Armor: Settling For Expensive Second Best


October 13, 2020: In September Pakistan put its new Chinese VT4 tanks into service with one battalion of its armored division. The 52-ton VT4 is also known as the MBT3000, Pakistan placed its order for up to a hundred VT4s in early 2019 and these began arriving in early 2020. Pakistan would like to obtain more VT4s, ideally several hundred, but at $3 million each that depends on how much money Pakistan has. At the moment that is not much because Pakistan is literally broke.

There are several reasons for the cash shortage. A big one is the loss of American aid. Since 2002 Pakistan received $33 billion in military and economic aid from the United States. A lot (42 percent) of that was military aid, to reimburse Pakistan for its counter-terrorism efforts. The U.S. provided some aid for Pakistan to buy modern weapons like F-16 fighters and upgrade older F-16s. A lot of the American aid was quietly diverted to the entire military, not just the counter-terror units. The military has always taken a disproportionate share of the government budget and because of that has developed expensive tastes for a poor country like Pakistan. For example, the availability of all that American aid encouraged Pakistan to try and establish a local tank development capability. That did not work out and in 2018 Pakistan officially ended that effort. Ordering the VT4 was an admission of defeat.

The Pakistani economy is in bad shape and getting worse. China expects to be paid on time for arms shipments. The American aid is down to practically nothing because the Americans eventually realized that Pakistan was more interested in supporting Islamic terrorists who worked for Pakistan than in opposing all Islamic terrorism. Pakistan supports the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan-based Islamic terrorists who carry out attacks on India. There is very little American aid now and what there is of it goes to specific economic programs that are carefully monitored. Pakistan has run out of credit, even with major international sources like the W0rld Bank. Close allies like Saudi Arabia still provide some money, but no more multi-billion-dollar loans. Too many previous loans are past-due for repayment to major lenders like the World Bank and IMF. These two international financial aid groups still offer useful advice, but no more cash. Too many previous loans disappeared without much positive impact on the economy.

One bit of financial advice Pakistan ignored was to buy expensive new weapons, like the VT4 tanks. These combat vehicles are an updated version of the 330 VT1/Al Khalid tanks Pakistan already has. All current Russia and Chinese tank designs are based on the very successful T-72 design, so getting one variant or the other was largely a matter of how many mods and accessories it had.

The 46-ton Al Khalid was a joint China-Pakistan project involving the design of a Pakistani tank that could be built in Pakistan. The resulting Al Khalid was, in fact, a variant of the Chinese VT1 (also known as the MBT2000). The VT1 was the export version of the Chinese Type 90 tank. Actually, the Type 90 was not accepted by the Chinese army, which instead went with the 54-ton Type 99, a superior T-72 variant that entered service in 2001, underwent a major upgrade (the 58-ton Type 99A) in 2011 and is still in production with over a thousand in service so far. The Chinese have over 6,000 tanks, with 2,500 of them modern designs. The rest of them are based on the Russian T-54/55. China developed many variations on this 1950s design and built them under license as the Type 59. In addition to the Type 99 there are 1,500 of the earlier Type 96, which began as the Type 88 in the 1980s as China began to develop and build variation of the Russian T-72. The Type 96 and 99 are, like most current Russian tanks, further upgrades further of the successful T-72 design. By adding better engines and other mechanical and electronic components, improved armored protection and 125mm main guns, the Chinese have managed to create a force of modern tanks superior to what the Russians have. China now has more modern tanks in service than Russia, which has had to put a lot of its most modern tanks in storage because it cannot afford to maintain and operate them.

China would have built more Type 99s were the tank not so expensive ($3-4 million each). That is why so many of the cheaper (less than $2 million each) 43-ton Type 96 tanks remain in service. In addition to being cheaper, the Type 99 and the Type 96 are considered adequate for most potential battlefield opponents. The VT4 is similar to the Type 99 in size, performance and price.

The Pakistani VT1 entered service first in 2001 equipped with Ukrainian engines and a few other imported items, but was mainly Chinese. The Al Khalid had trouble finding an engine that could handle the desert conditions on the Indian border where Indian and Pakistani tank battles tend to be fought. Because of these delays, Pakistan bought 300 Ukrainian T-80UD tanks, which are upgrades of a Russian Cold War design that could handle hot, sandy environments. That was mainly because of the Ukrainian built engine which Pakistan ultimately bought for its Al Khalid. During the Cold War Russia developed the T-62 and T-80 but both of these designs proved inferior to the T-72.

In addition to a few hundred VT1 and T-80s, the rest of Pakistan’s 2,000 tanks are based on much older (T-54/55) Russian models, with some upgrades. Pakistan also looked at the latest Ukraine had to offer but decided to go with China, which has access to more advanced tech than Ukraine and is willing to be competitive when it comes to price. This confidence in China was based on how the 2012 tank development agreement worked out. For that deal, Pakistan and China also agreed to jointly market the resulting Al Khalid tank. There were no customers because there were a lot of improved T-72s on the export market, including the Chinese MBT-2000. Al Khalid was more expensive to develop because Pakistan began the project way back in 1991 and made a lot of mistakes. The Al Khalid ended up costing ten percent more than the VT1/MBT-2000 and Pakistan was unable to keep its costs under control. When it came time to develop and install a major upgrade for Al Khalid, it was pointed out that China already had what Pakistan wanted in the VT4. In the end the Al Khalid demonstrated why Pakistan has never been a major player in the arms export business and this deal with China was more for show than anything else. Same thing with the JF-17 jet fighter joint development that resulted in an expensive variant of the American F-16.

What makes T-72 variants different is the quality of the components used. The T-72 was the most successful Russian post-World War II tank design and the basic model was pretty solid and reliable. The T-72 also proved to be a good platform for variants that added new (or more) armor, better electronics and improved engines. This resulted in some impressive tank models. The most outstanding of these has been the Russian 46-ton T-72B3. As proof, consider that most of the “new” tanks the Russian army has received since 2000 have been refurbished and much upgraded T-72B3s. Currently, the Russian Army has about 2,600 tanks in service and most (65 percent) are T-72B3s, which you hear little about. The new breakthrough design, the T-14, has fewer than a hundred in service and cuts in production (which began in 2015) were recently announced with only 10-20 a year being built. The T-14 is mostly about publicity. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities, but not for Russia. The T-90 was a 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90. That succeeded in making the tank an export success and most (84 percent) of those produced were for export. In fact, India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse Russia has quietly put over a third of its newly 550 built T-90s into a reserve. While the T-90s were loudly proclaimed to be the next big thing, the Russian army preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be more reliable, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made it nearly as expensive as the T-90, it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90/T-72BUs.

The best Chinese T-72 mod is the Type 99, which is 25 percent heavier than the T-72B3 and even more expensive to build. That’s because the Type 99 has better armor protection and electronics. The Chinese can afford this while the Russians cannot, it’s as simple as that. Chinese manufacturing capabilities are, on average, superior to what the Russians had when the Cold War ended and for tank design and production that makes a big difference. India and Pakistan have not been able to match Russian or Chinese production standards or development capabilities, which is largely due to corruption and government regulations that make it difficult to innovate and excel. Most of the best South Asia (India and Pakistan) design and production talent moves to the West. A glance at the design and development stars in the West, especially the United States, shows a lot of these South Asians playing leading roles. China managed to keep more of this talent at home and even attract some that had settled in the West to return. In the end high-tech, like everything else, is about the people creating it.




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