ISLAMABAD — Despite its economic challenges, Pakistan has maintained progress on critical modernization programs to strengthen its conventional military forces, according to a recently revealed government document.

Spiraling debt and rising cost of imports along with low government revenue hit military modernization efforts hard. That, combined with an economic restructuring imposed by the International Monetary Fund as well as currency devaluation, increased the need for indigenous solutions.

Details of ongoing development, the replacement of foreign equipment as well as acquisition programs were recently released by the Ministry of Defence Production in its “Year Book 2017-18” document. The ministry oversees all aspects of state-owned military industrial enterprises, indigenous development programs and foreign acquisition.

The document highlights the prioritization of armored platforms and air power.

Efforts toward improving armored capabilities include finding substitutions to component imports and indigenous development, specifically:

  • The manufacturing of auxiliary power units for the Al-Zarrar and T-80UD tanks.
  • The development and trials of a sabot FSDS-T round.
  • The development of a driver’s thermal imaging/night vision periscope.
  • The assembly of engines for the Al-Khalid and T-80UD tanks.
  • The rebuilding and upgrading of 160 Type-85IIAP main battle tanks between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022.
  • A pilot effort to rebuild T-80UDs (completed in August 2019).
  • The continued rebuilding of M113-series armored personnel carriers.
  • The continued upgrade of Type-59 main battle tanks to the Al-Zarrar version.
  • The low-rate production of 20 Al-Khalid I tanks, plus the final-stage development of the Al-Khalid II (featuring an enhanced power pack and fire-control/gun-control system).

A program for a tracked infantry fighting vehicle, or IFV, was also mentioned in the ministry’s document. State-owned armored fighting vehicle manufacturer HIT developed the Viper to meet this need. The static prototype was displayed at the IDEAS2018 defense expo. The platform was based on the M113 series, but was armed with a Slovak Turra 30 unmanned turret.

Armored fighting vehicle manufacturer HIT developed the Viper, on display here at the IDEAS2018 defense expo. (Usman Ansari/Staff)
Armored fighting vehicle manufacturer HIT developed the Viper, on display here at the IDEAS2018 defense expo. (Usman Ansari/Staff)

At IDEAS2018, China North Industries Group Corp., or NORINCO, told Defense News that its VT-4 main battle tank had essentially been selected to meet Pakistan’s requirement, but no deal has been signed.

Meanwhile, Pakistan bolstered its infantry anti-tank capabilities by purchasing Kornet-E anti-tank guided missiles (a Russian-made weapon) and Spanish Alcotán-100 shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets. However, financial expenditure information in the ministry’s document did not list acquisitions from Russia, indicating the Kornet-E may have come from an alternative source.

Author, analyst and former defense attaché to Islamabad Brian Cloughley told Defense News that emphasis on heavy armor indicates Pakistan’s “preparedness for conventional war, and it seems that the riposte is alive and being refined in direct answer to India’s overwhelming numerical superiority.”

Cloughley said the government may have realized the use of tactical nuclear weapons would spark an uncontrollable escalation, and so it is focusing on other capabilities. However, “this by no means indicates that tactical nuclear [surface-to-surface missiles] are not a most important asset — simply that Pakistan has been considering all options and appears to have concluded it had better maintain and develop conventional forces, concentrating on armor,” he added.

Defense from above

Air power developments discussed in the ministry’s document primarily center on the JF-17 fighter program. A deal was signed for the twin-seat and advanced Block III variants in May 2018.

However, improvements to the preceding versions are ongoing, notably air-to-air refueling modification and the acquisition of Chinese CM-400AKG supersonic anti-ship missiles to strengthen seaward defenses.

Author, analyst and former Pakistan Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail pointed to these efforts as significant for the military.

“Speed confers not only a higher kill probability on an anti-ship missile due to greater momentum on impact; it also enhances its own survivability against close-in weapons that are fired against it. Thus, a supersonic missile like the CM-400AKG is definitely an improvement over the subsonic predecessors,” he said.

“A flight of JF-17s configured with a single missile each, along with underwing drop tanks, offer sufficient range to keep any hostile surface task force at bay,” he added.

Newer air-to-air missiles are reportedly being integrated, but when asked to comment on the possibility that more advanced standoff weaponry may follow, Tufail said: “Standoff bombing is the new attack norm, as demonstrated by the [Feb. 27] riposte by [the Pakistan Air Force] in reply to [the Indian Air Force’s] unsuccessful attempt a day earlier. Bombs like the GB-6 K/YBS500, REK Mark 82/83/84 and H-4 will, therefore, be commonplace weapons in any future conflict.”

He also highlighted increased JF-17 production, “from 16 aircraft per year to 24,” which he said will likely continue as the the active electronically scanned array radar-equipped Block III in produced, especially if there’s an increase in exports.

Improvements to existing JF-17s, such as the “retrofit of AESA radars on existing Block I and II JF-17s could take place later, once the priority Block III orders have been completed,” he added.

A Pakistani JF-17 Thunder performs a flying display at the Paris Air Show on June 17, 2019, at Le Bourget Airport, near Paris. (Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)
A Pakistani JF-17 Thunder performs a flying display at the Paris Air Show on June 17, 2019, at Le Bourget Airport, near Paris. (Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)

The Ministry of Defence Production’s report also mentioned the manufacturing of components for an “Al-Rasub” (the name of a sword of the Prophet Muhammad, implying it could be a weapon). However, no source approached by Defense News for clarification could or would comment.

The development of drones by the Aviation Design Institute and of the Project AZM fifth-generation fighter were also mentioned in the report.

A medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV program was previously under discussion, according to industry officials, but the head of UAV-manufacturer Integrated Dynamics, Raja Khan, was unable to shed light on whether the drone development mentioned in the report and slated to have flown by June 2019 was related.

The report said the first “conceptual design phase” cycle for Project AZM is complete, and the first configuration “will go through three more cycles within the conceptual design using higher fidelity analysis tools and codes.” While some speculate the country might work with Turkey on the project, there is no mention of a foreign partner in the report.

Justin Bronk, an aerospace expert with the Royal United Services Institute think tanks, said there is effectively only one option for a foreign partnership.

“I’d assess that neither Pakistan nor, indeed, Turkey have the necessary domestic industrial capabilities to design and manufacture a true fifth-generation fighter for the foreseeable future,” he said. “With that in mind, Pakistan’s fifth-generation ambitions will have to de facto be met by Chinese technology, even if at least partly manufactured in Pakistan.”