21st Century Asian Arms Race

Pakistan Is Looking For A New Main Battle Tank

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Photos have emerged in recent weeks of the Chinese tank called the “VT4/VT-4” parked in an area believed to be a testing ground for Pakistani armored units. This scant evidence is interpreted as the first phase in a transaction to acquire hundreds of the tanks from Norinco so Pakistan can properly modernize its fleet.

But there’s been persistent chatter since 2016 that Islamabad is more enthusiastic about tanks from either Turkey or Ukraine for its ground forces. Although Pakistan assembles its own third-generation tank, the Al Khalid, with 70% of its parts reportedly supplied by local subcontractors, recent innovations in armor technology have left Heavy Industries Taxila’s (HIT) premier model wanting.

Pakistan’s army maintains somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 tanks. But the majority of these are obsolescent Chinese Type 59/69’s. These are augmented by 320 T-80UD tanks and an unknown quantity of Chinese Type 85/85-II’s. In 2002 the first Al Khalid tanks, which were licensed from a Chinese model known as the Type 90/90-II, were delivered by HIT and since then at least 300 have rolled out of its main production facility. A modernization program for old Type 59’s is also underway wherein HIT rebuilds them into the up-armored and up-gunned Al Zarrar standard.

Most of the Al Khalid’s parts are made in Pakistan but its power plant is an imported 6TD-2 diesel engine from Ukraine. The hunter killer fire control system and the thermal sights are believed to be Chinese while the main gun is based on the ubiquitous Soviet 2A46M that Pakistani sources claim can fire anti-tank missiles. The Al Khalid’s other armaments include a 7.62x54mm coaxial machine gun and a locally made 12.7mm machine gun similar to the Chinese W85.

Unfortunately, the Al Khalid is beset by issues related to its age. As a Chinese design from the late 1980s its armor combines rolled steel with ceramic/plastic inserts and a turret whose frontal arc contains two spaced compartments welded into place for absorbing direct hits. For countermeasures, the Al Khalid’s turret carries reactive panels on either side of the main gun and smoke grenade dischargers in front of the distinctive storage bin that frames the turret rear. But these features are no longer effective against the new generation of anti-tank missiles India is either developing or plans on acquiring.

Image of the VT-4 in Pakistan that went viral.

The advent of active protection systems, remote control weapons, modular armor panels, and urban combat upgrades are all doing their bit diminishing the Al Khalid’s appeal. HIT tried to compensate for these faults in 2017 and announced the beginning of “Al Khalid 2” production. But HIT did admit budget constraints keep it from increasing the small number of tanks it can assemble per year.

Since the Al Khalid 2’s improvements haven’t been revealed it isn’t too surprising that alternatives are under review. Pakistan imported its first tanks from China after the disastrous 1965 war and is the most loyal customer of Norinco’s armor catalog. It makes sense for the army to try out the new VT-4 tank whose myriad improvements hint at what the next Al Khalid should be.

In a strange twist, Ukraine could be lobbying for its own T-84 Oplot tanks after the successful 2016 deal to import “motor-transmission kits” that span diesel engines, transmissions, air purifiers, and additional armor panels–spare parts meant for the Al Khalid. This makes Pakistan the latest contest pitting the VT-4 against the Oplot almost two years since they squared off in Thailand.

Whether or not Pakistan bets on a third MBT, this time Turkey’s unproven Altay, is really guesswork. Ankara and Islamabad have solid ties as far as commerce and trade go but the Altay’s reliance on a Western European supply chain at a time when Turkey is pivoting away from the EU leaves too much uncertain. Indeed, after a decade of testing Turkey’s first “indigenous” tank is in development hell with no guaranteed foreign supplier for its engine (Japan and Austria were nixed) and no domestic production yet.

If Pakistan keeps striving for a mixed tank fleet in the coming years the outcome should be inconclusive. Its modest defense budget can only afford a few hundred more to join its motley armored corps. Taking the long view isn’t encouraging either. From a historical perspective, between 1947 and 1971 Pakistan’s ground forces never won a conventional war against India so the advantage of any new tanks against the T-90S–a model with its fair share of problems–is dubious.

The T-84 Oplot has been exported to Thailand. Via Ukroboronprom.

Perhaps an alternate strategy can lead to better results. The costs surrounding guidance systems, portable anti-tank weapons, and the materials for assembling both are on a downward trend. Considering Pakistan’s advances in aerospace and drone technology, then maybe smart munitions are the sensible option.

But what’s left out of the discussion is the doctrine the Pakistani army may be adhering to. If a limited ground war is a likelihood then buying hundreds of current-generation tanks is paramount. In light of its geopolitical leanings, China remains the best choice and likely supplier of new tanks since it’s easier for the production to be shared with Pakistan.

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