In 1958, China undertook local production of the Soviet T-54A Main Battle Tank as the Type 59. Some 9,500 were produced until 1980 making it one of the most numerable MBTs of the Cold War. Armed with a rifled 100mm main gun and up to 203mm armor thickness, the Type 59 survived in varied forms throughout her operational service life, seeing service with many budget-conscious buyers in Central Africa, the Middle East and Southern Asia. One operator became who ordered 80 tanks in 1964 and received the batch in full by 1966. In 1968, there stood a 210-strong order which further strengthened the armored corps of the Pakistani Army. Additional tanks were ordered in 1973 and 1975 bringing the total Type 59 procurement to some 1,300 vehicles.
As with any other combat system, the Type 59 began to show its limitations through age and constantly changing battlefield technologies. As such, Pakistani Type 59 stocks were selected for a refit program that sought to upgrade the fleet to produce a more modern end-product suitable for use on the modern battlefield. The move was a more cost-effective measure over that of purchasing an entire new fleet of expensive Main Battle Tanks. The local concern of Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) was selected for the upgrade program which sought to modernized the Type 59 fleet through several hundred conversions.
Combat tanks survive on the battlefield through the proper allocation of assets - mainly armor protection, mobility and firepower. To this HIT was called to address the shortcomings of the Type 59 design with a new armor protection scheme, engine installation and main gun armament. Work on the new tank began in 1990 and ended with functional prototypes by 1998. Formal evaluations by the Pakistani Army then followed to which teething issues and requirements were instituted. After finalization of the design, full-scale serial production of the new tank began in 2003 as the system was adopted into Pakistani Army service as the "Al-Zarrar". First deliveries took place in 2004 and continue as of this writing (2012).
The completed Al-Zarrar is a 44-ton tracked combat system fielding a powerful 125mm smoothbore main gun in a traversing turret. The vehicle sits atop a tracked-wheeled system consisting of five double-tired large road wheels, a rear drive sprocket and a front track idler. Track return rollers guide the upper track regions in the usual way. Its overall design is highly conventional with the driver seated in the front hull, the engine at the rear and the remaining crew - commander, gunner and loader - in the turret. The Al-Zarrar holds a naturally low profile which is a common design feature to Soviet-originated tanks in general. Armor protection is addressed through a new protection scheme that includes optional explosive reactive armor (ERA) blocks for the turret and hull. Side skirts (optional) further protect the hull sides and track system. Mobility is presented through a KMDB 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled 730 horsepower diesel engine installation of Ukrainian origin which gives the Al-Zarrar a top road speed of 65 kmh with an operational range of 450 kilometers. In line with prior Soviet tank designs, the Al-Zarrar maintains the ability to mount an external fuel drum at the rear of the hull for increased running ranges. The vehicle is suspended upon a torsion bar suspension system. Firepower is addressed through the 125mm chrome-plated main gun which is a nod to the heavy Soviet use of the same large-caliber gun over that of the West's 120mm breeds and thusly features an inherent missile-launching feature. As with other tanks in this class, the Al-Zarrar is defended from air attack by a 12.7mm Soviet-style anti-aircraft heavy machine gun on the turret roof and from infantry through the 7.62mm machine gun fitted coaxially to the main gun in the turret. The turret retains the side-by-side hatch layout of the original Soviet T-54 models.
The main gun is fully-stabilized and capable of firing various projectile types including high-explosive and armor-piercing versions. The fire control system (FCS) is modern and the main gun sports a semi-automatic autoloading system. Accuracy is handled by a digital system incorporating a laser-range finder. All told, the completed armaments system allows for accurate fire on-the-move.
The vehicle is defensed beyond its machine gun array. This includes use of integrated, electrically-actuated smoke grenade dischargers found along the forward turret sides. The vehicle can, therefore, generate its own smokescreen to conceal its movements from the enemy. Armor protection is such that it has been specifically allocated to deal with the threat of underground mines and guided anti-tank missiles. This is coupled with an onboard threat warning suite which alerts the crew to tracking by enemy weapons. In the event of a direct hit against the vehicle, an automatic fire suppression system kicks in to protect both crew and ammunition from an internal explosion or fire.
To date (2012) some 320 Pakistani Army Type 59 tanks have been upgraded to the newer Al-Zarrar standard and both are fielded side-by-side. The Al-Zarrar series has been actively utilized in the fighting in and around Swat and Malakand against entrenched militants. One example survived multiple suicide bombing attacks to which the tank was eventually put out of commission but its entire crew surviving.
The Al-Zarrar is being actively offered for export by Pakistan, particularly to current owners and operators of the T-54/Type 59 family (of which there are many). Bangladesh originally intended to upgrade its existing fleet of Type 59 tanks to the Al-Zarrar standard though this has since fallen way to a much improved Type 59G form directly from China.