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Does Pakistan Rely on China for High-Tech Armour in Decades-Old Stand-Off With India?

New Delhi (Sputnik): While China remains one of the major suppliers of defence equipment to Pakistan along with the US, in recent years, Beijing has enhanced the military capability of India’s arch rival with upgrades and supplied state-of-the-art equipment.

On 12 April, shells fired by a Pakistani weapons system damaged several houses and injured people in the Indian part of Kashmir. The ongoing firefight between the two arch-rivals started on 6 April but surprised many this time, as shells fired from the Pakistani side landed deep inside the villages of Kupwara in Indian-administered Kashmir.

A former Indian Army Brigadier and defence analyst, Rahul Bhonsle, believes that it is China which completely overhauled the capability of Pakistan and the 'China Pakistan axis' presents a formidable challenge.

“The China Pakistan axis is no doubt a major challenge for India, given the close integration of Chinese weapons systems such as tanks, combat aircraft and the sharing of technology on tactical nuclear weapons, amongst others. Pakistan in some ways has become a test lab for the Chinese weapons,” the military observer told Sputnik.

Defence trade figures published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute have revealed that China has solely replaced the entire fall in US-Pakistan defence trade in the past five years. China has been supplying defence equipment to Pakistan since the 1960’s and increased its share in the total Pakistani defence arsenal to around 60 percent in recent years. Besides nuclear-capable missiles, armoured capability has gained prime importance in collaboration between the two countries.

Pakistan’s capacity in terms of main battle tanks (MBT), with approximate 2,400 in the field, is said to be diverse, with three Chinese-made tanks. Pakistan's MBTs include 1,100 Al-Zarrar tanks, based on the Chinese Type 59 MBT, as well as 50 T-54/T-55, 400 Type-69 tanks, 350 Al-Khalid tanks, and the country is set to roll out Chinese-made VT-4 tanks. Pakistan is also working on a more advanced version of the al-Khalid III MBT.

“China may at times to come provide Pakistan with front line Type 99 tanks but Pakistan may not have the resources to acquire the same. Pakistan's inventory of a large mix of tanks from Al Zarrar to Khalid T-80 etc, is an outcome of a lack of funds and a mix-and-match approach, which will remain a major challenge in the future as well,” Bhonsle added.

A review of weapons classifications shows that Pakistan is militarising its skies (48 percent of total arms import) at an unprecedented rate but at the same time, armoured vehicles and artillery have constituted around 20 percent of total arms imports since 2010. It is also upgrading most of the tanks and enhancing their capability to attack any time of day, while India is playing catch-up.

“India is mainly relying now on the tried and tested T-90 S and upgraded T-72. These are versatile and have the capability to meet the challenge posed by the Pakistan armour. Gradual upgrades of these in terms of nigh fighting, fire control and armament may be the way ahead,” Bhonsle replied when asked whether the Indian Army should also diversify its tanks.

Last December, media reports claimed that Pakistan's army had inked a deal with China’s Northern Industries Corporation (NORINCO) to procure artillery guns for deployment along the Indian border. The two countries also inked a deal to overhaul Pakistan's main battle tank, the Type 85-IIAP.

“India had a good option of developing indigenous Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCV) but at present there are no current developments that are known. While upgrading the current generation on the fly for enhanced capabilities, India may also look at the Russian Armata in case it is not serious about the FRCV project,” Rahul Bhonsle said, suggesting ways to improve the nation's armoured capability.

India has approximately 3,300 main battle tanks: 1,900 T-72M1, 1,000 T-90S, and around 500 T-90SM. The Indian army has also inducted the domestically-produced Arjun MK-I but hopes to address some technical issues before rolling out a more capable version of the Arjun.

Nevertheless, Indian Army chief M. M. Naravane has indicated that country is moving away from the “military icons of the 20th century”, like tanks, fighter aircraft and primarily looking at the possible induction of laser and directed-energy weapons.

“In the five-odd decades since — in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, Chechnya and Syria, armoured formations have either followed, supported the application of air power and artillery, or else their units and sub-units have been committed in smaller tactical groupings as part of infantry-armour assaults in urban terrain,” Naravane said in March of this year while speaking at an event in Delhi.

In future warfare, Pakistan and China have also been working on the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles including the Caihong-5 and Wing Loong-I.

“Pakistan's military, despite having fewer assets, is conventionally not inferior to the Indian military. Moreover, given its inter-operability with the People’s Liberation Army, when it is offered cyber, space and Electronic Warfare support, the balance may tip in Pakistan's favour. Complacency will not help the Indian Army,” Praveen Sawhney, a former military officer and author of several books on military affairs said.

Ultimately it is the man behind the gun that is important, as was proved by the Indian Centurion who outgunned the Pakistan Patton in 1965, but “we cannot rest on past laurels;” Rahul Bhonsle, who has had a distinguished service career lasting over 30 years, concluded.

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