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Pakistan Inducts Batch of al-Khalid-I Tanks

On 28 July 2020, Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) handed over a batch of al-Khalid-I main battle tanks (MBT) to an Armoured Corps Regiment of the Pakistan Army (PA).

The Pakistani armed forces’ media arm, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), did not detail exactly how many al-Khalid I MBTs HIT delivered as part of the ceremony, or overall. However, according to Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) annual yearbooks dating back to 2012-2013, HIT built 45 al-Khalid-Is from 2015 to 2018. The breakdown of al-Khalid and al-Khalid-I production is as follows:

  • 2012-2013: 04 al-Khalid.[1]
  • 2013-2014: 15 al-Khalid.[2]
  • 2014-2015: 02 al-Khalid.[3]
  • 2015-2016: 03 al-Khalid and 09 al-Khalid-I.[4]
  • 2016-2017: 16 al-Khalid-I.[5]
  • 2017-2018: 20 al-Khalid-I.[6]

Since the MoDP did not yet release its report for 2018-2019, HIT will have built additional al-Khalid-I MBT. However, it is evident that there are now enough al-Khalid-Is to form at least one frontline unit. The ISPR’s video seems to show the insignia of the PA’s 25th Mechanized Division in the background. The 25th Mechanized Division is based in Malir, Karachi, which could indicate a role in the Thar Desert for these al-Khalid-I MBTs.

Background: Al-Khalid-I

The al-Khalid-I – which is short for ‘al-Khalid Improved’ – is an iterative upgrade of the al-Khalid MBT, itself a customized variant of the NORINCO MBT-2000. The al-Khalid-series is manufactured by Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) in Pakistan. Pakistan initiated development of the al-Khalid with technical support from China and Ukraine in the 1990s, and the al-Khalid MBT entered service with the Pakistan Army in 2001. Between the al-Khalid and al-Khalid-I, the PA has at least 369 al-Khalid MBTs. In 2016, Jane’s Defence Weekly stated that Pakistan operates 400 al-Khalid MBTs.[7]

Compared to the al-Khalid, the al-Khalid-I features multiple changes, which include a different head-mirror stabilized gunner sight with dual-6x to 10x magnification and a 10° to 6° field-of-view (FoV). The preceding al-Khalid MBT uses a sight with 3x to 10x magnification and 20° to 6° FoV.[8]

In addition, the al-Khalid-I also comprises of feature additions, such as air conditioning, a solid-state auto-loader (SSAL), improved muzzle reference system, and improved radiation detector. HIT adds that the al-Khalid-I also offers “enhanced protection against smart ammo and other forms of top attacks,” indicating the use of an improved self-protection system (it is unclear if it is active or passive).[9]

Otherwise, the al-Khalid-I is identical to the al-Khalid. Like its preceding variant, the al-Khalid-I uses a 125 mm main smoothbore gun, welded steel armour with a composite layer, explosive reactive armour (ERA), and a 1,200 hp 6TD-2 diesel engine from Ukraine, among other subsystems.[10]

In 2016, the MoDP and HIT signed a contract with Ukroboronprom for 200 6TD-2s for both new-build al-Khalid-I MBTs as well as overhaul and upgrade work for some older tanks. It is unclear how many of those engines will go towards new MBTs, but a minimum of 100 new al-Khalid-Is is guaranteed. In fact, publicly available export and import registries repeatedly mention a contract to manufacture 110 al-Khalid-I tanks.

HIT’s al-Khalid and al-Zarrar series are among the Army’s mainstay MBTs. The al-Khalid-series was to drive the PA’s high-tech element in terms of tanks, and with an annual production capacity of 50 tanks per year, the Army had likely intended to acquire and export these MBTs in large numbers.

HIT is Manufacturing Below Capacity

Pakistan has not been able to achieve either its export ambitions with the al-Khalid MBT, nor the necessary production output to urgently replace its older tanks. Though the counterinsurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism (CT) struggles of the late 2000s and early 2010s may have played a role in diverting procurement resources, there seems to be a more systemic issue plaguing al-Khalid production than simply funding.

First, HIT has not manufactured more than 15-20 al-Khalid-Is per year. In 2017, HIT stated that it was only manufacturing 18 al-Khalid-Is per year due to “budgetary constraints.” It did not elaborate on whether it was an issue of insufficient procurement funding, or lack of money for improving the production site.

However, in May 2020, multiple sources confirmed to Quwa that the PA ordered 176 NORINCO VT4 MBTs for $859 million US, with plans for a total of approximately 300 tanks. Clearly, funding – and in foreign or hard-currency no less – does exist, yet that money did not translate into increasing HIT’s al-Khalid output.

Second, the PA’s decision to import tanks may signal either a lack of confidence in the current al-Khalid-I model in terms of features and capabilities, or some other inability on the part of HIT. Importing a tank is a significant step, especially as acquiring an al-Khalid could have saved $2.5 million to $3.0 million USD in hard/foreign-currency flows per tank. If extrapolated across 100 tanks, that would have been $250 million to $300 million USD in savings, a critical benefit for a country with a balance-of-payments (BoP) problem. Moreover, because the al-Khalid relies on some measure of local industry input, investing in its production could have acted as a stimulus for the Pakistani economy, i.e., support jobs, local manufacturers, etc.

One explanation may be that the PA desired an enhanced capability set that was not available in the al-Khalid-I. However, the PA would have received an upgraded package through the al-Khalid-2, which is to be the first major update to the al-Khalid-series.

The al-Khalid-2 is slated to include a 1,500 hp diesel engine. It will likely include improvements to armour, transmission, and other inputs, though HIT has yet to reveal the exact nature of these changes. Turkey’s Aselsan said that it offered Pakistan its integrated suite for next-generation MBTs. This suite includes new targeting sights, fire control computer, sensors, turret design and configuration, battlefield management, situational awareness solutions, and even assistance with armour design and technology.[11]

Thus, an enhanced capability set would have come, albeit at a later timeframe than the VT4. In this case, the reason for the VT4 would have been both enhanced capability and urgency, the PA could not have resolved both issues by focusing on purely the al-Khalid-I.

One other reason could be that the necessary upgrades for HIT – which had included plans for automating most, if not all, of the production line – will take time and, potentially, limit al-Khalid-series production for several years. According to export-and-import registries, HIT is importing equipment that may contribute to an automated facility, such as a “welding robot workstation for turret and hulls.”

Thus, to fill that gap, the PA sought the VT4 from China. Being an interim solution ahead of the al-Khalid-2, the VT4 may also help the PA develop practical steps for training for and deploying new technologies before they materialize in large numbers via the AK2.

Finally, the PA might have also tied up its resources in other programs, such as managing various rebuild, upgrade and/or repair projects. In terms of the latter, the modernization of the T-85IIAP and T-80UD are starting to take shape. In fact, upgrading the T-80UD could also count as an enhanced capability gain.

Overall, the PA will hope that the AK2 materializes and, in contrast to the AK/AK-I, that it does not again deal with the constraints that capped the production output at HIT. Rather, the intended outcome of the AK2 should be to gain a high-tech MBT that is cost-effective enough for Pakistan to manufacture in large numbers (i.e., 50 units per year). This shift would enable the PA to build the mainstay of its tank inventory with an advanced, high-performance system, which might help reclaim parity with India’s armour efforts.

However, fiscal and monetary constraints will continue to be a challenge in the foreseeable future. These constraints may threaten to keep the AK2’s production output below HIT’s actual capacity. The PA could alleviate these constraint by localizing more of the al-Khalid series’ high-cost inputs, especially the engine and electronics. If the PA commits to a large, long-term order – while also stepping away from importing an equivalent MBT from overseas – it may trigger investor confidence to design and manufacture inputs. This would free HIT (and by extension, the PA) from having to spend on building and maintaining facilities to manufacture those inputs, thus making more cash available for procurement (instead of overhead).

[1] Annual Yearbook 2012-2013. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. p.42

[2] Annual Yearbook 2013-2014. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. p.34

[3] Annual Yearbook 2014-2015. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. p.43

[4] Annual Yearbook 2015-2016. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. p.53

[5] Annual Yearbook 2016-2017. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. p.59

[6] Annual Yearbook 2016-2017. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. p.68

[7] Farhan Bokhari. “Defending the Borders.” Pakistan Briefing. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 2 November 2016.

[8] Promotional Brochure. Heavy Industries Taxila.

[9] Product Profile. Al-Khalid-I. Heavy Industries Taxila. URL: http://www.hit.gov.pk/defence-tab.php

[10] Farhan Bokhari. “Saudi Arabia to trial Al Khalid MBT.” Jane’s. 13 March 2006. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20090503164925/http://janes.com/defence/news/jdw/jdw060313_1_n.shtml

[11] Product Catalogue. Next Generation Main Battle Tank Upgrade Solutions. Aselsan. URL: https://www.aselsan.com.tr/Next_Generation_Main_Battle_Tank_Upgrade_Solutions_8232.pdf

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