Chinese Thunderbolts replace American Cobras: New Z-10 Attack Helicopters for Pakistan

Chinese made helicopters could soon fight the Taliban

Pakistan’s Z-10s

Pakistan recently took delivery of three Z-10 attack helicopters, stored at this hangar in the Qasim Army base near Rawalphindi. The helicopters’ state of disassembly suggests that Pakistani technicians are working to quickly familarize themselves with these new helicopters by installing rotor blades and other parts for flight, and then combat.

Since a January 2015 agreement, China has transferred three Z-10 “Thunderbolt” attack helicopters to Pakistan, which has become China’s staunchest ally and largest weapons buyer. These three Z-10 helicopters are currently at a Pakistani Army base in Qasim/Dhamial, undergoing testing, maintenance training and modifications for operating in the Khyber mountains.


The Z-10, like other modern attack helicopters, carries a wide variety of missiles and rockets like the HJ-10 anti-tank missile, as well as its 23mm chain gun, which can spit out about 600 8oz shells a minute. While usually a land based attack helicopter, with the right amount of derring do and ingenuity, it can be based off a wide range of ships, naval or disguised civilian, for attacks from the sea.

The Z-10 is built by the Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation, with design input from Russia’s Kamov Design Bureau. It first flew in 2003, and the PLA and the PLAN currently flies around 80-100 helicopters. The 7-8 ton Z-10 is similar to other attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache, Mi-28 Havoc and August Westland Mangusta. With its heavy armament of a 23mm cannon, and over a ton of guided weapons including HJ-10 anti-tank missiles, 57mm rockets and TY-90 air to air missiles, the Z-10 is China’s frontline attack helicopter, replacing the Cold War era Z-9 (itself a French license copy).

Flight Prep

The Z-10’s primary sensor is the round turret on the bottom half of its nose,similar to sensor turrets found on UAVs like the Reaper. The sensor turret carries a variety of cameras, including night vision, electro-optical and infrared imaging.

The Z-10 will supplement Pakistan’s arsenal of 51 aging American built AH-1 “Cobra” attack helicopters. In particular, the Z-10’s greater size allows it to carry more powerful thermal imaging and night vision equipment than the AH-1F, as well as “fire and forget” missiles like the HJ-10 (the AH-1’s TOW missile requires that the helicopter maintain line of sight with the target, which leaves it vulnerable to anti-air fire). The Z-10 also has a laser target designator, which could allow it to provide guidance support for missiles fired by the Burraq armed drones.

Z-10 Squadron

The PLA currently has at least eight squadrons of Z-10 attack helicopters, for a total of nearly 100 helicopters. If China succeeds in exporting the Z-10 to Pakistan, it would make it a highly competitive export prospect.

Once they enter into service, Pakistans’ Z-10 attack helicopter would likely fight in Operations Khyber 1 and Zarb e Azb against Taliban fighters near the Afghan border. The Z-10 would be used, as have the AH-1s, to provide close air support for Pakistani troops, as well as to conduct search and kill mission of high value terrorist targets, and battlefield reconnaissance.

Try to catch this Thunderbolt

Attack helicopters are surprisingly agile, as this aerobatic Z-10 sprays off colored smoke and fires flares. While high turn maneuvers and smoke wouldn’t fool most modern surface to air missiles like handheld MANPADS, flares can still be effective.

Future upgrades for the Z-10 could include a millimeter wave radar similar to the American Longbow system, more powerful WZ-16 turboshaft engines to increase speed and armor, improved infrared and electronic countermeasures, and the ability to network with unmanned systems such as drones. If Pakistan finds the Z-10 to be capable platforms, it would likely replace the Cobra as Pakistan’s next attack helicopter. And a successful trail by combat would make the Z-10 very attractive to other foreign buyers. Just another sign that China is making waves in the international arms market, selling increasingly sophisticated systems such as warships, air defense and anti-ship missiles.

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