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The Future of Pakistan’s Tank Modernization and Acquisition Programs

Dr. M. Hossain works in the defence acquisition industry in South Asia. An academic, Dr. Hossain previously worked in the US technology industry.

Armour is an important part of any modern armed forces. Since WWII, armour has played a critical role in warfare. Armoured warfare today is part of a combined arms philosophy, where the soldier is supported by tanks, artillery and close air support (CAS), while being protected by organic air defence.

The Pakistan Army (PA) is largely composed of infantry battalions with a proportionately small number of tanks and some reasonably sized artillery to support them.  Pakistan’s three major wars with India were fought with infantry having little or no supporting firepower from other arms.

In more recent counter insurgency operations, tanks and close air support played a key role. Both provided a powerful support to infantry and a major psychological advantage.

The PA thus rediscovered the importance of armour and realized that in a future conventional war, MBTs and close air support can give a major morale boost to the soldiers.

Pakistan’s first tanks were handed down from the British Indian Army. These were thirteen odd Stuart tanks, to defend a border of 5,000 miles. As the years progressed, Pakistan began to acquire US tanks. However, after the 1965 war, as Western weapons supply lines began to dry up, Pakistan began importing Chinese tanks. Starting with the T-59, Pakistan soon developed a large stock of Chinese tanks including the T-69 and T-85. Pakistan’s first indigenous tank, the Al Khalid, is itself derived from the MBT 2000, Type 90 IIM tank.

There were however, certain shortcomings of Chinese tanks. This included issues with the engines, targeting systems, transmissions and build quality. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Pakistan Army took its chances with the Ukraine, from where it sourced T-80UD tanks, and engines for its T-59 upgrade (al-Zarrar program) and in its indigenous Al Khalid program.

Current Inventory of Tanks in the PA

Pakistan’s current inventory of tanks thus includes Chinese, Ukrainian and indigenous tanks. The largest number goes to T-59 tanks, with about 1200. Of these, about 600 have been upgraded to al-Zarrar, with extensive modernization including armour, engine, gun and targeting systems. The other 600 T-59s have been upgraded to T-59 II standard, and it is planned to ultimately upgrade them to al-Zarrars.

The engine has been sourced from the Ukraine, while the Fire Control System (FCS) and Battle Management System (BMS) are locally developed, with certain parts sourced from France and China. The tank gun is indigenous, essentially based on the Chinese 125 mm gun, which itself based on Eastern European designs. The steel used in the gun was sourced originally from France, for a high velocity capability, but more recently is being manufactured locally.

The tank has also been up armoured with a new turret.  There however is a limit to how far the al-Zarrar can be modernized, as its design is dated.

Currently Pakistan has plans to continue manufacturing the Al Khalid, which uses the above mentioned locally manufactured components in addition to a newer design. This new design provides space for a 1200 hp diesel engine and for a new hull which utilizes depleted uranium and ceramics to increase protection.

A total of about 400 al-Khalids have been manufactured so far, including a handful of al-Khalid I’s. These improved al-Khalids have greater indigenization as well as minor improvements on all quarters.

Closely matching the capabilities of the al-Khalids are the T-80UDs imported from Ukraine. Total numbers imported are 320 units. This gives the Pakistan Army a total of 1300 modern tanks.

This is supported by about 270 Type 85 IIAP tanks of Chinese origin that were originally acquired as a stop gap to the al-Khalid tanks. The Type 85 IIAP also uses a 125 mm Chinese main gun. However, it has some weakness in its engines, and its FCS and BMS are slightly less capable.

Overall, the picture for MBTs stand as follows:


The Pakistan Army lacks a meaningful reserve of MBTs. Reserves are used to resupply combat units that have lost equipment in battle. This allows a combat unit to stay in the fight rather than retire and have other units continue the battle. The lack of a realistic reserve in the Pakistan Army is a curious deficiency perhaps forced by the circumstance of a deficiency in armour.

Tactics of PA Armour

Type 69s and Type 59s use 105mm ammunition. This is a logistics problem and the penetration is relatively low for these rounds. As such, they make these two types essentially outdated for tank on tank warfare.

They are relegated to a more supporting role and used in the north Kashmir sector up to the Lahore sector. Finally, they are handed down to paramilitary forces to fight insurgencies. There is a pressing need to upgrade or retire these tanks.

Tactically the PA intends to use the Al Khalid and T-80UD tanks from central Punjab to Sindh. This salient is expected to see manoeuvre warfare and major tank battles due to the open terrain. Further South, the deserts of Sindh become near impassable and progress for either side is difficult. While in these conditions, major tank battles are unlikely, the superior power to weight ratio of the al-Khalid could be most useful.

The Pakistan Army is made up mainly of Infantry Divisions, with each division having a tank regiment. In terms of armoured formations, Pakistan has the 1st Armoured Division armed with T-80s in Central / South Eastern regions, 6th Armoured Division located in the Sialkot-Lahore sector, armed with al-Zarrar MBTs, 25th Mechanized Division armed with al-Khalids, located in Northern Sindh, while the 26th Mechanized is located in Southern Punjab.

Comparative Analysis

PA faces a major disadvantage in armour against the Indian Army (IA). India has above 4000 modern tanks. Pakistan has 1300-1500 comparable tanks. In addition, IA has a large number of armoured vehicles of various types, dwarfing Pakistan’s own armour capabilities.

For an army of 550,000 soldiers, PA has a miniscule number of tanks. For every 370 soldiers, there is a single tank. This is an unacceptably low number. In comparison, the Turkish Army (TSK) has 220,000 soldiers and 2200 MBTs, and double the number of armoured vehicles of the PA.

Bridging the Capabilities Gap

Across the border, India has a significantly larger army and three times the number of modern MBTs. This capability gap has been of concern to the planners in PA. The main impediment to more armour has been finances.

The near standstill slow acquisition during the PPP and PML era, caused by the corrupt looting of the nation, did irreparable damage to tank acquisition. Since 2018, the country has been slowly moving back to normalcy, and PA has again restarted upgrade of T-59s and jump started building Al Khalid tanks.

The pace of this jumpstart is about 40 tanks per year and the perceived shortage of tanks is about 500-1000. This means that it will take decades to produce the number of modern MBTs needed, even if production is ramped up.

Buying New Tanks

As such, PA is looking at purchasing additional tanks. The program for importing a new tank was designated the al-Haider project. The models tested include the T-84 Oplot and the Chinese VT-4. Due to civil war in the Ukraine, there is doubt about the ability of Ukraine to produce the required numbers of T-84s in a timely manner, while the VT-4 has quality and lack of maturity issues.

A dark horse could be the Type 99 MBT, but whether China is willing to export it remains an open question. Additionally, Chinese tank engines have not fared well in Subcontinental conditions.

A cheaper solution could be to import T-80 tanks, instead of buying a new type. However, Ukraine is short on T-80s. Pakistan could still source T-80s from Russia, which has retired the type in favour of T-72s and T-90s. It remains to be seen whether Russia would actually sell these tanks to Pakistan at a good price.

Russia’s main concern would be that Ukraine would benefit because upgrading older Russian T-80s would largely fall on subsystems from Ukraine. However, the opportunity is there, particularly in the present economic downturn which, along with US sanctions, has hit the Russian economy hard.

A side opportunity also exists in purchasing South Korea’s T-80 tanks. South Korea received these from Russia and is currently attempting to sell them. 50 T-80s are also sitting in storage in China, with no apparent use. Belarus also has about 70 it is willing to sell.

All such T-80s would need to be thoroughly upgraded and refitted with diesel engines. The latter is not a problem as Ukraine has extensive expertise in diesel conversion of the T-80 tank. In some ways, such an acquisition of T-80s would echo the Mirage acquisition and rebuild programs of the PAF.

Local Alternatives

One obvious method of dealing with the tank shortage is to increase production of al-Khalids and increase upgrade rate of the T-59s. This can be through increasing production capacity as well as by increasing the number of shifts in production. Using three shifts for production, with eight hour shifts is rare to non-existent for military production in Pakistan. The reason for this is unknown.

Increasing production also comes at the cost of the increase in costs in producing those new units. This is particularly true for the items that are imported from abroad, which require expending valuable foreign exchange. This financial burden can be mitigated if certain high cost elements are re-evaluated.

For instance, the thermal sights for the al-Khalid are imported from France at an exorbitant cost. There is an equivalent Russian alternative that is cheaper, and even cheaper alternatives from China. Other alternatives are available such as from South Korea and Turkey.

Another solution can be found in acquiring tank destroyers. This has been a historical solution for forces facing a lopsided tank battle. This can be in the form of an up-rated IFV like the Viper, based on an enlarged M113 chassis. Another solution is acquiring second-hand T-59s from China, armed with a 125mm main gun and ATGMs, essentially an outsourced al-Zarrar equivalent.

The al-Khalid and Future Tank Programs

The al-Khalid tank is Pakistan’s best tank, and a pride of the nation. Weighing 46 tons and powered with a 1200 hp diesel engine. It has a high power to weight ratio for a diesel tank. With an advanced gun stabilization system and thermal sights, the al-Khalid is designed to fight at range and speed.

The al-Khalid I program improved upon the original and is currently in production. It was developed in 2009. The al-Khalid 1 is equipped with a locally developed Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA), which is lighter than the Russian Kontact-5 yet more effective.

In the future, an al-Khalid II is predicted with a 1500 hp diesel engine and an active protection system. If no new tanks are acquired from abroad, it is likely that the al-Khalid will slowly become the mainstay of the Pakistan Army armoured corps.

However, there may be an increasing requirement to develop a new tank design that incorporates new concepts that cannot be explored with old tank designs. This includes building tanks with a remote turret like the Russian T-14 Armata and building a tank from the ground up to face ATGMs and airborne threats.

The latter would require an effort from the design stage to improve top armour, which are negligently thin in present designs. Yet another issue, which Western and Russian tanks do not face, and which is a lesser concern even for Chinese tanks, is heat dissipation /absorption.

For local conditions, developing a way to decrease heat absorptions and dissipation is critical as metal tanks in the desert often end up seconding as a large oven. A new design that is customized to the needs of the local environment would perhaps be a solution for the longer term, perhaps post 2030.


Tanks play an important role in war. The Pakistan Armed Forces has deficiency in tank numbers and is attempting to find ways to mitigate this deficiency. Among the solutions is to increase local production and up-gradation of tanks. Another solution is to buy tanks from abroad, perhaps upgraded T-80s from a diversity of sources.

Whatever the method, there is a recognition of the need to increase tank numbers. The identified requirement gap is for an extra 500-1000 tanks. This need is particularly pressing as the politics vis-a-vis India, where a neo-Nazi totalitarian regime is constantly pressing for genocide and war against Muslims.

Perhaps the best approach is to engage all fronts – increase the number of T-80sUDs, al-Zarrars, import al-Zarrar equivalents and build more al-Khalids. Such a multi-faceted solution would have low visibility vis-a-vis India, as no major purchases would be noticeable. Finally, in the longer term Pakistan may need to consider designing an al-Khalid replacement, perhaps somewhere in the 2030s.

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