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.
Try to catch this Thunderbolt
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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