Correction: A previous version of this story misinterpreted the status of India’s T-90MS tank acquisition and the state of the country’s tank fleet. The country has received clearance to buy the T-90MS but has not yet done so.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s armor modernization efforts are maturing amid a refocus toward archrival India and away from operations against the militant group TTP, otherwise known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan.
With India preparing for a potential order of the advanced T-90MS tank, increasing its large fleet of T-90S Bishma tanks and upgrading most T-72M1 tanks, Pakistan is countering with its own acquisition and upgrade programs for new types of vehicles and improved battlefield integration.
Though low-level acquisition continued throughout the TTP campaign, author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley explained that necessity demanded larger programs be cut back or frozen.
“The expansion of Taliban and other militant activity, particularly in regions along the border with Afghanistan which are inaccessible to heavy vehicles, focused the army on COIN [counterinsurgency]. It was a budgetary decision, backed by tactical pragmatism,” he said. “But it was acknowledged that as counterinsurgency wound down, so could armor programs be reinstituted.”
The Pakistan Army effectively defeated the TTP-led threat after first launching Operation Zarb-e-Azb (or “Cutting Blow” in English) from 2014 to flush out domestic and foreign terrorists in the ungoverned spaces along the border with Afghanistan.
The TTP and its allies had until then mainly held territory in rugged Waziristan, in the essentially self-governed Federally Administered Tribal Areas that were later absorbed into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
This was followed by Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (or “Elimination of Strife”) from early 2017, a combined ongoing military-civilian effort to eliminate terrorist sleeper cells nationwide.
Fencing along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is also largely complete, restricting the movement of remaining TTP forces.
The Taliban recently retook control of Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal from the country. The group subsequently assured Pakistan it will not allow TTP remnants to attack the country.
Though there are occasionally low-level terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the government there has felt confident enough to offer amnesty to TTP members on the condition they lay down arms and surrender.
However, Cloughley said, the Army “has not effected a ‘switch’ from counterterrorism, which as in all armies continues to be a very high priority in asset management, technology and training.”
Still, he added, “the years of emphasis have been productive, and the Army now feels its primary role — continental defense against India — can be allocated more resources than it has been able to commit for the past 20 years.”
What armor upgrades are in the works?
Some of Pakistan’s latest armor developments were revealed during a Nov. 9 visit by Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa to state-owned armored fighting vehicles manufacturer Heavy Industries Taxila, or HIT.
Bajwa inspected the upgraded production facilities and ongoing projects, including:
- Newly developed protection measures and remote weapon stations for main battle tanks.
- An indigenously developed 155mm artillery gun barrel.
- Ballistic and improvised explosive device protection for armored fighting vehicles.
- Programs to manufacture, rebuild and upgrade armored personnel carriers and tanks.
Notably, footage of the visit shows the indigenous Viper infantry fighting vehicle and a modernized version of the Type-85APII main battle tank. At one point, a Type-85APII turret is visible with an exposed composite armor module, possibly indicating replacement with a new type.
An industry source with knowledge of HIT’s ongoing programs told Defense News on the condition of anonymity that the Viper was undergoing pilot production. The source also said Ukrainian-supplied T-80UD tanks have been equipped with a new thermal gunner’s sight and a locally developed solid-state autoloader.
The source added that the recently acquired VT-4 tank from China North Industries Group Corporation Limited — commonly referred to as NORINCO — was to form the basis of the future Al-Khalid 2, with existing subsequent Al-Khalid versions upgraded to a similar standard.
Though he was unable to provide details on the Type-85APII upgrade, Defense News understands it was upgraded along similar lines to the T-80UD.
HIT officials previously told Defense News that the T-80UD and Type-85APII tanks would receive upgrade after undergoing a pilot rebuild, although the Type-85APII fire and gun control systems had already received some attention, and the gunner was already equipped with a thermal sight.
The Type-85APII has also received an upgraded power pack, with some sources now referring to the platform as the Type-85UG.
Future hopes are pinned on the VT-4, with the first delivered in April 2020. It entered service around June 2021.
Though derived from the Type-90II/Al-Khalid, the VT-4 features the improved gun of China’s high-end Type-99A main battle tank and therefore can fire the same rounds with greater penetrative power compared to Pakistan’s other tanks. The VT-4 also has more advanced composite and reactive armor; China’s third-generation thermal imaging systems; more advanced fire and gun control systems; and a Chinese-made powertrain.
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the VT-4 and related technology will deliver an element of parity between India and Pakistan.
“NORINCO’s VT-4, as a direct purchase or as the basis for the domestically produced Al-Khalid 2, would offer Pakistan a wide array of modern tank technologies competitive with the Russian T-90MS being acquired by India, from powertrain to fire control, high velocity gun, gun-launched anti-tank missiles and active protection systems,” he said.
However, he cautioned, “rough parity may be unsatisfactory for both Pakistan and India, so both likely will seek regular available upgrades or next-generation options.”
Unlike with the original Al-Khalid, Pakistan avoids with its VT-4 a reliance on expensive European sighting systems and the occasionally problematic supply of Ukrainian powertrains. But there is no indication that the Chinese powertrain will replace that shared by T-80UD and Al-Khalid tanks.
The Viper is based on the Saad armored personnel carrier (similar to the American Armored Infantry Fighting Vehicle), featuring additional armor protection and the unmanned Slovakian Turra 30 combat module with a 30mm gun and two anti-tank missiles. It carries a crew of three, plus nine dismounts.
Pakistan’s shift to infantry fighting vehicles comes many years after other major armies, which Cloughley said was unavoidable.
“IFVs are expensive, and their operation requires a great deal of training at all levels, which the Army, of necessity concentrating on counterinsurgency operations, did not want to commit to,” he explained. “The [Pakistan Army] has always wanted IFVs, and now sees the opportunity for a balanced introduction program, taking into account unit training.”
The Army is also sharpening its armored warfare skills, having this year held a series of large-scale exercises to improve integration among the various branches of its ground force, including infantry, mechanized forces, combat aviation, surveillance platforms, air defense and artillery.
Cloughley believes emphasis is also “being placed on maneuvers in the nuclear battlefield, and that closed-down operations are being practiced on almost all exercises.”
“HIT has always been conscious of the importance of developing [nuclear-, biological- and chemical-protected] technology, and crew comfort has received attention,” he said.
While the Army will be relieved its armor modernization program is back on track, Cloughley issued a word of warning: “While I agree that it is very important that the [Pakistan Army] continues to improve interoperability and must upgrade its armored capabilities, it must not lose sight of the COIN imperative, which is a significant aspect of its mission.”
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.