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Why is Pakistan procuring an off-the-shelf tank?

Introduction

On January 06 photos emerged purporting that a NORINCO VT4 main battle tank (MBT) was in Pakistan, ostensibly for trials for an apparent Pakistan Army bid for an off-the-shelf MBT to augment its growing – albeit slowly – force of Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) al-Khalid MBTs. Ukraine’s Oplot MBT is expected to compete for this bid, with the Malyshev Factory confirming in August 2017 that an Oplot unit was being prepared for delivery to Pakistan for trials.[1] Details regarding the bid, especially the required number of MBTs, have not been disclosed, but in an interview with the Ukrainian newspaper Delovaya Stolitsa, the Pakistani Ambassador to Ukraine – Major General (retired) Athar Abbas – said Pakistan could procure at least 100 MBTs (in the context of the Oplot trials).[2] However, these details are tentative.

Technically, the VT4 and Oplot possess a series of improvements over HIT’s al-Khalid. In certain terms, this includes electronics through the incorporation of new-generation optronic sights, laser-designators, new battlefield management systems (BMS) and ability to fire anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). The VT4 and Oplot are also equipped with active protection suites (APS), potentially with hard-kill systems that could provide kinetic defensibility against incoming projectiles. There are likely to be improvements in armour as well, but it is difficult to quantify this as details in this regard are not publicly disclosed. However, with HIT appealing to Pakistan’s Senate Committee on Defence Production about budgetary constraints cutting its al-Khalid annual production output from 50 to 18, Pakistan’s pursuit of an off-the-shelf tank is curious.

There is certainly a sense that Pakistan has many MBTs to replace, which could necessitate both domestic production and imports, but HIT is not even at full-capacity output. Thus, a purchase from China or Ukraine at this stage could be an order being taken away from HIT. However, HIT announced that it was proceeding with the al-Khalid II MBT. Understanding that a substantial upgrade – essentially a new development track – could require years in the way of design, development, testing and qualifications, could this off-the-shelf MBT purchase be a bridge to the al-Khalid II? First, while it would be an unfortunate import, it would see funding diverted to a more advanced platform, whereas procuring additional al-Khalid I – while improving upon the T-59 and T-69 – would be at risk of obsolescence in three to five years. The VT4 and Oplot would not have this issue. Second, leveraging an off-the-shelf purchase to pull technology support for developing the al-Khalid II, accelerating the lead-time ahead of the MBT’s induction. Third, the off-the-shelf purchase could be relatively small as the qualitative gains of a new-generation MBT along with efforts to procure new close air support (CAS) assets (e.g. attack helicopters), guided multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) could mitigate the need for quantity.

Pursuit of a Next Generation Main Battle Tank

The technological differences – e.g. electronics subsystems such as communications, navigation, optronic sights, etc – notwithstanding, the VT4 and Oplot-M are in the same general weight and power-class as the al-Khalid. The VT4 and Oplot-M are marginally heavier at 52 and 51 tons, respectively, compared to the al-Khalid I’s 46-48 tons. Like the al-Khalid, they are powered by 1,200 hp diesel engines.

While there are limits in terms of the MBT options available to Pakistan, seeing Pakistan narrow the Haider to this weight-class may have also been an issue of operational requirements. Some might be familiar with the widespread recount of why the Pakistan Army eschewed the option of procuring the M1 Abrams from the U.S. in the late 1980s. Weighing 60+ tons, the common narrative was that the M1 (alongside its new variants the M1A1 and M1A2) was ‘too heavy’ for Pakistan’s desert sands, with another account claiming that the M1’s engine did not sustain Pakistan’s hot-temperature environments.

These might have been contributing factors, but the decisive cause was likely the fact that the M1 Abrams was markedly costlier than the T-59 or T-72-inspired T-85IIAP. Besides procurement cost, there is also the issue of maintenance costs (compared to the Chinese T-59) and the general infrastructure in the region not sustaining the M1 Abrams’ weight (e.g. the dearth of suitable static and mobile bridges). Heading the M1 or heavyweight MBT route would have likely necessitated more than just procuring the tank and its maintenance infrastructure. It would have required altering the combat environment – requiring changes to other mechanized assets and infrastructure, such as bridges. Although fiscal limitations are a common story with Pakistan, even India is treading heavyweight (i.e. 60+ ton) MBTs with care – the Arjun Mk. II, while having met the Indian Army’s requirements, is still being bought in relatively limited numbers (118 currently). The Indian Army’s mainstay tanks are the T-72 and T-90-series, with the latter burgeoned into a sizable force with up to 1,000 T-90S in service and 464 T-90MS on order.[3],[4]

However, with airpower now a certain threat to the use of mass armour formations (e.g. the use of cluster guided sub-munitions), the notion that a fewer – i.e. better-protected and possibly better-armed – heavier MBTs operating in a more dispersed fashion could gain prominence in South Asia. While individually costlier to operate, armies shifting to a fewer number of MBTs could find a leaner force more economical and effective than larger formations. The U.S. – with its airpower and precision-guided munitions – has shown how smaller formations of M1A1 Abrams can defeat larger numbers of less-equipped tanks.[5] It is plausible that future offensive operations could shift to relying on fewer – i.e. heavier, better-protected and better-armed – tanks supported by attack helicopters, guided anti-tank missiles and air-launched guided bomblets with top-attack capability (e.g. CBU-97 Sensor Fuzed Weapon and analogous systems). The rationale for such a shift stems from both defensive and offensive causes: Defensively, the utility of moving a larger number of MBTs is diminishing due to enemy airpower and guided weapons. Offensively, one can rely on fewer MBTs by also leveraging airpower and guided weapons. However, it must be noted that a technically more capable and better-protected MBT need not mean a 65+ ton MBT. Pakistan’s new MBTs through the 2020s and onwards could be in the 50-57-ton range, but possess the subsystems and capabilities of heavier Western/NATO-grade MBTs.

Pakistan may not downsize its tank force, but the procurement roadmap of new-built MBTs – be it off-the-shelf or the al-Khalid-series – could be smaller in scale than anticipated. Currently, there is little to suggest that Pakistan will suddenly ramp-up the production of the al-Khalid, and the only available figures of off-the-shelf purchases are those by Maj. General (retired) Athar Abbas – i.e. 100+ tanks. With fewer MBTs required in the long-term, emphasis could be shifted to better-equipping each MBT in the way of high-quality engines, armour for hulls, explosive reactive armour (ERA), electro-optical (EO) equipment – such as thermal-vision and night-vision – and sophisticated active protective suites (APS) with soft and hard-kill measures of defence against incoming munitions. The higher cost of procurement can be offset by the lower overall operating cost of a smaller force (e.g. less fuel consumption, downsized logistics chain for the supply of spare parts and fewer engineering support vehicles to the front, such as mobile bridges).

This potential off-the-shelf MBT procurement could be the bridge for the Pakistan Army to acquire and to operationalize these subsystems in the near-term. In the context of the al-Khalid II, these subsystems may be sought for localized production in Pakistan. With a reported unit acquisition cost of $5.3 million U.S. (based on the $150 million deal with Thailand for 28 vehicles)[6], the VT4 is a descendent of the MBT-2000 platform, from which the al-Khalid is based on. In terms of specifications, the VT4’s 125-mm main gun can fire laser-guided anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) up to a range of 5,000 m along with tank shells, such as APFSDS (armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding-sabot). It uses an automatic loading system, reducing the crew-size from four to three. Both commander and gunner are provided with stabilized sight systems, each with thermal-vision and laser-rangefinder.[7] NORINCO expects the commander to identify targets and then pass the information to the gunner, who will utilize the main gun to fire either ATGM or tank shells. The VT4 uses a 1,200 hp turbocharged diesel engine. The VT4’s integrated electronics suite also comprises of an satellite-aided inertial navigation system (INS)[8], APS and battle management system (BMS).[9]

Credit must be given to NORINCO for not simply bolting various new subsystems to the VT4 MBT. Rather, NORINCO has designed an integrated package, one it explicitly states was meant to function in a network-enabled warfare environment. In a 2014 interview with China Daily, NORINCO’s deputy general manager Liu Song stated, “…the inter-unit network connects commanders of tanks and armoured vehicles under a combat group, enabling them to share battlefield data in real time.”[10] Pakistan’s al-Khalid MBT already has a BMS enabling for situational awareness in terms of friendly-unit locations (using GPS), but NORINCO seems to imply more – possibly real-time data-link with off-board sensors, such as EO equipment (e.g. video-feeds) and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) with ground-moving target-indication (GMTI). In this system, each VT4 could have a picture of moving enemy targets, enabling the tank force to maneuver and undertake relatively long-range (i.e. 4-5 km) firing using ATGMs.

These are the disclosed features. Equivalents to these subsystems (along with the integration element) can be had from other sources. The VT4’s inherent value, like that of all other tanks, rests in its hull armour and ERA technology. The exact details of this armour are confidential. Whatever the case, Pakistan would be interested in how much of an improvement the VT4’s welded steel armour and composite armour offer over that of the al-Khalid-series. Granted, NORINCO is not obliged to provide Pakistan with the means to reproduce the armour, it is a major proprietary trade-secret for tank manufacturers. But it is something Pakistan could seek by leveraging a follow-on order. Thailand currently has 38 VT4 MBTs on order[11],[12]. A Pakistani order for 100 VT4s would be the tank’s largest single export order – a follow-on would likely make Pakistan the largest customer, providing it grounding to push for transfer-of-technology in support of the al-Khalid II. Fortunately for Pakistan, NORINCO is not the only option, there are others.

Like NORINCO and the VT4, UkrOboronProm (the principal contractor) claims that the Oplot possesses a new cast and welded steel turret along with an integrated ERA. It uses the 1,200 hp 6TD-2 diesel engine, which would provide for commonality with the al-Khalid. The Oplot also has an automatic-loader for tank shells and guided munitions, for which the laser-guided KOMBAT ATGM is offered, providing a range of up to 5,000 m. This is fired from the KBA3, a 125-mm main smoothbore gun. The Nozh ERA is to provide defensibility against APFSDS and high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) tank shells.[13] It is also equipped with the Varta soft-kill APS, which has infrared countermeasures for heat-seeking missiles and capability to expel a smokescreen to scuttle laser-designation for semi-active laser-homing (SALH) missiles.[14] However, one of the potentially decisive systems of the Oplot is the Zaslon hard-kill APS. This still appears to be under development, the Zaslon APS would fire “a dense cloud of fast-moving splinters” to intercept incoming missiles. It is a scalable system, meaning the end-user could decide the number of Zaslon modules it can fit to any given armoured vehicle, including MBTs. Each module has two munitions along with a millimeter-wave (mmW) radar to search, identify and track incoming projectile threats.[15]

Depending on its performance, the Zaslon APS could potentially be of interest to Pakistan. Incorporating a hard-kill APS to the off-the-shelf MBT would signify the extent of its capability upgrade over Pakistan’s existing platforms as well as provide a key subsystem for the al-Khalid II. There will be a lead-time spanning years to account for the development, testing and qualification of the al-Khalid II, followed by a potentially tenuous output schedule (if HIT’s inconsistency regarding the al-Khalid and al-Khalid I is of any indication). It could make sense to have an off-the-shelf MBT purchase, especially of a platform that will possess many of the al-Khalid II’s expected subsystems and technology. The Army can acclimate itself to the technology and the procedures necessary to properly utilize them, e.g. network-enabled situational awareness, giving MBTs target information and undertaking guided attacks using tanks.

Currently, the tests include only the VT4 and the Oplot, but in 2016 there had been reports of the Pakistan Army potentially being interested in Turkey’s Altay. The source of the claim was none other than Dr. İsmail Demir, Turkey’s Undersecretary for Defence Industries (SSM). Demir is the top Turkish government official managing Turkey’s procurement and defence industry activities. On January 2016, Demir told the Turkish Parliament, “Including Pakistan and the Gulf countries, we can say that countries that we have good relations with are showing a large interest in the tank [Altay]. Representatives of some countries are being invited to the ongoing firing tests.”[16] However, Demir’s statements were made when Turkey expected the Altay’s serial production to begin by early 2017. This has not occurred, Ankara is working to push Turkey’s private sector to submit more competitive serial production bids. Turkey is also planning to initiate its an indigenous engine program for the Altay.[17] Although Turkey cannot export the Altay yet, it has offered the Altay’s inputs to Pakistan for potential use on the al-Khalid II. Roketsan, which manufactures the Altay’s ballistic armour and composite armour, offered to provide its support for the al Khalid II.[18] The electronics maker Aselsan, which developed the Altay’s suite of sights, BMS, communication systems, EO systems and remote weapon station (RWS) for machine guns, is also interested in the al Khalid II.[19]

However, even if the Altay was ready for sale, it is unlikely that Pakistan would embrace a tank weighing 60-65+ tons. In fact, being a NATO-grade weapon, the Altay is likely to be very costly on its own, the added cost of having to tailor the country’s infrastructure to properly use it (likely in very limited numbers) is not cost-effective. That said, the weight gap between the al-Khalid-I and the Altay is vast at 46-48 tons and 65 tons, respectively. The VT4 and Oplot have likely added armour compared to their respective preceding variants, explaining their respective weight increases, but the 17-ton gap between the al-Khalid I and Altay (46-48 tons to 65 tons) leaves a substantial gap. Within that gap, Pakistan could have room to add to the armour and capabilities of future MBTs without affecting its infrastructure. This is where the forthcoming al-Khalid II can factor into Pakistan’s armour requirements.

There are no firm details of the al-Khalid II’s specifications, though a Pakistan Army official told Army Recognition in 2016 that the al-Khalid II will use a 1,500 hp diesel engine.[20] Incorporating a more powerful engine could enable Pakistan to increase the armour load of the al-Khalid II while also adding a spate of new subsystems and weapons, such as hard-kill APS and other sensors. Pakistan could select partners to support the al-Khalid from among China, Ukraine and Turkey, which could – collectively – provide support in terms of armour technology, propulsion, electronics and guided-munitions development. It is unclear if Pakistan will seek Western European subsystems, but shifting to quality-over-quantity along with reduced overall operating costs (from fewer tanks deployed to the frontline) could enable Pakistan to spend more per al-Khalid II than it has on each al-Khalid. Cost-flexibility could potentially be considered in terms of engines, the reliability, durability and maintainability of which is critical. However, if not cost, the risk of losing the supplier due to sanctions will loom, so the engine would likely be Chinese or Ukrainian. Although Thales might look to continue its optronics sales to Pakistan through the al-Khalid II, it will have competition from Aselsan and, potentially, Hensoldt, which are also optronics suppliers to Pakistan (albeit in aviation and aerospace, they each have a footing to build upon). Other subsystems, such as BMS, INS, RWS and APS, could be procured indigenously or through joint-ventures with overseas partners.

A potential template for Pakistan’s future and qualitative-centric MBT could be the K2 Black Panther from South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem. It is in the same weight-class as the VT4 and Oplot, but like the al-Khalid II, the K2 uses a 1,500-hp diesel engine. However, South Korea’s proprietary armour technology aside (it is worth noting that it had collaborated with Turkey on the Altay), the marquee features of the K2 are the quality of its electronic subsystems. Besides standard-fare systems, such as stabilized thermal and night-vision sight, laser-designator and BMS, the K2 is equipped with a mmW radar. Like Ukraine’s Zaslon APS, the mmW radar can track incoming projectiles, but unlike the Zaslon – which appears to be a stand-alone module – the K2’s mmW radar is integrated to the core MBT. This could mean that the K2 is able to provide sustained situational awareness using radar and EO-sensors (e.g. thermal and night-vision sights).

If integrated with a BMS able to receive off-board sensor feeds from an airborne SAR/GMTI, this would enable the use of an entirely new generation of anti-armour munitions. This is not theoretical, using the K2, South Korea is fielding a new precision-guided top-attack munition – i.e. Korean Standoff Top Attack Munition (KSTAM) – which operates like the guided-bomblets deployed by the CBU-97 Sensor Fuzed Weapon. The KSTAM is fired upwards, upon which the munition descends with a parachute using a dual mmW and infrared seeker to search, track and engage fixed or moving targets.[21] The KSTAM targets arguably the most vulnerable part of a tank, its top area. However, it is also a fire-and-forget munition (i.e. the firing tank does not need to maintain “a lock” on the target), the K2 can remain mobile and focus on another target. Moreover, the K2 can potentially identify targets using the sensor feed of an off-board sensor, e.g. a SAR/GMTI-equipped drone or a counter-fire radar, which would typically support artillery by identifying enemy firing positions, but can also pass that information to the K2. The KSTAM can be fired in that area (albeit within 4-5 km), causing problems to enemy artillery and firing positions in general.

Conclusion

The K2 Black Panther is an example of incorporating costly technology to yield improvements by an order of multiple magnitudes. It is likely that South Korea sought the KSTAM – along with fitting the K2 with a radar – to offset North Korea’s quantitative strength. It would make sense for Pakistan to emulate the K2 as the principal template for the al-Khalid II. If the VT4 and Oplot are the immediate templates, then much of the path would have already been laid, the next phase would be to integrate a mmW radar and secure a guided top-attack munition. It would be surprising if neither is under development in China or Turkey. It is possible that the expertise to develop one is already in place in South Africa, which is explicitly eager to build defence relations with Pakistan. Yes, it is a costly route, but in an age where a few MBTs can serve as comprehensive offensive assets – i.e. capable of firing guided stand-off range munitions – along with airpower and other guided munition support (e.g. artillery), it could be the future.

[1] Press Release. “Malyshev Plant Goes to a New Cooperation Stage with Pakistan.” 03 August 2017. URL: http://www.malyshevplant.com/en/content/malyshev-plant-goes-new-cooperation-stage-pakistan (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018)

[2] Tatiana Omelchenko. Interview with Maj. Gen. (retired) Athar Abbas. Delovaya Stolitsa. 20 April 2017. URL: http://www.dsnews.ua/economics/posol-kashmirskiy-konflikt-mozhet-pererasti-v-voynu-za-vodu–19042017220000 (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[3] Boris Egorov. “Russia extends production license of T-90S tanks in India.” Russia Beyond The Headlines. 14 February 2017. URL: https://www.rbth.com/economics/defence/2017/02/14/russia-extends-production-license-of-t-90s-tanks-in-india_702053 (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[4] Rahul Bedi. “India to deploy newly ordered T-90MS tanks along border with Pakistan.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 20 January 2017. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20170120113558/http://www.janes.com/article/67082/india-to-deploy-newly-ordered-t-90ms-tanks-along-border-with-pakistan (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[5] Spencer C. Tucker. “M1A1A and M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks.” U.S. Conflicts in the 21st Century: Afghanistan War, Iraq War and the War on Terror. 2015

[6] “First batch of 28 China-made tanks rolls in.” Bangkok Post. 11 October 2017. URL: https://www.bangkokpost.com/archive/first-batch-of-28-china-made-tanks-rolls-in/1340231 (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[7] Christopher Foss. “Battlefield survivability [IDEX17D2]”. IHS Jane’s 360. 19 February 2017. URL: http://www.janes.com/article/67915/battlefield-survivability-idex17d2 (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Zhao Lei. “Chinese weapons winning battle for int’l market.” China Daily. 17 November 2014. URL:  http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-11/17/content_18926566.htm (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[10] Ibid.

[11] [Initial order of 28 VT4] Samuel Cranny-Evans. “NORINCO parades first VT4 tanks for Thailand.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 23 August 2017. URL: http://www.janes.com/article/73300/norinco-parades-first-vt4-tanks-for-thailand (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[12] [Follow-on order of 10 VT4] Mike Yeo. “Thailand to buy more Chinese tanks, reportedly for $58M.” Defense News. 04 April 2017. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/land/2017/04/04/thailand-to-buy-more-chinese-tanks-reportedly-for-58m/ (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[13] Promotional Material. “The main battle tank Oplot-M.” UkrOboronService. URL: https://en.uos.ua/produktsiya/bronetehnika/56-osnovnoy-boevoy-tank-t-84-oplot (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Promotional Material. “The active protection system Zaslon.” UkrOboronService. URL: https://en.uos.ua/produktsiya/bronetehnika/49-kompleks-aktivnoy-zashchiti-zaslon (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

[16] “Turkey’s first domestic tank sees big regional demand.” Hurriyet Daily News. 07 January 2016. URL: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkeys-first-domestic-tank-sees-big-regional-demand-93567 (Last Access: 09 January 2018).

[17] “Contract for National Powerpack Development Project Terminated.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. March 2017

[18] “A Roketsan Product for Every Need.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. January 2017.

[19] Army Recognition. “IDEAS  2016 Part 3.” DefenseWeb TV. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XBvxG6aIh4

[20] Army Recognition. “IDEAS  2016 Part 2.” DefenseWeb TV. URL: https://youtu.be/ykhR0qt7TXw?t=3m3s

[21] Kyle Mizokami. “Watch South Korea’s First Homemade Tank Strut Its Stuff.” Popular Mechanics. 03 May 2016. URL: http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/a20701/south-korea-black-panther-tank/ (Last Accessed: 09 January 2018).

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