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The HIT: More than just tanks

Journey of a Thousand Miles begins with one single step! Following the advice of philosopher Lao Tzu, Pakistan and China initiated limited joint defense production in July 1971. This sapling has now blossomed into the sprawling Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) that has become the country's backbone to meet indigenous needs. On its 50th Anniversary, Chairman HIT, Maj. Gen. Aamir Raza reminiscences on the history and evolution of HIT and its vision ahead.

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GVS: General Aamer, can you give us a brief overview of how the Heavy Industries Taxila was conceived in 1971? What were the circumstances? And why not before 1971?

Major General Aamer: First of all, if you recollect the post-independence situation, the equipment with Pakistan Army was western World War 2 vintage. Then we had certain pacts with the United States in 1954 and 1962 through which we were able to have M-47 and M-48 US origin tanks.

Then came the 1965 war with India and we faced a US-imposed embargo. For the first time, we faced difficulties in the maintenance of our equipment. Then in post-1965 war period, a large quantity of T-series tanks, T-59s primarily from China, were inducted into the Pakistan Army.

We needed a facility at that point in time to rebuild and maintain those tanks. That is how this concept (of HIT) came into being, which initially was just establishing large workshops able to sustain and maintain the East European technology or Chinese origin tanks here in Pakistan so that we could achieve self-sufficiency.

Why this thought did not come earlier was probably because of the “assured supply” by the west that we had in our minds. Moreover, post-1965 war, there was a national mood of moving towards self-reliance which also propelled this idea. That’s how in 1971, through the collaboration of China, a protocol was formally signed.

GVS: So NORINCO of China became the strategic partner?

Major General Aamer: Actually, it was not known as NORINCO at that point in time. It was Ministry of Machine Building Industry China that later on came to be known as NORINCO Group. With their help, a protocol was signed in July 1971 and by 1979 this heavy rebuild factory was fully established and rolling out the rebuilt T-59 tanks.

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GVS: What were our immediate needs at that time? And what were the first products?

Major General Aamer: As I said earlier, there was a bulk induction of these T-series Chinese tanks, so there was a requirement to maintain them. We had two choices. Either to send the equipment, every time, back to China or any other country for its maintenance and rebuilding or to develop a facility that could maintain and sustain the large fleet of tanks in Pakistan.

This was the need felt by the Pakistan Army, and we started establishing the factory. With passage of time, the need increased for this heavy rebuild complex of today which had then started with just one rebuild factory.

GVS: What was the main weapon system in the Pakistan army at that time?

Major General Aamer: We mainly had M-Series (M-47s and M-48s) US origin and T-series (T-59) tanks with us. We also had Shermans prior to the 1965 war, but our mainstay was the T-series tanks.

GVS: So, how did we move from the T-Series to Al-Khalid? What were the milestones on the way?

Major General Aamer: As I said earlier, this factory started rolling out its first rebuilt tanks in 1979, which President Zia-ul-Haq himself inaugurated. It is known as a second-generation tank. As we moved along, we were again in collaboration with the United States; in the late 80s, we had two main factories coming up, in addition to this heavy rebuilt factory.

The purpose of those factories was to rebuild our US-origin Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) and the US-origin self-propelled artillery guns. The first was the Heavy Rebuild Factory M-series (HRFM), built-in 1987.

Then came the APC Manufacturing Factory in 1989, in which we were able to manufacture APCs with the help of the United States. Then the Tank Manufacturing Factory and Gun Manufacturing Factory were also established in 1992 with the help of the Chinese.

Then came 2007, when, we were able to establish an Advanced Research Development and Information Center (ARDIC) with the help of our Ukrainian friends and an advanced system rebuild factory which worked in the field of research.

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During this journey, we gradually moved from rebuilding of 2nd Generation Tanks T-59 to the manufacturing of 3rd Generation Tanks Al-Khalid and Al-Khalid 1, mainly with the help of our trusted friend China.

GVS: But tell us more, how we moved from the old basic versions of T-59 to the present sophisticated Al Khalid series that has now become the main battle tank for Pakistan?

Major General Aamer: As I mentioned earlier, by the late ’70 and early ’80s, we had already started rebuilding the T-series tanks. By the late 80s, we started manufacturing and rebuilding the M-series equipment, and by the early 90s, we started manufacturing the tanks.

In this long journey, not only the T-59s and T-69s were rebuilt and manufactured, but we also manufactured another second-generation tank, the T-85, which was again inducted from China.

During the process of rebuild and manufacturing, we have always followed a “Collaborative Model” with China in which technologies are mutually shared. We jointly work on design, development, and manufacturing by acquiring key technologies and capabilities for self-reliance, for instance, tank guns are being totally designed and manufactured here at HIT.

I would also like to mention here that Tank Al-Khalid and Al-Khalid 1, the newer version, are registered as Intellectual Proprietary (IP) of HIT which is testimony of Pakistan’s solid contribution in development of Tanks Al-Khalid, and Al-Khalid 1 alongside China.

In fact, soon we will also be producing a newer upgraded version of Al-Khalid series based on newly inducted Chinese Tank VT-4 technology.

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GVS: What are the strengths of Al-Khalid Tank? How do you compare Al-Khalid and Al-Khalid 1 with other weapon systems used by India, Russia, Ukraine, and other European countries?

Major General Aamer: Al Khalid is a third-generation tank, unlike the T-59s, T-69s, and T-85s which are second-generation. With each generation, there are advancements in the weapon systems, the fire control equipment fitted inside the tank, the imaging devices, and the lethality of the weapons.

All these factors come into play when you move from one generation to the other. Al-Khalid 1 is actually a third-generation plus tank. So as far as your question of comparing Al-Khalid and Al-Khalid 1 with contemporary tanks around the world, it can be easily compared with any modern battlefield tank, we will share data with you.

Heavy Industries Taxila

GVS: How compatible is Al-Khalid with the tanks held by Indians; our main adversaries?

Major General Aamer: Al-Khalids are very much comparable in all aspects with tanks being used by the Indian Army; the Arjun tank, manufactured by India, and the T-90, the latest tank available to the Indians.

Indian Army has two variants of Russian T-90 tank in their fleet i.e T-90S and T-90MS. Despite the long history of the development of Arjun tanks in India spread over the last 2-3 decades, India has inducted more than 2000 T-90 Russian Tanks. Some of them have been assembled in India, and some of them have been acquired as completely built units.

GVS: Does it mean that they don’t trust Arjun as their main battle tank?

Major General Aamer: To us, it is obvious because the Arjun project started in 1972, and the first order was placed with the Arjun manufacturing plant in 2000, after 28 years. While the second order was only recently placed in 2021 for the Arjun Mk 1A, which had approximately 90 modifications suggested in the original Arjun by Indian Army.

GVS: So why is Arjun so heavy? Have they used some very strong armor?

Major General Aamer: I would not say that because most things are not shared on open media. However, there is always a tradeoff. Once you add on to the protection level, you will lose mobility and the agility for maneuver.

In this particular case, Arjun’s power to weight ratio, even that of T-90, is less than what we have in the Al-Khalid tank which can be compared to the best of the best in any field: mobility, lethality, weapon system.

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GVS: So, HIT is a world of tanks, what else are you contributing to National Defense?

Major General Aamer: HIT is also contributing towards a range of Armoured Fighting and Security Vehicles including Tanks, APCs, Artillery Guns, ASVs, etc not only against requirements of Pakistan Army but also meeting the needs of our sister services and law enforcement agencies.

We provide them with the much-needed security vehicles because HIT’s objective is strengthening the defense of Pakistan externally as well as internally. We have provided protective vehicles to the airport security force as well.

We also provide a large quantity of protective equipment such as bullet-proof vests, helmets, and other such equipment which protect the lives of our law enforcement personnel and our soldiers on the battlefield.

GVS: How is HIT contributing to the national economy?

Major General Aamer: Again, this is a very interesting question! And if I may share with you, we recently had an annual session in Senate Standing Committee for Defense, where I presented the figures since concerns are always raised about how much money is being spent on defense production establishments and how much is being given back to the national economy.

We carried out the comparisons, and these figures can also be verified. During, last five years approximately 25 billion rupees were spent on sustaining HIT in terms of the annual pay, allowances, medical facilities, etc, however, we have contributed to the tune of 70 billion rupees in return on account of import substitutions, indigenization, taxes, proportionate costs, etc.

So, it will not be wrong to say that HIT contributes to save the foreign exchange besides engagement of over 750 domestic industries in defense production since inception.

Heavy Industries Taxila
Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa inspecting latest batch of Al Khalid-1 tanks during a visit to Heavy Industries Taxila, 28 July 2020

GVS: Domestic? Inside Pakistan?

Major General Aamer: Yes, inside Pakistan. They are our technology partners. We have over the last few decades developed more than 22,000 varieties of major parts of various Armoured Fighting Vehicles with their help, which are being used in manufacturing and subsequent sustenance of our military equipment.

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GVS: Funds for HIT are coming from the Defense Budget, or these are coming from another ministry?

Major General Aamer: All the funds come from the Defense Budget; they come through Pakistan Army as well as Ministry of Defense Production (MoDP) but we work within the ambit of MoDP along with other defense production establishments like Air Weapon Complex, National Radio Telecommunications Organization, Pakistan Ordnance Factories, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Karachi Shipyard, etc.

GVS: What about research and training? I heard that you now have a Technology University and an Educational City.

Major General Aamer: Actually, all around the world, the best concept of the industry is an academia and industry nexus. On this very concept, in 2006, Education City was established here at HIT which again, has expanded, and apart from an engineering university, there are now schools and colleges. There is also a medical college, and a dental college established a few years back.

I can say with much satisfaction that there are more than 12000 students, which we are accommodating at these institutions, which is not only benefitting the children of HIT employees but also children of the surrounding areas.

It also provides us with an opportunity to invite and involve the students at the engineering university to come up with innovative ideas. This is the ‘academia and industry nexus’ I was referring to. They are involved in the projects over here at HIT. They also carry out internships here and we mutually benefit from each other.

GVS: What about the export potential of HIT?

Major General Aamer: HIT’s exports were previously relying on surplus potential in the heavy industries. Our primary objective is to support Pakistan’s Armed Forces and to meet the defense needs of the country; the focus always remains on that.

Whatever surplus potential we could manage in the past, we had used it for exports. A substantial amount of personal protective equipment, guard posts, and security vehicles have been exported to friendly countries all over the world.

We are also in the process of supplying some of the spares and tools which are used in manufacturing plants all over the world.

GVS: What about the tanks and the armored personal carriers?

Major General Aamer: At the moment, HIT has the capacity to meet our needs. However, as per the Parliament Act, which was passed in 2019; it now allows us to have a commercial face through which we can go into public-private partnerships and joint ventures where if there is a demand of tanks and armored personal carriers in any of our friendly countries, we can supply them.

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As I mentioned earlier, we have “Intellectual Proprietary Rights” (IPRs), so we can always supply these to any friendly country which approaches us for provisions.

GVS: When you started in July 1971, 50 years ago, China was predominantly an agricultural country, and now China is the second-largest military power, perhaps in the world, so has this relationship between HIT and Chinese industry advanced over 50 years? In terms of technology transfer?

Major General Aamer: Yes, very much so as you understand that Pakistan has limited resources as far as research and development avenues are concerned, and as you have mentioned that China has grown in technology over time.

Now its defense-related spending stands at more than $200 billion a year. They have already helped us in the collaborative model as I earlier described through which we continuously benefit from the expertise and technological advancements that are available within China.

In turn, we share our experiences with Chinese firms through which they work towards improving their products. They provide us with the infrastructure, and we provide them with the expertise, so it is a collaborative model where both parties work hand in hand with each other.

Over the period of these 50 years, which we are celebrating this July, we have grown our collaboration in technology cooperation; you must be aware that recently Pakistan has inducted a new tank from China.

They are providing us with the technology to enhance our design and integration capability – which is held with us. This will further help and enable us to harness advanced technologies more effectively.

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GVS: Given that surveillance drones and weapon carrying drones have emerged as tanks’ main enemy in recent years, is HIT also looking into manufacturing drones? 

Major General Aamer: There are certain organizations in Pakistan working in this field and they have developed drones and certain unmanned aerial vehicles that have been inducted into the Pakistan Army but not HIT.

We have not yet ventured into this field. However, if there is such a requirement in the future and is given to us by the Army, we would be willing to work on such projects.

GVS: HIT appears more focused on the needs of Military Armoured Vehicles, but there are other complexes in Pakistan. So, what are the other areas that together constitute Pakistan’s defense production?

Major General Aamer: In line with the government’s policy, all the organizations and defense production establishments are working to achieve goal of indigenization including Pakistan Ordnance Factory, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Air Weapon Complex, National Radio Telecommunication Organization, etc.

Our proof of that is the JF-17 Thunder, which is not only being manufactured but is also being exported to some of the friendly countries. So, the main aim of all these complexes is to achieve as much self-reliance as possible in the field of defense.

We have also found no dearth of technological partners in the civil sector as well because there are firms over here in Pakistan which have required technical expertise that need to be harnessed.

There are firms here which are supplying high-tech equipment to different countries in Europe and the USA. We want to collaborate with them because we should look more inwards and start developing the products and the components that are fitted in the equipment being manufactured and used within the country.

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GVS: HIT is now fifty; what then is the vision ahead for HIT?

Major General Aamer: If I have to sum up the vision of HIT, there would be four things that come to my mind. The first would be an enhancement in our design and integration capability. Second is the indigenization or self-reliance, which is the primary vision of HIT.

The third is carrying out research and development in the infantry fighting vehicles and our armored security vehicles. And the last that I have is further enhancement of the public-private partnership.

The government has already authorized us to open a commercial face through which we will expand our export base and subsidize the defense budget – this is what we are now striving for.

Interview was conducted by Editor Global Village Space (GVS) in Chairman’s Secretariat inside Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) on 1st July 2021.

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