from the Pakistan military and beyond. More a tourist attraction than part of a security detail, the inert Al Khalid was subjected to the fawning public’s endless selfies. But what the tank is and what it represents is worth exploring.

Pakistan’s tank units trace their origins to British cavalry regiments organized during the Raj that evolved into the Indian Armoured Corps. After independence, however, an influx of surplus and military aid from the United States gave Pakistan’s own Armoured Corps a distinct American flavor as it combined Shermans and Chaffees with newer M47 and M48 tanks.

After the disastrous losses of the 1971 war, when Bangladesh emerged as an independent state, Pakistan began increasing its stocks of Chinese-made Type 59 and Type 69 tanks that were first imported after 1965. By the mid-1980s it became apparent these were inadequate against India’s growing fleet of T-72’s and the worrisome Arjun program.

The Pakistan military’s first recourse was trying to acquire a genuine third-generation MBT. But when the American M1 Abrams failed its trials the army was left stuck with its Chinese armor. Two stop-gap measures were adopted. First, the Al Zarrar program was launched to upgrade the existing Type 59’s; work carried out by the state-owned Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT). Second, Pakistan acquired 320 T-80U tanks from Ukraine in 1996.

A separate and less-known project had a more ambitious goal. Thanks to a budding relationship with China technology transfers from its neighbor expanded Pakistan’s own manufacturing base. This is where the Al Khalid’s own origins turn a bit murky.

At some point in the early 1990s HIT acquired the license and schematics of the Norinco Type 90. It was a prototype model that evolved into the Type 99A, which is now the PLA’s most advanced tank. The Type 90 combined features from Soviet-era T-series tanks but applied these to a larger hull.

The resulting tank named Al Khalid entered production in 2000 and was adopted by 2002. The exact production figures of the Al Khalid manufactured by HIT are uncertain. Pakistani media claim 600 have been built in the last 16 years. A more conservative number could be 320 Al Khalids fielded by Pakistan’s tank regiments. Bangladesh has 44 similar tanks but these are Chinese MBT 2000’s that have also been sold to Morocco.

The Al Khalid runs on a 1,200 horsepower Ukrainian 6TD-2 diesel engine giving it a top speed of 70 kilometers per hour. Like its Soviet ancestors it’s capable of river crossings with a snorkel. The Al Khalid’s best feature is its 125mm main gun that can launch the Refleks anti-tank missile. Its secondary armaments include a coaxial machine gun and a 12.7mm QJC-88 machine gun above the commander’s hatch.

HIT classifies the Al Khalid as a “medium” tank and judging by its appearance and dimensions its level of armor protection is similar to the original T-72. This means the welded steel hull is probably reinforced with ceramic and plastic inserts underneath the sloping glacis. As an added measure, reactive armor panels are attached on either side of the main gun.

The Al Khalid’s career prospects might be growing dim. There are still plans to upgrade the army tank fleet. This explains the mysterious purchase of surplus T-55’s from Serbia in 2015. There’s growing speculation over the “Al Haider” program whose goal is to introduce a heavier and more advanced MBT in the coming years.

Little else is known about Al Haider but during IDEAS 2016 clues surfaced that could be related to its progress. On November 23–the second day of IDEAS 2016–Ukrainian and Pakistani officials signed an agreement on defense cooperation worth $600 million that may include tank engines. Turkey’s Aselsan are also reported to be involved with the Al Khalid’s modernization. Whether or not this will result in the Al Haider has yet to be confirmed.

Pakistan’s dire need for tanks is essential for deterring India. Expect their total numbers, both new and old, to keep growing in the coming years.