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Pakistan’s Chinese Arms Purchases Start Taking Shape

The first of Pakistan’s big-ticket arms acquisitions from China are starting to take shape. From new multi-mission frigates and submarines to armoured vehicles and multi-role combat aircraft, Pakistan will induct these new systems through the 2020s. In each of these procurement streams, China is the lead supplier.

China Launches First Type 054A/P Frigate for Pakistan Navy

On 23 August 2020, the Pakistan Navy (PN) Director General of Public Relations (DGPR), Rear Admiral M. Arshid Javed, announced through social media that China Shipbuilding Trading Co., Ltd. (CSTC) launched Pakistan’s first Type 054A/P frigate at the Hudong Zhonghua Shipyard.

Pakistan ordered four Type 054A/Ps in 2017 and 2018. CSTC cut the steel of the first two frigates in 2018, with the second two ships following in 2019. It laid the keel of the second ship in April 2020. According to the press releases at the time Pakistan signed its contracts, the PN was to receive all four ships by 2021.[1]

The PN’s Type 054A/P is largely similar to its counterpart in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the Type 054A. However, the PN did request several modifications, such as a new main search radar. The PN may also equip its frigates with a different anti-ship missile, potentially the Harbah dual-land-attack and anti-ship cruising missile (LACM/ASCM) or the forthcoming supersonic-cruising ASCM.

With a displacement of around 4,000 tons, the Type 054A/P will be the largest surface combatant the PN will have operated in its history. In addition to standard-fare anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-ship warfare (AShW) capabilities (which are available on existing PN assets), the Type 054A/P will deliver area-wide anti-air warfare (AAW) coverage. This will come through the form of 32 vertical-launch system (VLS) cells, which will house a medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM), likely the HQ-16.

The PN also ordered eight air-independent propulsion (AIP)-equipped submarines from China. Designated the Hangor-class, the PN did not disclose the specific design or model of its submarines. However, Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW) displayed a model of the Hangor with some of its specifications.

Specifications of the new Hangor-class submarine presented by Karachi Shipyards & Engineering Works (KSEW) at IDEAS 2018. Photo Source: Quwa


Official specifications of Thailand’s S26T submarine. Source: Quwa.

The Hangor is slightly shorter in length than the S26, the standard export model China is offering. It also has a larger displacement than the S26. However, these specifications may not reflect the final design of the submarine – both China and Pakistan have kept the details and progress of the program under wraps.

This may be due to the secretive nature of China’s submarine programs. However, China did publicize the steel-cutting ceremony of Thailand’s first S26T submarine in 2018.[2] Thus, the secrecy surrounding the PN program does seem exceptional, even by the Chinese shipbuilding industry’s standards.

The PN is currently scheduled to receive the first four Hangor-class submarines by 2023, while KSEW will manufacture the remaining four by 2028. With the first four ships due in three years, one should expect news about a launch soon, unless the PN intends to publicize the ships when it inducts them.

Overall, an interesting aspect of the PN’s modernization program is that it involves adding both qualitative capabilities and quantity. Expansion is not common, especially in a cost-sensitive country such as Pakistan, but the PN is evidently undergoing it across all domains – surface, sub-surface, and aviation.

Pakistan Army Records First VT4-Related Deliveries

According to open source export-import (EXIM) logs, the Pakistan Army’s (PA) ammunition depot at Malir Cantonment took delivery of high-explosive, anti-tank (HEAT) rounds for the VT4 main battle tank (MBT) on 10 May 2020.

This coincides with reports of VT4 MBT deliveries to the PA, which also emerged in the same month. Multiple sources told Quwa that the PA ordered 176 VT4s for $859 million US, with plans to acquire a total of 300 VT4s from NORINCO in the coming years.

Since January 2019, the PA has also been taking deliveries from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The EXIM logs did not disclose the specifics of these deliveries, except on 06 July 2020, when the PA received 150 vehicles. It is unclear what these vehicles may be, though it is possible that the PA is registering some of its deliveries with the PLAs the exporter instead of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). In fact, the PA also took delivery of 1,332 very long-range artillery projectile (V-LAP) shells in 2017-2018, so these vehicle imports may be new wheeled self-propelled howitzers (SPH).[3]

In parallel, the PA is also continuing with the induction of the al-Khalid-I (‘Improved’) MBT. On 09 August, Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) delivered a batch of al-Khalid-Is to the PA. These are part of an overall order of 110 al-Khalid-Is. From 2015 to 2018, the PA took delivery of 45 of these tanks, though by now, it should have a figure closer to 70-90 units. Though manufactured at HIT, Pakistan is still importing certain inputs from NORINCO for the al-Khalid-I. This dynamic will continue with future al-Khalid variants.

With Turkey’s inability to secure the CTS800 turboshaft engine for the T129 attack helicopter, the PA may order the Z-10ME in its place. Quwa was told the PA evaluated the Z-10ME, but this must have taken place in China, not Pakistan. It would be surprising if the PA orders that helicopter before testing it in Pakistan, especially since it is a new variant. However, if there is no alternative to take on the PA’s near-term needs, the Z-10ME will ultimately come, and the PA will commit to the helicopter in full (i.e., sizable numbers and support infrastructure with maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility).

Pakistan Air Force Waits for JF-17 Block-III

Currently, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is working towards inducting the JF-17 Block-III, the most significant upgrade of its mainstay multi-role fighter. Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group’s (CAIG) carried out the JF-17 Block-III’s test flight in December 2019.

Besides acknowledgement by the PAF of selecting the KLJ-7A radar for the Block-III, there have been no additional updates. Based on previously revealed information, production of the first two units had been underway since at least 2019, and they were due for delivery in 2020. From 2021 to 2024, the PAF was to receive 12 units a year.[4] It is unclear if the coronavirus pandemic has caused delays in the program, though it is possible, and this may delay the Block-III program by a factor of months.

With the Indian Air Force (IAF) now inducting the Rafale, it appears that the PAF is staking its response to the marquee French platform through the Block-III. The crux of the PAF’s response is the fusion of a new active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, integrated electronic countermeasures suite (ECM), and new long-range air-to-air missile (LRAAM). One source declined to confirm if the PAF is acquiring the PL-15, but Quwa was told that achieving and maintaining a “first-shot” capability was an essential outcome of the JF-17 Block-III, and that work to integrate the new LRAAM has been underway.

Overall, China is poised to support most of Pakistan’s big-ticket programs through the 2020s, be it imports or in-house programs (e.g., al-Khalid and JF-17). In one sense, Pakistan is leveraging China’s economies-of-scale and technology investments to acquire credible solutions at an accessible cost. However, Pakistan is also stepping into heavily relying on China, which (recalling Pakistan’s history with US sanctions) can be a concern. On the other hand, Beijing and Islamabad’s shared animosity with New Delhi may prevent such ties from corroding through the long-term, which could make heavy reliance tenable.

[1] “Pakistan Signs Contract to Acquire Two Chinese Naval Warships”. Associated Press of Pakistan. 01 June 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[2] Ridzwan Rahmat. “China cuts steel for Thailand’s first S26T submarine.” Jane’s Navy International. 04 September 2018. URL:

[3] Year Book (sic) 2017-2018. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. 05 September 2019. URL:

[4] Alan Warnes. “JF-17 Thunder – Lightning Strikes Twice.” Air International Online. 15 June 2019. URL:

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