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Rumours Abound of Large Sino-Pakistan Armour Deal

China’s state-owned newspaper, the Global Times, reports that China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO) will deliver two customized VT4 main battle tanks (MBT) to an undisclosed customer.

This will be NORINCO’s third VT4 customer, following Thailand and Nigeria.

Online sources in both Pakistan and China claim that the VT4s are for the Pakistan Army (PA), which might have ordered these tanks alongside SH-15 self-propelled howitzers (SPH) from China in 2018 or 2019.

Pakistan’s Armour Acquisitions

In 2016, analysts forecasted that Pakistan would spend $4-5 billion US on new armoured vehicles by 2024. The leading programs would have been new MBTs, armoured personnel carriers (APC), self-propelled mortar carriers, and SPHs of various types (e.g., wheeled and tracked). Between 2016 and 2017, the Army tested equipment from China, Ukraine, South Africa, South Korea, and other countries.

In light of its fiscal challenges, Pakistan was unlikely to commit to all of its projected programs, but it seems the PA proceeded with the Haider MBT and wheeled SPH programs in 2019. Confirmation will not come until the PA announces these orders itself, but Quwa is confident of the veracity of the online reports.

Haider Main Battle Tank

In 2015-2016, the Pakistan Army held trials for off-the-shelf MBTs under its “Haider” program. NORINCO’s VT4 took part in the trials along with the Kharkiv Morozov Machine Building Design Bureau (KMDB) Oplot-P MBT from Ukraine. The Polish PT16 was also considered. In 2017, a Pakistani official said that the Army would buy 100 MBTs off-the-shelf.

The VT4 won those trials, but NORINCO told media in late 2018 that it had not yet signed a deal. If reports of NORINCO’s newly built VT4s going to Pakistan are accurate, then a deal was likely signed in 2019.

Sources say that the Pakistan Army committed to roughly 300 VT4s from NORINCO thus far, with a first batch of 176 units for $859 million US on order. The Army will order additional batches in the near future.

The cost figures suggest that Pakistan paid $4.8 million US per tank, which is close in range to the $5.07 million US per tank Thailand paid for its VT4s. Pakistan’s VT4/Haider MBT deliveries will likely conclude around the time Heavy Industry Taxila’s (HIT) al-Khalid 2 (AK2) enters production, i.e., the mid-2020s.

The AK2 will be the PA’s next-generation mainstay MBT, but due to multiple factors, the AK2 suffered a protracted development period. In turn, the PA is acquiring an MBT off-the-shelf, perhaps as a stopgap.

The 2017-2018 MoDP yearbook states that the AK2 is in the “final stages” of development, and will have a “powerful power pack” and the “latest/modern fire control system/gun system.”[1] The AK2 is expected to feature a 1,500 hp engine and, potentially, upgrades to its armour, electronics and other weapons.

HIT has and, until the AK2 is complete, will continue to manufacture the al-Khalid I MBT, a more modest upgrade of the al-Khalid. HIT delivered 20 al-Khalid I MBTs in 2017-2018 and 16 in 2016-2017.[2] With about 200 6TD-2 engines on order from Ukraine, Pakistan is expected to acquire around 200 al-Khalid I tanks.

However, with the Army apparently investing in the support infrastructure for the VT4 (i.e., a major cost), Pakistan can feasibly acquire additional VT4s as well. HIT may also draw on the VT4’s technologies for use on the AK2. The VT4 and al-Khalid-series share the same base platform (Type 90-II), thus commonality in composite armour, electronics, transmission and/or engine technology is plausible. In fact, if Pakistan is the single largest buyer of the VT4, it could leverage that status to access inputs for the AK2.

The VT4 reportedly weighs 52 tons. It is armed with a 125 mm smoothbore gun, 12.7 mm remote weapon station (RWS), and 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun. The VT4 uses a 1,300 hp turbocharged diesel engine. It is manned by three crew members, and is configurable with explosive reactive armour (ERA).

The latest VT4 variant, which Pakistan could be getting, leverages FY-IV-level ERA, which offer enhanced protection against high-explosive anti-tank and armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot warheads.

The Self-Propelled Howitzer Program

In 2016, the Pakistan Army also tested wheeled 155 mm/52-caliber self-propelled howitzers (SPH) from China (SH-15), South Africa (Denel T5-52), and Serbia (NORA B-52). The NORINCO SH15 won those trials as well, but like the VT4, it was unclear if the Army actually ordered those SPHs.

However, given how the Army acquired 1,332 VLAP shells (without any of its older artillery being able to use those shells),[3] it may have ordered the SH15 as well. When the Army was evaluating its options, MoDP officials were quoted saying Pakistan could acquire 500 SPHs, with 400 units built under license at HIT.

In 2019, there was a rumour of Pakistan acquiring 236 SH15s, but Quwa was unable to confirm numbers or cost. However, based on the MoDP’s statements in 2017, an initial order of 100 SH15s is plausible.

The Army settled its tracked SPH requirements by acquiring used M109Ls from Italy through Leonardo – it received 99 in 2017-2019 and 31 in 2019. Leonardo is also offering an upgrade package that would allow older M109 variants to fire V-LAP shells, which offer a range of 50 km. Pakistan reportedly expressed interest in the Turkish T-155 Firtina as well, so new-built systems are also an option.[4]

Pakistan also tested the Hanwha Corporation KH179 from South Korea in 2017. The KH179 is a towed 155 mm howitzer. It weighs 6.9 tons and offers a firing range of 30 km with standard shells. However, the Army has not publicly followed-up with any purchases of towed howitzers.

Other Armour Programs Are Uncertain

In 2015-2016, the Pakistan Army had intended to acquire 8×8 armoured fighting vehicles (AFV), a 120 mm self-propelled mortar carrier, and tracked infantry fighting vehicles (IFV).

In addition to foreign OEMs, local vendors offered various solutions as well. In 2018, HIT revealed the Viper, an upgraded variant of the M113-based Talha it was manufacturing. In 2016, Cavalier Group offered its 8×8 Hamza Multirole Combat Vehicle (MCV). However, the Army has not accepted either product.

Both budgetary constraints and inadequate performance of the proposed models may have driven the PA to shelve those programs, at least for the time being. If it successfully completes its off-the-shelf MBT and SPH acquisitions from China, it may restart its IFV and AFV efforts. In turn, it can rework either of those or both platforms into self-propelled mortar carriers, among other applications.

What is Driving Pakistan’s Armour Procurement?

Pakistan’s main concern is that it still operates a large inventory of legacy or obsolete armoured vehicles, with models such as the T-59 and T-69 still forming a sizable chunk of its forces.

Thus, the main benefit of the VT4 is that it would supplant these older tanks in a shorter timeframe than HIT with its al-Khalid and al-Zarrar series of MBTs. Moreover, HIT is also busy with considerable upgrade work, such as the T-85IIAP and, if the Army finalizes a package, the T-80UD.

However, replacing old tanks is only one part of the problem. The other issue is India’s progress in raising the quality of its armour, and its work to construct “integrated battle groups” (IBG). The IBGs are basically composite forces consisting of tanks, artillery, infantry and various aviation assets. Their main goal is to rapidly thrust into enemy territory, ideally before the enemy is in a position to counter the IBGs.

With the VT4, Pakistan is adding a tank with newer armour technology and electronics than its current set of MBTs. The VT4 is also said to include a network-enabled warfare capability wherein tank commanders can share data with other tank and armoured vehicle commanders in real-time.[5] In fact, NORINCO states that the VT-4 can operate a combat group comprising of tanks and other armoured vehicles.[6]

In a sense, it seems as though the Pakistan Army is setting-up its own composite forces analogous to IBGs, or at least forces that can counter those IBGs. The VT4s can share data – such as target location, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) feeds, etc – with other tanks and/or fire-support assets, such as IFVs armed with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and tank destroyers. In turn, the situational awareness (in theory) may allow IFVs to do a better job at attacking targets while, potentially, avoiding threats.

The Army had expressed interest in ATGM-armed IFVs, which is why HIT proposed the M113-based Viper in 2018. It is unclear if the Army will proceed with the Viper, or seek a clean-sheet design from China or another source. However, the Army’s interest in such a concept is a sign that it is looking to evolve how it uses its supporting armour in the future. The Army may start implementing changes before 2025.

In terms of artillery, the SH-15 would offer an additional coverage option to the Army. Basically, the Army already has a long-range attack element in the A-100 multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), which offers a range of 100 km. With V-LAP shells, the SH-15 can cover up to 50 km. Pakistan will likely use the A-100 and SH-15 together along with its SLC-2, an S-band weapon-locating radar meant for finding enemy rocket and artillery fire. The Army also bolstered its tracked SPH capability with ex-Italian M109Ls, and it has the option of upgrading those with V-LAP shell firing capability as well.

In theory, the Army could deploy the SH15 to the Northern Areas and Line-of-Control (LoC), but it might not be able to deploy it certain zones due to a lack of road infrastructure or supporting terrain for vehicles. Thus, it will be worth seeing if the Army adds a lightweight towed howitzer, such as the NORINCO AH4 – the 155 mm/39-calibre gun weighs 4.5 tons, which is light enough for a Mi-171 to carry via sling.

The Army will likely settle its attack helicopter gap as well, either by waiting for Turkey to secure the CTS-800 turboshaft engine for the T129, or by acquiring the Z-10ME from China. Thus, a close air support (CAS) element will also come into the picture, and in turn, work in close conjunction with Pakistan’s modernized land assets. Pakistan may not field its own IBGs, but it will integrate its land and air assets. In other words, India’s IBGs could ultimately face a similarly integrated and mobile force across the border.

The one area that is less clear at this time is the Army’s mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) requirement. Pakistan sought a mobile SAM to accompany its armour and artillery deployments. In 2016, multiple vendors – including NORINCO and MBDA Italy –  submitted their bids. However, it is unclear whether the Army signed a deal for a mobile SAM. There were rumours of Pakistan expressing interest in Russia’s Pantsir system, but the current status of the mobile SAM is not known. However, given the threat India’s CAS assets (i.e., AH-64E and LCH) pose, acquiring a mobile SAM is likely a priority for the Pakistan Army.

[1] Year Book (sic) 2017-2018. Ministry of Defence Production. Government of Pakistan. 05 September 2019. URL: http://www.modp.gov.pk/frmDetails.aspx

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Daksh Nakra. “Eastern Armour: Asian spending on armoured vehicles during the next decade is likely to reach USD166 billion.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 12 January 2018.

[5] Zhao Lei. “Tank maker seeks to increase exports on land armaments.” China Daily. 05 June 2015. URL: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-06/05/content_20913353_2.htm

[6] Ibid.

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