by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
According to the Military Balance 2019, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may possess the largest active-duty tank fleet on the planet, with about 5,800 tanks in operational service. However, Chinese tanks remain relatively little known in the Western world. Therefore, in a two-part series, we first briefly surveyed the operational history of mainland Chinese tank forces, and the development of indigenous Chinese tanks through 1990. In this second part, we look at the organization and role of contemporary PLA tank units and review Chinese tanks currently in PLA Ground Force, Navy and Air Force service, as well as models exported abroad. Finally, Louis Martin-Vézian provided offiziere.ch with a comprehensive illustration of the last sixty years of Chinese tank design.
Training & Doctrine
It is usually a mistake to over-fixate on technical capabilities when less easily quantified qualities of doctrine, training, and leadership have a more decisive impact on an armed force’s combat effectiveness. In these regards, the PLA has much ground to make up: it fought its last war in 1979, an episode which revealed major shortcomings in its military capabilities. For all their considerable mass, PLA Ground Forces lacked the speed, flexibility, and proficiency in combined-arms and inter-service operations.
In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s massive mechanized army, which included about 1,500 Chinese Type 59 and Type 69 tanks, was dealt a crushing defeat in the Gulf War by modern Western militaries. Appreciating how technologically and doctrinally outdated its forces were, the PLA began reevaluating its People’s War doctrine, which advocated drawing foreign invaders in for guerilla warfare and battles of attrition.
In some respects, PLA Ground Force modernization has focused equally on mechanizing PLA infantry units on foot with a mixture of tracked and wheeled Armoured personnel carriers, and more heavily armed Infantry Fighting Vehicles. At the same time, resources shifted away from the PLA Ground Forces to the PLA Navy and Air Force as U.S. sea and air power, not Soviet land power, became perceived as China’s most significant military threat.
Another massive round of reorganization was kicked off 2014/15 with Xi Jinping’s order to downsize military ranks by 300,000 personnel even as defense spending increased. Many ground forces formations were eliminated or reorganized in pursuit of a leaner, more capable brigade-centric force.
Historically, PLA service has been a prestigious, life-long occupation for its officers, incentivizing maintenance of a large army. Military exercises were often rigidly scripted and unrealistic, with OPFOR unit commanders encouraged to lose so as not to cause the non-OPFOR team to lose face.
Internal military documents reveal senior PLA commanders are frankly aware of these shortcomings. As described in these articles by Don Tse and Gary Li, the PLA reorganized its 195th Mechanized Infantry Brigade into an U.S.-style Brigade Combat Team to serve as an OPFOR unit in training exercises, lavished with air, artillery, electronic warfare, and nuclear/chemical weapons support.
In 33 exercises held at Zurihe, Inner Mongolia from 2014 to 2016, the OPFOR unit defeated elite Chinese armor brigades equipped with Type 96 and Type 99 tanks 32 times, typically inflicting 70% losses—most suffered before visual contact.
Rather than burying these embarrassing outcomes, the Xi Jinping government publicized them widely to promote its military reform project, even featuring one of the skirmishes in a documentary, along with an interview with the defeated unit’s sobbing political officer (see this Chinese video minutes 7-11).
Prior to 2017, PLA tanks were organized into 17 tank brigades and roughly 24 mechanized infantry brigades (including regular, light and amphibious types). There was also one full armor division (the 6th) and seven mechanized infantry divisions. All but one of the PLA’s eighteen Group Armies (corps) incorporated one armored brigade each and one to three mechanized brigades.
However, in a major reform later in 2017, the number of Group Armies was paired down to thirteen, and the mechanized and armored divisions disbanded. In the place of mechanized and armored brigades, PLA tanks are now spread out to 78 to 80 combined arms brigades. These are composed of combined arms battalions, as well as a supporting battalion each of artillery, air defense, reconnaissance, a combat support battalion (engineering, C2, EW), and several logistical battalions.
A combined arms battalion consists of one company of 14 tanks plus three mechanized infantry companies, each with 12 infantry fighting vehicles. Supporting assets, all self-propelled, include two HQ-17 SAM systems (similar to the Russian TOR), six 35-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, a medium battery of 120-millimeter artillery (or possibly self-propelled mortars), and a six-vehicle anti-tank battery with HJ-10 fiber-optic-wire-guided missiles.
The PLA also operates seven amphibious combined arms brigades equipped with landing ships and Type 63A tanks. Meanwhile, the PLA Navy’s Marine Corps recently expanded from two to six brigades, equipped with Type 05 amphibious fighting vehicle. Two each are deployed in Guangdong, Shandong and Fujian provinces. Finally, the PLA Air Force operates six mechanized airborne brigades equipped with ZBD-03 airborne infantry fighting vehicles.
Role of Tanks in Chinese National Security
Following the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War, China’s armored forces primarily were oriented toward countering a potential Soviet invasion — a danger highlighted by violent clashes on the Sino-Soviet border in 1969. Modern-day Russia maintains a ground army, recent alignment between Beijing and Moscow on foreign policy appear to have diminished fear of conflict. In 2018, Russia even invited 3,000 Chinee troops to participate in its massive Vostok 2018 military exercise.
China is also involved in an escalating security competition with India along its Himalayan border, the site of a brief 1962 war in which armored units did not see action (save possibly some PLA self-propelled artillery). While mountainous terrain impedes armored operations, China has invested heavily in building up road infrastructure in adjacent Tibet and recently deployed a Type 15 light tank specifically for operations in mountainous terrain.
The PLA also maintains capabilities for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, even if such a destructive and risky contingency is unlikely in the near term. Tanks would play an essential role in supporting any amphibious landing in Taiwan, which is defended by M-60 Patton tanks.
Other more hypothetical scenarios in which armor might play a role include potential conflicts with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines over disputed islands or intervention in the event of the collapse of North Korea or strife on China’s southeast Asian flank.
As Beijing, and even Chinese action movies, increasingly evoke a national self-image as a global power, Chinese armor may also be deployed abroad for peace-enforcement and anti-terrorist missions, or in defense of economic interests or allied governments. This is particularly true in Africa, where China has a tremendous commercial presence and recently opened a permanent military base in Djibouti. Thus, future Chinese deployments might incorporate increased force protection measures, even if China — compared to other states — does not have to show an excessive number of fallen soldiers in UN peacekeeping missions so far (see statistics below).
Arguably, Beijing may fear internal challenges to the Communist Party of China rule more than any foreign adversary. Thus, the PLA’s huge tank fleet — and particularly its more dated types — may be valued as an emergency measure to quash mass protests such as those that occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or to contain large-scale uprisings by ethnic minorities such as occurred in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. In the latter incident, at least one source state tanks were used passively to block streets and control rioting. Regarding the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, the Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian stated that the PLA could be deployed to Hong Kong to maintain social order at the request of the city’s government.
The Mainstay: Type 96 Main Battle Tank
The Type 96, a 47-ton main battle tank in a similar class to the Russian T-72B3, is at the heart of PLA modernization. It comes with most of the characteristics associated with Russian-style tanks: a three-man crew, explosive reactive armor (ERA) tiles, and a carousel autoloading 125-millimeter gun with a maximum rate of fire of six rounds per minute (rpm) and capability of firing Refleks-type ATGMs. The Type 96’s octagonal turret is fitted with modular composite armor for easy upgrade or repair and features side storage spaces that double as spaced armor. The later Type 96A model added an angular wedge of ERA to the turret and Shtora-style laser-jamming systems on either side to foul the guidance of certain types of anti-tank missiles. The tank’s gunner benefits from modernized fire control systems derived from the Type 99 and improved thermal imagers extending night vision from 800 meters to 2 kilometers.
The Type 96’s ZTP-98 gun is rated to penetrate 500 to 600 millimeter RHA equivalent at two kilometers. Its armor protection falls within a similar range, though reinforced in later models with FY-4 ERA (equivalent to Russian Kontakt-5) that ostensibly may improve equivalent armor thickness by as much as 60%.
Overall, Type 96 tanks remain at a disadvantage head-to-head versus heavier 60- to 70-ton Western tanks, but it can perform most other battlefield tasks (including engaging T-72/T-90 type tanks) satisfactorily and is comparatively inexpensive to manufacture. However, when trotted out for the competition in Russia’s 2014 tank biathlon, the Type 96A’s proved slower to accelerate and overall deficient in power compared to the Russian T-90. This is because increases in protection, and therefore weight, had not been matched by increasing the power of its 780 horsepower V12 engine.
The latest Type 96B model debuted in 2016 with improved thermal imagers, a more powerful 1,130 horsepower diesel engine of apparently Ukrainian origin (boosting speed from 35 to 40 miles per hour / 55 to 65 km/h), and improved suspension and ventilation. The new model won a gold medal at the 2016 biathlon, completing a course 2 minutes and 11 seconds faster than competing Russian T-72B3s (see video below).
The PLA operates 2,500 Type 96s of various models and intends for it to replace all of its older tanks eventually. Compared to the more formidable Type 99, the lighter Type 96 may be more practical for operations on difficult terrain and less developed infrastructure in sub-tropical southern China and mountainous Tibet, as well as for deployment in the second wave of an amphibious landing.
The Thoroughbred: Type 99 Main Battle Tank
The Type 99 represents China’s effort to build a tank with defensive and offensive capabilities comparable to top Western tanks like the M1 Abrams or Leopard 2. As such, it is arguably more capable — and more expensive at $2.5 million each — than strictly necessary for Beijing’s ground forces. It is the prize horse of the PLA’s stable, while the Type 96 serves as the workhorse.
A prototype model dubbed the Type 98 (40 built) first showed up in the 1998 May Day parade — itself an evolution of the Type 90-II tank, which was inspired by the Russian T-72 and T-80.
Today, the PLA has roughly 850 Type 99s in service, 250 which are newer and heavier 64-ton Type 99A or 99A2 models with redesigned turrets and modernized systems. The Type 99 tank is reserved for elite Chinese tank units, particularly in northern China and around Beijing, where the flatter terrain and improved infrastructure pose fewer problems for its heavier weight.
Like the Leopard 2, the Type 99 sports a 1,500 horsepower diesel engine, and can attain brisk speeds of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h), or 37 miles per hour (about 60 km/h) off-road. Early Type 99s carry a similar auto-loading 125-millimeter gun to the Type 96, though with a faster maximum rate of fire (8 rpm). However, later 99A2 variant sport a longer smoothbore cannon, implying higher muzzle velocity and penetration. The A model also introduced an additional commander’s sight to supplement the gunner’s with hunter-killer capability and an improved weather sensor. In addition to GPS and battlefield datalinks, Type 99 also has a stealthy laser-based communication system.
The Type 99’s composite armor is thought to be of comparable effectiveness to that on an M1 Abrams (800 millimeter RHA equivalent or higher) and is boosted by explosive reactive armor tiles. The 99A model sports second-generation Relikt-style ERA employing radar to time detonation of the tiles versus incoming projectiles, theoretically enabling it to defeat tandem shaped-charge missiles and degrade penetration of kinetic projectile. Additional defensive systems on the Type 99 include:
- A Laser Warning Receiver to warn the crew if a laser targeting system is painting it.
- JD-03 Infrared Jammers that may disrupt semi-automatic and heat-seeking missile guidance systems.
- A laser dazzler which could be used to damage opposing tank optics and potentially inflict permanent blindness on enemy crews. As the Chinese military used laser dazzlers in 2018 to harass U.S. military aircraft operating around Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, there is a reason to believe there may be little hesitation to use tank-mounted dazzlers for blinding attacks.
Reportedly China has tested a 140-millimeter gun on Type 99, bringing to mind similar large-caliber guns tested on the Leclerc, CATTB Abrams, and Leopard 2. However, such weapons remain over-kill, particularly given the limited scope of land warfare threats to China.The Light Brigade: China’s New Type 15 Mountain Tank, and other Amphibious and Airborne Tanks
Unlike Western militaries, the PLA has long clung to the concept of “light tanks” due to concerns that marshy rice paddies in southern China would not support the weight of a full main battle tank. This initially led China to develop the Type 62 light tank — a Type 59 tank downgraded with thinner armor (maximum 50 millimeters) and a weaker rifled 85-millimeter gun to reduce weight to just 23 tons.
Type 62 tanks were retired from PLA service in 2017, but not so China’s Type 63 amphibious tanks, which are derived from Soviet PT-76 tanks using a cast-steel turret and up-gunned with 85-millimeter guns. The modernized 20-ton Type 63A model is upgraded further with a low-recoil rifled 105-millimeter gun, GPS, a more powerful 581 horsepower diesel engine, a thermal imager, and a fire control system allowing it to fire laser-guided missiles while swimming. The Type 63A’s improved water jets can propel it to 17 miles per hour (about 27 km/h).
The PLAN Navy Marine Corps also operates more modern ZTD-05 amphibious tanks, derived from the ZBD-05 amphibious fighting vehicle. The ZTD-5 mounts a stabilized rifled 105-millimeter gun which can also fire laser-guided anti-tank missiles while swimming, as well as a coaxial machine-gun and turret-mounted 12.7-millimeter anti-aircraft machine-gun. The aluminum tank weighs 26.5 tons and can attain a maximum speed of 23 miles per hour (37 km/h). Both vehicles can swim long distances, and are primarily intended for potential use in an amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
Unusually, China’s airborne (paratrooper) forces fall under PLA Air Force rather than PLA Ground Force control. PLA paratroopers adhere a mechanized airborne rather than a light infantry organization, with paratroopers dropped alongside ZBD-03 airborne fighting vehicles (see video below), inspired by the Russian BMD-3.
Three of the thinly armored vehicles can be parachute dropped from a single Il-76 or Y-20 transport plane. The vehicle’s one-man turret mounts a stabilized 30-millimeter autocannon, an HJ-73 or HJ-8 anti-tank missile launcher and a coaxial machine gun. Up to five infantrymen can be carried in the hull. The agile vehicles can sprint up to 42 miles per hour (about 68 km/h) and are also amphibious.Second Generation Tanks: Type 79 and 88
As detailed in part one, the PLA developed numerous tanks during the 1980s. Three models, the Type 69, 79 and 88, were produced in modest numbers for domestic service, but the PLA was never fully satisfied with their capabilities. Around 500 of the latter two models remain operational in the Beijing military region, mainly in training and reserve capacities.
While the 100-millimeter gun armed Type 69 tank was retired in 2017, 200 of the improved Type 79 variant introduced in 1984 linger on. These are fitted with rifled 105-millimeter Type 83 guns, infrared sights, Marconi fire-control systems, and NBC-detection systems, and have also had ERA added.
The nearly 40-ton Type 88 (produced 1988—1995) incorporated the same Western systems onto a new hull design with five roadwheels (debuted in the Type 80 prototype model) and featured a German-built 730-horsepower diesel engine, increasing speed to 35 miles per hour (about 56 km/h). The later 88A and 88B subvariant introduced a longer-barreled Type 83A gun, a faster (13 rpm) loading mechanism, explosive-reactive armor tiles, and new targeting sensors.
Oldie but Goody: Type 59 First Generation Tanks
In 1956, the Soviet Union transferred the schematics for its now ubiquitous T-54A tank to China, which sported a potent 100-millimeter gun and up to 203 millimeters of frontal turret armor. The Chinese entered their version into mass production two years later, minus the T-54’s gun stabilization and infrared searchlight, and built 10,000 Type 59s before production ended in 1985.
A capable design when it was introduced, Type 59 tanks are outclassed by modern tanks and anti-tank weapons; however, it remains adequate for infantry support purposes in less contested environments. China retains more than 1’900 Type 59s in active units and thousands more in reserve. Of the Type 59s in 2015 serving in 69 battalions, around 1,300 were only lightly upgraded with modernized fire control systems. Another 500 are Type 59-IIs mounting more capable rifled 105-millimeter Type 83 guns (derived from UK’s L7).
Finally, there about 650 Type 59D models which entered service in 1995, boasting new FY-series ERA tiles, relatively modern fully-stabilized fire control systems, thermal sights, and anti-tank missile launch capability based on the Russian AT-10 Stabber (range 3.2 miles / about 5 km). Some D variants have higher-velocity Type 83A cannons.
That the PLA maintains so many Type 59s in service shows an enduring commitment to maintaining “mass” in its armored forces, even as it slowly incorporates more modern designs.
Modern Chinese Export Tanks
During the Cold War, China exported thousands of Type 59, 63, 69, and 79 tanks across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Type 59s saw extensive action in the Vietnam War (a Type 59 tank stormed the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon), Indo-Pakistani Wars, and the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars. Type 59s and 69s also participated in counter-insurgency conflicts in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Sudan.
Modern Chinese tank exports are on a much more modest scale. Since the 1980s, China began exporting newer tanks abroad under the VT-designation (see table below), making it little more obscure that a VT-1, for example, is effectively a Type 90-II tank.