ISLAMABAD — Despite having acquired key defense equipment from Ukraine since the 1990s, Russia’s invasion of the country will not cause support issues for Pakistan, as this weaponry was already being phased out, an industry source has told Defense News.
The largest Pakistan-Ukrainian defense deal was for 320 T-80UD/Ob’yekt 478BEh tanks, built by the Kharkov Machine Building Design Bureau, or KMDB. The tanks were ordered in 1996 and delivered during the 1997-1999 time frame, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Ukraine’s Malyshev Plant also supplied the 1,200-horsepower 6TD-2 power pack for Pakistan’s Al-Khalid series of tanks, derived from Malyshev’s 1,000-horsepower 6TD powering the T-80UD. Malyshev, like the Kharkov Machine Building Design Bureau, is in Kharkiv, a city under heavy Russian attack.
The International Institute of Strategic Studies lists more than 600 Al-Khalid and Al-Khalid I tanks in service manufactured by Pakistan’s state-owned armored fighting vehicles manufacturer, Heavy Industries Taxila, or HIT. Therefore, one-third to half of Pakistan’s entire tank fleet would potentially be rendered unsupportable if the two factories in Kharkiv are destroyed.
However, an industry source with knowledge of HIT’s ongoing programs, told Defense News Pakistan was already replacing Ukrainian equipment before Russia’s full-scale invasion, which began Feb. 24.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, he said longstanding supply problems had forced Pakistan’s hand.
The main issue was the lack of an active production line at Malyshev for the 6TD and 6TD-2 power packs. It was reactivated on demand, but that inflated contract prices.
Additionally, though the engines are multifuel diesels and run on any fuel, they are optimized to function with a particular grade of oil lubricant only available from Ukraine.
Though possibly originally developed by the Galol Plant in Drogobych in western Ukraine, as it’s known as “Galol oil” in Pakistan, it is currently supplied by Azmol.
Efforts to synthesize this grade of oil in Pakistan were unsuccessful, and an attempt to acquire supplies through a third party around the 2017-2018 time frame resulted in the test engines seizing up, as the oil had been mixed with another type.
Pakistan is now seeking supplies of suitable oil from Russia, which also operated the T-80UD.
Longer-term plans will see HIT install the same power pack from the recently acquired Chinese VT-4 tanks in all Al-Khalid variants. The VT-4 shares its design heritage with the Al-Khalid in terms of the simplicity of installing its power pack, something impossible with the more compact T-80UD hull.
The surplus 6TD-2 power packs will subsequently support the T-80UD fleet, which is being rebuilt by HIT. Eventually, Al-Khalid II tanks will replace that fleet.
The Al-Khalid II will also eventually replace the 236 HIT-built Al-Zarrar tanks, which are Ukrainian-designed upgrades of the Chinese Type 59.
Both the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Public Relations media arm and the Ministry of Defence Production, which handles procurement, did not return requests for comment.
An alternative to Ukraine
The loss of faith in Ukrainian defense products was underlined when the three Oplot-P tanks — developments of the T-80UD and subsequent T-84 — “miserably failed” during trials in Pakistan alongside the VT-4 and Al-Khalid I, the industry source said.
Author, analyst, and former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad Brian Cloughley says the switch to using Chinese engines is reflective of Pakistan’s wider experience with Ukraine as a defense supplier.
“The disruption in Pakistan-Ukraine relations caused by the war is yet another factor spurring Pakistan’s intention to rely on China for military equipment and development,” he said. “The Pakistan defense establishment feels let down by Kiev all along the line, and consistent with this is the decision to scrap everything to do with Ukraine’s tank power plants and all else.”
If Pakistan turns to Russia to support some of its equipment, however, it faces the threat of Western sanctions.
In addition to four Il-78MP tanker/transport aircraft acquired from Ukraine, Pakistan purchased Mi-35P Hind attack and MI-17 Hip utility helicopters from Russia.
While the Pakistan Air Force did not respond to questions about this, author, analyst, and former Pakistan Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail said the Il-78MPs “have recently been upgraded.”
Cloughley does not foresee problems with these platforms. “Russian origin equipment is more easily serviced and maintained that most of that supplied by the U.S., and routine support for such aircraft as the Il-78 is not difficult,” he said.
Speaking of the Il-78MPs, Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Va., said there remains the threat that Russia sparks a wider war in Europe “that would immediately consume all Il-76MDs and support resources to advance Russian war objectives.”
Nevertheless, short of full-scale war in Europe, Fisher said Russia could likely handle overhauls.
“While Il-78s were produced at the Tashkent Aircraft Production Organization in Uzbekistan, Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation has reclaimed production of the upgraded Il-76MD-90A at the Aviastar factory in Ulyanovsk, meaning that in theory, it should be able to support Il-78M users,” the analyst explained.
According to SIPRI, Pakistan in 2006 ordered its Il-78MPs through Ukraine, which had inherited them in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Those aircraft will eventually need to be replaced, and Fisher said Pakistan will likely look to China.
“China’s Xi’an Aircraft [Industrial] Corporation Y-20U tanker is now in early service with the [People’s Liberation Army] Air Force and should be available as the favorable option should Pakistan seek to replace its Ukrainian-sourced Il-78M tankers,” he said. “A new version of the Y-20U with more powerful Chinese-developed WS-20 high-bypass turbofans could emerge quickly, as these engines are now flying on the transport version Y-20B.”
Pakistan also directly acquired the Klimov RD-93 turbofans for its JF-17 fighters from Russia. But even here, should the West target related supplies, China could step in by proposing a locally made alternative.
That option might come in the form of the Guizhou WS-13. But despite testing the engine on the FC-1 (the Chinese version of Pakistan’s JF-17), it “has yet to be marketed as an option for this fighter, a strong indication that it may not be ready for prime time,” Fisher said.
This does not necessarily mean Pakistan lacks faith in Chinese engines; Fisher noted Pakistan’s recently acquired Firebird fighters are not only the first export of the type, but also of their WS-10 turbofan.
While China has enough confidence in the WS-10 to power three fighter types, he said, “there will be great curiosity in Pakistani assessments of the WS-10.”
There may yet be more alternative JF-17 engines. Fisher said progress with China’s J-35 mediumweight fighter as well as a “recent upgrade in its [the aircraft’s] marketing campaign” potentially indicates the fighter will be powered by a new turbofan, “perhaps a version of the WS-13 or the WS-19, which may then become a Chinese engine option for JF-17.”
He said this would better suit Pakistan, rather than relying on the RD-93 despite Islamabad’s acknowledged satisfaction with the Russian engine. A Chinese turbofan, he said, “would mean less complicated logistics, [and] when combined with competitive low pricing, could result in greater sales success.”
Still, Tufail said he expects wider repercussions related to Russia’s invasion.
“The West is quite riled with Pakistan’s ‘soft’ approach towards Russia, and I think we will be wading through rough waters for some time,” he said.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.