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Pakistan Is The Biggest Customer Of Chinese Tanks

March 15, 2021
A recent live fire exercise in the Cholistan desert offered visual proof the Type 85-II remains in service with the Pakistan Army. A few hundred of these Chinese tanks were delivered 30 years ago as a stopgap for the army’s obsolescent Type 59’s and its next main battle tank. Pakistan later acquired the Ukrainian T-80UD and began assembling the Al Khalid, a Norinco Type 90 tank with impressive mobility. The Type 85-II is comparable to the Soviet vintage T-72B when it comes to firepower and speed and can be identified for its small, angular turret and the driver’s hatch located to the left of the 125mm main gun. To tell the Type 85-II apart from the Al Khalid, observe their engine compartment–the Al Khalid’s is larger and its exhaust is at the back. Via ISPR.

Within the span of a year Pakistan’s military took critical steps to enhance its armored fleet with newer main battle tanks. This culminated with the unveiling of Al Khalid I tanks manufactured by Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) in July 2020. The Al Khalid I is a generational improvement over the Al Khalid, itself a Chinese design passed on by Norinco to HIT in the early 1990s, and boasts a Ukrainian engine and vehitronics–the latter is the equipment used by the commander and gunner to operate the tank. While the Al Khalids have layouts similar to Russian/Soviet T-series tanks the crucial difference is in their size and weight.

Two months after the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) revealed the Al Khalid I dramatic footage was released of the Pakistan Army chief observing driving tests for the Norinco MBT 3000. This export model became available almost a quarter century since the Type 90, which is the basis for the Al Khalid/Al Khalid, was offered to foreign clients, albeit with extremely modest results. It turns out the driving test involving the MBT 3000 had a Pakistani crew, all but confirming the delivery of these tanks is imminent. The MBT 3000 or VT4–its export designation–is among five tank models Chinese conglomerate Norinco is offering clients everywhere.

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The HIT Al Khalid I in 2020. Via ISPR

Small batches of MBT 3000’s have reached Nigeria and Thailand as these two countries turned away from Western suppliers for their military equipment. The MBT 3000’s main selling point is its superiority to older Russian T-series tanks like the T-62 and T-72 whose acquisition costs might be negligible but are considered obsolescent for their age. With the MBT 3000 the end user has the same firepower as a Russian “premium” battle tank such as the T-80U or T-90S in a larger vehicle that runs on 1,500 horsepower; the MBT 3000’s top speed on paper is 70 kilometers per hour or faster than NATO third-generation MBTs and certainly faster than Russian T-series MBTs.

The MBT 3000 also features a remote weapon station for its secondary armament, a 12.7mm machine gun, and a comprehensive armor suite that brings together cage or slat panels with spaced armor plates fully enclosing the turret and hull. A detection/protection system for intercepting incoming projectiles such as rockets or missiles is also available for the MBT 3000. The exact cost per unit for Norinco’s best designed tank can’t be determined at the moment (the best estimates price it below $5 million each) but end users can order a small batch of as few as 50 tanks before ordering hundreds more for delivery within two years.

For the Pakistan Army to acquire a large number of MBT 3000’s makes sense if they’re anticipating combat against the Indian Army’s Arjun Mk. II and T-90M tanks when these enter service. However, the arrival of MBT 3000’s could hamper further adoption of the Al Khalid and Al Khalid I. The latter packs a new Ukrainian engine and vehitronics to enhance is combat effectiveness and is on par with the T-72B/T-72B3. The Al Khalid I still lags behind the emerging generation of battle tanks that maximize crew awareness and protection. Examples of these are the Israeli Merkava 4, the Russian T-14, and the South Korean K2 Black Panther. If further improvements on the Al Khalid I are due these should span a hard kill protective system for taking out incoming projectiles and a new layout for carrying a lot of extra armor panels.

In the first half of March 2021 large-scale field exercises took place near the border with India. The occasion revealed how many older tanks remain in use with the army such as the Type 59M–an upgraded variant armed with a rifled 105mm gun–as well as the Type 69-IIMP and the Type 85-II. The best estimates put the army’s tank fleet at 2,000 plus with half being Type 59/69s or upgraded Al Zarrars while the rest are the combination of Type 85-II, T-80UD, and Al Khalids. This is no match for the Indian Army’s estimated 2,400 T-72 Ajeya and 1,600 T-90S’ plus less than 200 Arjun Mk. I’s. Four decades since its last armored clashes with India the army still lacks an effective anti-tank capability besides M113’s repurposed as tank destroyers with Baktar Shikans–locally made copies of the Chinese HJ-8 ATGM–when missiles and loitering munitions able to fly beyond the line of sight are optimal for mechanized warfare.

Pakistan’s military always struck a good balance when it comes to soliciting help from allies for material support and stretching its budget. But the army is no doubt aware its present arsenal can only last so long and keeping its thousands of Chinese-made tanks won’t alter the balance with India.

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