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 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).
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.
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.
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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