Higher than the Himalayas: How it all Began

Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of the early years of Chinese military assistance to Pakistan

Higher than the Himalayas: How it all Began
Sales of major weapon systems are often governed by the relationship between the supplier and recipient nations. The 1950s and 1960s was the era of American military assistance but as Pakistan’s alliance shifted from the West to the East, so did the mainstay of its air and land forces. The 1965 war marked a defining moment. The Americans had turned off the tap and President Ayub Khan was deeply concerned about finding fresh sources for military equipment.

The fleet of Patton tanks had taken a hard knock, and there was a desire to obtain more since they were still the backbone of the armoured corps.  Pakistan also wanted to diversify as well as upgrade the fleet. At a high-level meeting in early 1968 Field Marshal Ayub Khan formulated a strategy as recorded in his published diary.

Premier Zhou Enlai and President Ayub Khan at a military display in China, 1963

The answers were going on buying as many second-hand American tanks in Europe as possible, and put new diesel engines in them and keep on agitating with the Russians for advance T series tanks. Don’t underrate the Chinese promise, and finally, put new diesel engines in as many old Shermans as possible. All these measures should give us all the population we need”.

Unfortunately, a lot of this was wishful thinking.

In 1967, while visiting France, the Field Marshal requested President de Gaulle for 200 M47 Pattons which the French were replacing with their own AMX-30. However, Pakistan was under a US arms embargo and it neither allowed this transfer nor of the Pattons that Pakistan was interested in acquiring from Belgium.
The strategic ties that were emerging between China and Pakistan were demonstrated by the fact that within three years of commencing their own serial production of the T-59, the Chinese were supplying it to Pakistan

Pakistan’s GHQ evaluated tanks manufactured in Europe, but the French AMX-30 was too expensive, and the Germans were not prepared to sell the Leopard for political reasons. After a great deal of effort by Pakistan in mending fences, the Soviets supplied 60 T-55 tanks and some 130mm artillery guns but withheld more because Pakistan was not prepared to be a party to an Asia Security Pact that was in essence anti-Chinese. Ultimately, it was only China that was willing to provide the urgently required hardware.

The request for Chinese tanks predated the 1965 war and was probably made after Ayub Khan witnessed its demonstration during a visit to China in 1963. They had agreed to supply 80 T-59 Tanks and the first consignment made its debut just after the 1965 war at the Pakistan Day Parade at Rawalpindi on the 23rd of March 1966. The T-59 was a copy of the Soviet T-54A, which represented a turning point in tank design. Instead of a high-low mix of mediums and heavies, a single all-purpose vehicle, the ‘Main Battle Tank’ (the term was coined by the Soviets), would dominate the future battlefield. The Chinese accepted the T-54 into service in 1959 as the Type-59, with serial production beginning in 1963 with a number of improvements.

Gen Zia-ul-Haq inaugurating the Heavy Rebuild Factory for T-59 tanks at Taxila, November 1979

The strategic ties that were emerging between China and Pakistan were demonstrated by the fact that within three years of commencing their own serial production of the T-59s, the Chinese were supplying it to Pakistan. Always looking west for military hardware, neither the Pakistani public nor the army were familiar with equipment of Soviet design and when the T-59s appeared on the Pakistan Day Parade in 1966, they caused quite a stir. Compared to the large and relatively graceful M47s/48s, the T-59s looked a little sinister and a trifle unbalanced with their long 100mm guns mounted on a comparatively small turret and chassis. Its V-12 water-cooled, diesel engine also emitted a lot more smoke than the continental V-12, air-cooled, gasoline engine of the Pattons.

The regiments equipped with the first T-59s realised that the tank lacked the sophistication of American equipment and its ergonomics was poor. Though it had a more robust suspension, the ride was hard and a cause of crew-fatigue. The manual gears and steering was a comedown from the automatic drive of the Pattons and the T-59’s dry clutch was very sensitive. The loader had a hard time grappling with the heavy 100mm round in a cramped turret and the gunner had the least space, giving the impression that he had been fitted in as an after-thought. The T-59 had a more powerful 100mm gun but could carry only 34 rounds of ammunition, which was half the capacity of the ‘M’ Series.

F-6 of the Pakistan Air Force - supplied by China and overhauled at a facility established at Kamra, whose foundations were laid in 1972

In spite of its drawbacks, the Pakistan Armoured Corps appreciated that in critical areas the T-59 was an improvement over its American counterpart. The crew was protected by nearly double the armour of the M48 and it also had far better ballistic sloping and no shot-traps. More significantly, the T-59 presented a much smaller target. Its low silhouette of less than 2.4 meters (compared to the 3 meters of the M48) was a great advantage in the plains of Punjab. Its cruising range of 284 km was of great relief and obviated the need for frequent refuelling that was the bane of the ‘M’ Series. Its diesel fuel was also considered safer than petrol. After the large and complicated GRC Series, the Pakistani tank crews liked the rugged and simple A-220 communication set installed in the T-59. Above all, the T-59 was simple, robust and practical, and matched the skill levels of the Pakistani tank crews. By 1971, the Chinese had provided enough to equip two armoured divisions i.e. over 600 T-59s.

Chinese military assistance was not limited to only tanks but came across a larger part of the spectrum of the army prior to the 1971 war. Chinese 122mm field guns started replacing the British 25 pounder and US 105mm artillery that dated back to the Second World War; our woefully inadequate anti-aircraft capabilities were provided a much need boost; more 130mm medium guns arrived, semi-automatic rifles were provided and a plant set up in East Pakistan to manufacture the AK-47 rifles which were considered more suitable for the nature of terrain in the Eastern Wing.

Brig Shabbi Hussain Shah and an official from the Chinese Embassy signing the protocol in July 1971 for establishing the Heavy Rebuild Factory for the T-59 tank at Taxila

With the induction of an increasing number of T-59s, it was obvious to the army that its facilities for the repair and overhaul of tanks were inadequate. In July 1968, Pakistan negotiated a credit offered by the Republic of Czechoslovakia for establishing a workshop at Multan for the overhaul of T-59s but the project was not cleared by the Soviet Union. Soon after General Yahya became president, he instructed the Secretary of Defence, Syed Ghiasuddin Ahmed to request the Chinese to establish a tank manufacturing plant for Pakistan. The request was channelled through the Chinese ambassador to his government, which despatched a team from the People’s Liberation Army for discussions. The team recommended a progressive approach and as a first step, they were prepared to establish a facility to rebuild the T-59. In May 1971, experts from China along with their Pakistani counterparts, surveyed a site near Multan as well as sites around Rawalpindi and finally selected the idyllic location of Taxila with its 3,000 years of history. In July 1971, on behalf of the Government of Pakistan, Brig Shabbir Hussain Shah signed a protocol with an official of the Chinese Embassy for a tank re-build complex.

The project was designated as P-711 and the project office was established at Chaklala under the Defence Production Division of the Ministry of Defence. Construction of accommodation for the employees at Taxila started in early 1973 followed two years later with the construction of the rebuild complex. It consisted of factories and shops to repair and rebuild the engine and hull, manufacture components, engineering support, and the assembly of the tank. Initially all the components for the rebuild were to be supplied by the Chinese, but at a very early stage, the project office initiated a deletion program with the support of the domestic engineering industry as well as the shops and factories that were being established within the complex. The deletion program was a great success and ultimately of the 11,000 components used in the rebuild of the T-59, some 8,000 were manufactured in country.

T-59 tanks of the 26th Cavalry at the Field Firing Ranges in the Cholistan Desert­

In 1979, the complex was designated as the Heavy Rebuild Factory (HRF) and inaugurated by the President Gen Zia ul Haq, with the first rebuilt T-59 rolling out at the inauguration. The next year the factory went into series production with a yearly capacity to rebuild 100 T-59s and 250 engines. It had taken over ten years from conception to completion, and it could not have come sooner. The first T-59s to arrive in Pakistan were now 14 years old and badly required overhaul. With the HRF in full gear, for the first time since Independence the armoured corps had a fleet of tanks that was supported by a capability for an in-country repair and rebuild.

Parallel with the tank induction and rebuild program for the army, the Pakistan Air Force embarked on a similar program for Chinese aircraft. Post 1965, the Indian Air Force was inducting relatively modern aircraft in sizeable numbers like the Soviet MiG-21 interceptors and SU-7 for ground attack. To maintain balance, Pakistan had ordered the French Mirage IIIs which had been so effectively used by the Israelis in their 1967 War with the Arabs. However, Pakistan could not afford more than 30 and though the Chinese had started to reverse engineer the MiG-21, they were still far from its mass production. What they did offer as a replacement for the F-86 was the F-6, their export version of the Soviet MiG-19. The induction of the first batch of 72 aircraft commenced in December 1965 and at its peak, the F-6 equipped ten squadrons of the PAF. The early batch of pilots who were converted onto the F-6s at Urumqi had a unique experience as the Chinese put them through a program probably designed from basic training onwards. In spite of our pilots having hundreds of hours on the F-86 Sabres and flown combat missions during the 1965 war, one of their first lessons was to stand around a long table representing the runway and taking off, circuiting and landing with model planes while making the necessary transmissions. During flight training the Chinese were also very stringent with flying hours not only for our pilots but also for their own – take-off, one circuit and the pilot had to land back.
Always looking west for military hardware, neither the Pakistani public nor the army were familiar with equipment of Soviet design

It was a challenge for our pilots to harness the ‘Pack of Roaring Power’ as it was known in the PAF. The twin Tumansky RD-9 engines were powerful enough to get a pilot out of a bad situation and the acceleration they provided was excellent, especially with afterburners. With a 0.8 thrust-to-weight ratio, the F-6 climbed exceedingly well, which not only made it ideal for point interceptions but also gave it an advantage that could be exploited in close combat. At low speed manoeuvring, the F-6 had an aerodynamic problem called ‘adverse yaw’ and would often snap out of hard turns. Due to ‘adverse yaw’, the aircraft was also notorious for getting into spins without warning. Rather than dogfighting in tail chases, our F-6 pilots learnt to ‘fight in the vertical’ using their aircraft’s acceleration and thrust to climb vertically, away from the fight, and then to pull over the top and come back down full of altitude and energy. Unfortunately, the F-6 did not have a computing gunsight for its three 30mm cannons because the Chinese could not duplicate the Russian MiG-19 sight. PAF’s expertise on the F-6 was fully tested during the 1971 Indo-Pak War.Its three F-6 squadrons performed well flying 945 air combat and ground attack sorties and shot down eight Indian Air Force fighters while losing approximately six to ground fire and aerial combat.

To enhance the F-6’s effectiveness in air superiority and ground attack missions, PAF’s engineers and technicians carried out a number of modifications/upgrades. The major ones included Western avionics, the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile, French 68mm rockets, additional underwing tanks and under-belly ‘Gondola’ fuel tanks and a special ground-power unit for instantly starting its twin engines to shorten ‘scramble’ time. One of the best modifications that was carried out on the F-6 was installing a Martin-Baker Ejection Seat. The Chinese ejection seat had a limitation of 6,000 feet for a safe ejection whereas the Martin-Baker seat has a zero-zero limit i.e. even if a pilot ejects from a static aircraft on the ground, he would land safely.

One of the major limitations of the J-6 was that it required an overhaul after only 100 flight hours. With diligent maintenance the Pakistan Air Force was often able to extend this to 130 hours but lacking an in country facility for its overhaul was a major limitation in the availability of the aircrafts. When the PAF became aware that China was prepared to establish a rebuild factory for tanks in Pakistan, they asked the Secretary Defense to request the Chinese for a similar facility for the F-6. The planning for this facility at Kamra was initiated as Project 721 (i.e. the first project for the year 1972). During discussions the PAF wanted the facility to be underground but the Chinese advised against it because in their experience, humidity control was a major problem leading to rusting of machinery and airframes. Project 721 gradually shaped into a full-fledged Aircraft Rebuild Factory capable of providing Maintenance Repair and Overhaul for various types of Chinese aircraft on the inventory of the PAF. The first F-6 that was overhauled at Kamra rolled out in 1980, a year after the first overhauled T-59 tank rolled out of the Heavy Rebuild Factory at Taxila. Both were milestones for their respective services and established the basis for the manufacture of aircrafts and tanks.