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Pakistan Got The Best Chinese Tanks For Its Army

December 4, 2021

It’s now confirmed that new Chinese-made battle tanks are in service with Pakistan’s ground forces. A large batch of Norinco MBT 3000’s, also known as the “VT4,” participated in what the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) described as a “corps level” exercise in the Punjab region last month. MBT 3000 deliveries were confirmed in the summer of 2020 and they appeared in this year’s Armed Forces Day parade leading the older Al Khalid tanks. The army now operates four models of Chinese-made tanks–the Type 59M, the Type 69-IIMP, the Type 85-II, and the MBT 3000–alongside a growing fleet of Al Zarrars (heavily upgraded Type 59’s) and Al Khalid/I that are based on the short-lived Norinco Type 90.

Norinco has reason to keep pushing for exports of its premium battle tank now that deliveries have reached three international clients–Nigeria, Pakistan, and Thailand. Its land systems portfolio is unmatched for size and quality. The persistent myth that Chinese-made weapon systems are sub-standard falls to pieces when examining combat records going back 60 years. Many Chinese-made armaments from the 1950s, despite being copies of Soviet models, remain in working order; one must simply observe military exercises in Vietnam and North Korea to notice this. Another benefit of adopting Chinese-made weapons are the older varieties have an accessible production threshold; they are easier to manufacture for low costs and at scale. Or better yet, examine Pakistan’s own success with Chinese-made weapon systems.

The MBT 3000 or VT4 is comparable to the Russian-made T-90S in most aspects although its size and mobility are on par with the British-made Challenger 2. The networking and situational awareness it affords its crew–just three members since the main gun is fed by an autoloader–rivals the present generation of NATO battle tanks. The protective features of the MBT 3000 are interesting, thick rubber side skirts protect the hull’s flanks, but the turret mixes spaced panels, reactive plates, and bars/slats for 360 degree protection. Norinco has developed its own “hard kill” active protection system for tanks but it’s not confirmed if Pakistan’s MBT 3000’s have this installed. Aside from a coaxial machine gun the turret of the MBT 3000 mounts a single remote controlled W85 heavy machine gun with a day/night sight. (A copy of the same weapon is made by the POF.) Although Pakistan’s state-owned Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) assembles and overhauls different kinds of tanks a remote controlled weapon station is absent in its recent efforts.

No other country in the world offers as many tanks for export as China does with Norinco. During this year’s Air Show China, also known as the Zhuhai Air Show, held in late September only two models were promoted at an outdoor demonstration while an amphibious tank was displayed indoors. These were the VT4 and the VT5, the latter is an export variant of the PLA’s new Type 15 “mountain” tank. But in 2018 five different tanks were offered by Norinco under the VT-series. As with many Chinese military products their branding tends to overlap and may confuse the reader. Here are the different tank models for export: the VT1 formerly known as the MBT 2000, the VT2/VT2B that’s an upgraded Type 85-II or Type 96, the VT3 that’s a comprehensive upgrade of the Type 59/69, the VT4 or the MBT 3000, and finally the VT5 light tank.

Norinco manufactures and exports other combat vehicles with the same firepower as a tank. There’s the “ZBD 2000” amphibious combat vehicle that mounts a small tank turret armed with a 105mm main gun. The PTL-02, which utilizes a wheeled 6×6 vehicle, and the ST3, which utilizes a wheeled 8×8 vehicle, each have 105mm main guns and are well-suited for armies who need direct and indirect fires to support their infantry. Pakistan’s rationale for adding a few hundred MBT 3000’s to its tank fleet may seem baffling since its military-industrial sector assembles Al Zarrars and Al Khalid I’s but the potential sale of Russian-made T-90MS battle tanks for the Indian Army and the further assembly of Arjun Mk. II’s could have influenced the decision. The “corps level” exercises in mid-November had MBT 3000’s driving over terrain that will be fought over should a full-scale offensive against Pakistan ever take place. The arrival of the MBT 3000’s coincides with other deliveries from China including drones, frigates, and air defense systems in what looks like a deliberate policy to strengthen a long-term ally versus India. Turkey and Ukraine, who each have world-class land systems catalogs, are two other countries involved with Pakistan’s military-industrial sector.

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