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Pakistan’s 2021: Chinese Solutions & Original Projects Take Lead

In 2021, Pakistan cemented its defence modernization strategy through the dual methodology of buying off-the-shelf Chinese solutions and developing original projects, either indigenously or with partners. The latter have typically been either China or Turkey.

Thus far, it seems that Pakistan is employing off-the-shelf and original programs in complementary ways. Ultimately, the requirements of each service arm and factors such as cost, technical complexity, partner support, and accessibility to existing solutions determine the route of each use case.

Pakistan Army

Though inducted in late 2020, the VT4 main battle tank (MBT) was the Pakistan Army’s (PA) most notable off-the-shelf purchase. China’s Norinco Group continued delivering additional VT4 MBT batches to the PA through 2021. However, from the onset of the program (once dubbed ‘Haider’) the VT4 was supposed to be a complementary solution to the domestically-built al-Khalid series.

The al-Khalid series is an original project, albeit based on Norinco’s MBT-2000 platform. However, the PA made many changes to the design to shape the al-Khalid into a distinct system, especially in terms of the engine, sighting systems and other electronics. Nonetheless, the leading partner of the al-Khalid series is China, which supplies some of the tank’s sub-assemblies to Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT).

Pakistan is still investing in the al-Khalid series. The Chairman of HIT, Maj. Gen. Aamir Raza, said, “we will also be producing a newer upgraded version of al-Khalid series based on…VT4 technology.” This statement suggests that the al-Khalid 2 will draw on the VT4, though the specifics of how are not yet known.

In terms of new MBTs, it seems that both off-the-shelf and original projects will form the future mainstay of the PA’s inventory. In fact, it seems that the PA is trying to build some commonality between the VT4 and al-Khalid 2, which could help simplify maintenance and logistics.

However, the PA is also working on several more indigenous original projects. These include a 155 mm towed-howitzer gun and, reportedly, a continuation of the Viper infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). Produced by HIT, the Viper IFV is based on the M113, which HIT has been manufacturing under license for decades.

The advantage of leveraging the M113 for the Viper IFV is that the PA can re-use existing production and support infrastructure while adding a net-new capability. This is a critical gain because the PA would induct the Viper IFV in large numbers to revamp its mechanized infantry formations.

Finally, Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) is developing two original rifles: BW20 and BW21. The two new designs rely on roller-delayed blowback mechanisms, which the PA trusts. However, POF’s aiming to bring new capability improvements on both the production and utilization fronts through the BW-series.

These projects provide the PA with the ingredients to modernize its infantry and armour at scale, and, as importantly, at an affordable cost. It seems that when it comes to quantitatively large procurement, the PA is leveraging as much of its existing infrastructure, training doctrines and other elements as possible.

That said, the PA’s modernization roadmap is still incomplete. Due to its difficulties working with the U.S., the PA was unable to secure either the AH-1Z Viper or T129 ATAK as it had intended. For the T129, the PA gave Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) multiple extensions to secure export licenses for the engines from Washington. The last known extension – for six months – was given in March 2021. Quwa expects the PA to act upon its next available option in 2022 as new attack helicopters were a pre-established need since 2012.

The next alternative would be the Chinese Z-10ME. However, no matter the route, it seems that Pakistan will likely opt for an off-the-shelf solution for its future attack and, potentially, transport helicopter needs. Unlike the armoured, artillery or small arms programs, the PA’s helicopter needs are not large enough to warrant domestic production. Moreover, the fact that an off-the-shelf solution still exists (Z-10ME) does not necessitate the need to invest in an original project or joint ventures with TAI.

Pakistan Navy

In 2021, the Pakistan Navy (PN) made major modernization inroads across surface, sub-surface, aviation, and special mission applications. Like the PA, the PN is employing a mix of off-the-shelf procurement and original projects. However, both approaches heavily involve both China and Turkey.

The lead piece of the PN’s surface warship modernization plan is the Chinese Type 054A/P frigate. Named the Tughril-class frigate, the PN ordered four ships in 2017 and 2018. As for 2021, all four ships are at sea, either for trials or – in the case of the lead ship – commissioning in the PN.

In August, Istanbul Naval Shipyard launched the PN’s first MILGEM – i.e., Babur-class – corvette. Like the Type 054A/P, the MILGEM is also an off-the-shelf acquisition, but Karachi Shipyards & Engineering Works (KSEW) will build two of the four ships. However, a key piece of the PN MILGEM program centers on the design, development, and production of an original frigate – i.e., the Jinnah-class.

Currently, the PN has four Type 054A/P and four MILGEMs in its roadmap. There was a news report about the PN having two Jinnah-class frigates on order as well. Under the PN’s goal for 20 “major surface vessels” the Jinnah-class frigate will likely form the mainstay of the PN’s future surface warship purchases.

The Hangor is the PN’s principal sub-surface program. Equipped with an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, the Hangor is likely the S26, the export variant of the Type 039A.

The PN has eight boats on order, with production split between China and Pakistan. KSEW cut the steel of its first boat, which would be the fifth Hangor of the program, in December 2021. Thus, the first four boats could arrive through 2022-2023, as originally scheduled. This would more-than-double the PN’s flotilla of AIP-equipped submarines by joining the three Agosta 90Bs (which are being upgraded).

Though not as openly discussed, the PN also has a shallow-water attack submarine (SWATS) requirement. It is unclear how the PN is approaching this program. In 2016, it seemed that the SWATS could be a joint-venture with Turkey (i.e., an original program). However, Quwa learned that the SWATS – while smaller at 500-700-tons displacement – is functionally a fully-capable AIP-equipped boat. It is different from the PN’s ‘midget submarine’ program, which is aimed at replacing the Cosmos MG110s.

That said, it seems that the ‘midget submarine’ is an original project. Previous reports from the Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) listed the production of one as a goal.

Arguably, the Sea Sultan long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) program is the PN’s highest profile original project. Initiated in 2018, the Sea Sultan LRMPA is likely a result of the PN not finding sufficiently capable, ready-made solutions off-the-shelf. Thus, as a result, the PN had to pursue an original project in partnership with South Africa’s Paramount Group and Italy’s Leonardo. The Sea Sultan LRMPA will be able to carry out anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-ship warfare (AShW), and airborne early warning (AEW) missions. However, the specific feature-set and capabilities of the Sea Sultan are not yet known.

Like the PA, the PN will round-out its near-term modernization roadmap with the acquisition of ASW off-the-shelf helicopters for the Tughril-class frigates and Babur-class corvettes. Focus is likely on the Tughril-class frigate as those ships will enter PN service sooner. Given that the Tughril-class frigates largely (if not entirely) use Chinese sensors, weapons, and subsystems, the PN will likely opt for Chinese helicopters.

The PN may take a different approach with the Babur-class corvettes and Jinnah-class frigates, especially as those ships will use Turkish and Western subsystems.

Pakistan Air Force

The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter is the cornerstone of its modernization and capability growth. Through a joint-venture with Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the JF-17 is an original program centered on the requirements of the PAF.

In 2021, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) delivered the final batches of the 26 twin-seat JF-17Bs the PAF ordered. AVIC and PAC also started production work on the first set of JF-17 Block-3 fighters as well. Thus far, the PAF is committed to procuring 30 Block-3s instead of the 50 it had originally planned for, but this does not preclude Air Headquarters (AHQ) from ordering additional batches in the future.

Like the PA and PN, it seems that the PAF is complementing its original project with an off-the-shelf fighter purchase. On December 29, Pakistan’s Minister of Interior, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, announced that the PAF will induct J-10s. The PAF has yet to speak on the matter, but AHQ was generally open about the need for another fighter type for years. In 2017, then PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman said, “Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.”

None of the later CAS backtracked from this view. Thus, an off-the-shelf fighter purchase seemed like an eventuality for several years. Granted, the most realistic option was the Chinese J-10C, so the fact that it was seemingly selected is also not a surprise.

That said, the PAF would not add an entirely new fighter type to its fleet without planning for at least 80 to 90 units. Whenever it bought fighters using national funds – e.g., Mirage III/5, F-6, F-16, F-7 and JF-17 – the PAF always committed to 80-90+ aircraft. Thus, no matter how small the initial J-10CE order is, the PAF is likely aiming to build a larger fleet through the 2020s and early 2030s.

The key will be to see how the PAF balances the off-the-shelf purchases with the procurement of JF-17s, especially the Block-3. If the J-10CE and Block-3 are meant for different roles, then – funds permitting – the PAF will likely work to induct both in optimal numbers. However, if the PAF is seeking the J-10CE to take on some of the roles intended for the Block-3, then the production cut to 30 may be permanent.

That said, the PAF will likely work to upgrade the JF-17 Block-1s and Block-2s. This way, even if it cuts the order of new Block-3s, it can still add the Block-3’s key features – e.g., helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar – across tis workhorse fleet.

Finally, an off-the-shelf fighter purchase will likely steer the PAF’s next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) hopes to less ambitious avenues. Whereas the PAF had originally spoke about developing its own fighter under ‘Project AZM,’ it may ultimately move towards rolling AZM into a joint-venture or consortium with China or Turkey. The latter said it had been talking to Pakistan about working in the TFX/MMU.

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