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The Modern Battle Tanks Of Asia

July 29, 2014
Type 90 MBT

The Japanese Type 90 is based on the German Leopard 2.

After half a century of industrialization, militaries across the continent are relying on locally built main battle tanks to boost their arsenals.

But most of the latest MBTs emerging from Asia and the Middle East are remarkably advanced compared to the late Cold War models introduced by either NATO or the former Soviet Union. The critical difference today is the so-called global supply chain. This allows manufacturers to acquire critical parts from abroad and integrate these with their project. The result is developing advanced weapon systems is easier than ever, including tanks.

Not all efforts to produce indigenous MBTs have proven successful in meeting the standards of third-generation models. A modern battle tank is the sum of a powerful engine and main gun; extensive armoring; NBC protection; modularity; and sufficient countermeasures. Combining these systems and subsystems produces a deadly fighting machine, while the lack of any single component creates an inferior vehicle and could spell death for the crew.

Below is a selection of new tanks entering service in Asia. The listing is arranged according to geographic position, beginning from the East (Japan) to the West (Israel).

Japanese MBT Type 10

(Mitsubishi) Type 10

Japan is the first East Asian country to build its own tanks and armored vehicles.

A world class manufacturing base and its own experience with the Type 90 led to a completely new tank in the 2000s. This is the Type 10. Only entering service in 2012 the 48-ton Type 10 is a three-man 1,200 horsepower MBT encased in ceramic steel armor.

Armed with an autoloader-fed 120 mm Rheinmetall gun, the Type 10’s conventional layout puts it in the same class as the M1A2 Abrams and the Leopard 2A7. It must be emphasized how the Type 10’s dimensions are smaller to suit the JGSDF’s new requirement for mobility and rapid transport.

Additional layers of protection on the turret, including side skirts covering the five road wheels on each set of treads, ensure the Type 10 can absorb IED and missile hits.

North Korean Songun-ho MBT

(Second Machine Industry Bureau) Songun-Ho

Often dismissed as a failed state ruled by a despot, the impoverished Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has succeeded against the odds in mass-producing its own weapons.

Since the 1980s it’s believed the North Korean army has relied on a derivative of the T-62 for its elite armored units. This tank became known as the Chonma-Ho and its modernization continues until the present day. In 2013 news surfaced that North Korea fielded 900 new MBTs. According to the Yonhap News Agency, these are mostly the Chongma-Ho 5 and smaller numbers of the advanced Songun-Ho.

Scant online sources reveal conflicting information about the Chongma and Songun, including the mysterious Pokpung-Ho resembling the T-72. The image above may or may not be the Songun-Ho. Judging by its appearance, however, assumptions can be made about its features. Most striking are its six road wheels, turret shape, and weapons.

Having six road wheels is credible proof the Songun-Ho runs on a bigger diesel engine. If North Korea still depends on Chinese or Russian power plants, the best it can use is a 750 hp model that gives it a top speed of 60 km/h. If it uses the original 620 hp engine of a 41.5 ton T-62, then it’s a laggard compared to its rivals.

The appearance of its turret suggest the designers enlarged it to accommodate more subsystems. These include smoke grenade dischargers, frontal add-on armor, and a box-shaped laser rangefinder above the main gun. Beside the rangefinder is a circular infrared searchlight.

In typical North Korean fashion a large caliber 14.5 mm KPV machine gun above the commander’s hatch serves as an anti-aircraft weapon. The main armament is a 125 mm gun. The Songun-Ho’s production numbers and export history are matters of speculation. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) is believed to have more than 4,000 tanks in total.

(Hyundai Rotem) K2 Black Panther

The 55-ton K2 is the South Korean Army’s most powerful MBT to date. It’s also a test bed for multiple systems uncommon to most tanks until recently.

The K2, like the French Leclerc, uses an autoloader to feed its 120 mm smoothbore L55 gun, which reduces the crew to just three. The K2’s large layout is a departure from South Korea’s older MBTs like the M48 and the T-80 and its distinct improvements puts it ahead of possible rivals.

Full computerization influenced the K2’s development over several years. Not only is it Nuclear-Biological-Chemical (NBC) protected, but air-conditioned, C4I and GPS enabled, with digital battle management software and day-night thermal imagery for its laser rangefinder. It also has an active protection system (APS) to detect and foil incoming warheads.

In summation, it’s a superb platform whose performance characteristics can no doubt be improved over the years, making it even deadlier. A German 1,500 hp V12 engine and optional up-armoring with ERA guarantees the K2’s advantages over North Korea’s aging tanks. By 2016, 600 K2’s will be built and delivered to the South Korean Army.


(Norinco) Type 96B

Throughout the 1980s the PLA adopted several tank models to augment its huge fleet of obsolescent Type 59’s. This effort was hardly successful since it cluttered their armored divisions with short-lived mediocrities such as the Type 80 and the Type 85. Even prototypical tanks like the Type 90 didn’t pass muster.

By the mid-1990s, however, a cost-effective and passable MBT did arrive with some fanfare. This was the Type 96. When its appearance drew comparisons to a Soviet-era tank like the T-72 it’s worth mentioning the Type 96 was an all-original. Other than its 125 mm gun fed by an autoloader many of its aspects were derived from what Norinco had learned from almost a half century of building tanks.

The problem was, with its modest 730 hp engine and composite steel armor the Type 96 (even upgraded as the Type 96A) isn’t a peer to its Western counterparts. A reported 2,000 have been manufactured and delivered to the PLA with none made available for export, a distinction reserved for the superior Type 99 that’s marketed as the MBT 2000 or VT-1. For some inexplicable reason earlier variants of the Type 96 tanks have ended up in Sudan.

It was only in 2016 when the Type 96B caught up with its potential rivals. Equipped with a new 1,200 hp engine, a robust armor suite for its turret along with a new fire control system, the Type 96B debuted at the International Army Games in August that year. Despite holding its own against the Russian T-72B3 the Type 96B did suffer a few mishaps.

This didn’t keep Chinese media from hailing the Type 96B as the future “pillar” of the PLA’s armored divisions. This tank is now slated to replace all older models from the inventory, a role that could balloon its production numbers beyond several thousand and establish it as Asia’s most prolific tank.

(Norinco) MBT 3000

It’s difficult to ascertain how many tanks the PLA does possess. Especially the later variants like the Type 96 and the Type 99. The MBT 3000 first came to the world’s attention in 2012 after scale models were displayed at an arms show. Since then little else has come to light about its capabilities besides promotional images on Norinco’s website.

Judging by its appearance, however, the MBT 3000 is another improvement over the current generation of Chinese MBTs that began with the Type 85. What is remarkable about the MBT 3000’s appearance is how it combines new concepts of protection and mobility, with an emphasis on extensive passive armor on the angular turret .

As another model influenced by Russian T-series tanks the MBT 3000 is armed with a 125 mm main gun fed by an autoloader. As noted, the turret is encased in composite armor with a prominent commander’s 360-degree weapon sight next to the laser rangefinder in front of the gunner’s hatch. The layout of the turret is actually similar to the Type 99 MBT, including the 12.7 mm machine gun that sits above the commander’s hatch.

The rear of the turret is covered in what looks like slat panels doubling as storage containers. There are antennas on either side of the turret attached to box frames. The upward slope of the engine compartment, a familiar characteristic of US tanks, suggests a robust power plant. It’s likely the MBT 3000 is using either a 1,200 or 1,500 hp diesel engine reverse engineered or sourced from a supplier outside China.

If the MBT 3000 has the mobility of NATO tanks then its estimated top speed could be near 70 km/h while effective digital battle management software for the crew and a genuine suspension system stabilizes its hull and turret when on the move. The MBT 3000, by the way, isn’t used by the PLA–it’s strictly for export.

Pakistani Army MBT Al-Khalid

(Heavy Industries Taxila) Al Khalid

The Al Khalid is a superb example of technology transfer.

During the late 1980s Pakistan’s leading state-owned arms manufacturer Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) faced the daunting task of modernizing the military’s tanks–an assortment of old American and Chinese models.

The failed acquisition of the M1A1 Abrams in 1987 left the army with its questionable upgraded Norinco Type 59’s. But these T-55 clones were hopelessly outgunned against second and third-generation MBTs. Ukraine’s emergence as an arms exporter proved a boon and hundreds of T-80U’s were bought by Pakistan in the 1990s.

But it was still not enough to match India’s overwhelming armored strengths. At the dawn of the 2000s Pakistan’s HIT acquired a license for local production of the Norinco Type 90, which is exported as the MBT 2000 or VT-1.

Simply put, the MBT 2000 is a bargain for ground forces looking for an upgraded T-series tank. HIT named their new MBT Al Khalid, sourcing its engine from Ukraine while the fire control system was Chinese. The three-man Al Khalid is powered by a Ukrainian 1,200 hp 6TD-2 engine and features a reinforced turret, hull, rubber side skirts, and it’s armed with a 125mm gun fed by an autoloader.

The Al Khalid’s layout conforms to current Sino-Russian tank design with an emphasis on mobility and a low profile. The Al Khalid has already found customers, with hundreds sold to Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Morocco.

HIT claim to have built 320 Al Khalid’s by 2014. It’s unknown how many Pakistan’s army expects to field in the coming years.

Indian Arjun Mk.2

(Heavy Vehicles Factory) Arjun

Despite a long history of tank production dating back to the Vickers-based Vijayanta in the 1960s India’s brave attempt at a third-generation MBT is a failure. The Arjun was supposed to arrive in the 1980s and replace the Indian Army’s thousands of Soviet and British tanks.

What happened instead was a poorly engineered concept based on the Leopard 2 offered too much armor protection matched with an inadequate power plant. To this day it’s unclear if a flawed procurement and testing process or dismal production facilities are what made the Arjun such a difficult program.

The combined pressure of red tape and subpar R&D meant that by 2020 less than 500 Arjuns could be used by India’s armored regiments.

But the Arjun project isn’t dead and the latest variant, the Mark II, was tailored to suit the Army’s needs. It possesses a more powerful 1,400 hp engine as well as an Israeli-made APS, a new armor package, a remote controlled machine gun on the turret, and better modularity.

Russian T-90 MBT

(Uralvagonzavod) T-90

The T-90 is the successful descendant of the T-72. Only limited numbers of the T-90 are used by the Russian Army, who prefer a mixed fleet that will soon include the high tech T-14, but thousands have been sold abroad. Almost 30 years since its debut, the T-90 is being made deadlier.

There’s no doubt the T-90 is a world class tank. Its export variant, the T-90S, comes layered with Relikt reactive armor on its glacis and turret. Thick rubber side skirts also cover its treads to deflect incoming projectiles. A curious feature of the T-90/S are three square reactive panels on its skirts–these are supposed to stop high explosive rounds from penetrating into the driver’s compartment.

As for the turret, two sensors for the Shtora active protection system are able to detect and foil potential missile strikes. An optional feature is the installation of slats or cage armor across the rear of the turret to form improvised storage bins that can also act to absorb anti-tank projectiles.

The T-90/S runs on a 1,130 hp diesel engine that propels the tank at 60 km/h across the battlefield. Its combination of firepower, mobility, and protection makes it a successful export. India is the largest operator of the T-90S and assembles these in state-owned factories. An additional 400 T-90MS tanks were paid for in 2016. Aside from Algeria, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, new customers like Iraq and Vietnam as well as possible orders by Egypt and Kuwait should keep Uralvagonzavod’s production lines humming for another decade.

The T-90S has seen its share of combat in Syria and no matter what its worst critics claim, it’s the best third-generation tank money can buy right now.

Iranian Zulfiqar MBT

(Shahid Kolahdooz Industrial Complex) Zulfiqar 3

The Zulfiqar is arguably the world’s most problematic tank program. The sketchy information from Iran’s military propaganda does little to explain how the Artesh got its own M1 Abrams knockoff.

But careful study of the Zulfiqar’s lineage doesn’t lend it much credibility. In the 1990s Iran’s state-owned designed an odd looking medium tank that never entered mass-production.

Then came the Zulfiqar 2 and 3 during the 2000s. The appearance of either tank hardly makes sense. A careful analysis of the later Zulfiqar’s reveal these were patterned after the M1A1 Abrams. But in the case of the Zulfiqar 3 it appears a 125 mm gun was installed as the main armament. So it must have an autoloader, right? This can’t be verified. The hull is longer as well, with seven small road wheels instead of six. Since Iran lacks access to Honeywell’s AGT 1500 engine the Zulfiqar 3 certainly can’t reach the 70 km/hr top speed of a Western tank so it probably uses a smaller engine sourced from Eastern Europe.

Further insights about its fire control system and armor are nebulous. In the latter case, without sufficient metallurgical know-how Iran’s state-owned factories have to make do with imported composite steel armor. This casts doubt on the Zulfiqar 3’s protection level, which probably explains why it’s often covered in mesh fabric.

Whether the Zulfiqar 3 is a genuine tank rather than a parade ground accessory is yet to be known and its long-term value is a question mark.

Turkish Altay MBT 2

(Otokar) Altay

As Turkey’s first indigenous MBT, the Altay has a lot to prove.

Perhaps this is the reason why Hyundai Rotem was consulted by the Undersecretariat of Defense Industries (SSM) to give pointers on tank development. As a NATO member Turkey has access to both US and German-made tanks, but it chose long-term self-sufficiency over dependence on foreign imports. Otokar was the original manufacturer of the Altay but the project has since been transferred to BMC, another vehicle manufacturer.

The Altay’s four-man crew operate a 55-ton vehicle encased in composite armor with add-on ERA and a 1,500 hp engine. The turret offers maximum visibility with separate sights for the commander and gunner. The main armament is a manually loaded 120 mm L55 gun and missile system with pre-installed hunter killer software–this allows the Altay to collect targets and fight while moving.

Beyond its origins, little else about the Altay is top secret. Should it enter production in the next few years the Altay joins the army’s inventory of US and German tanks. Putting Turkey’s aspirations as a world-class arms exporter in perspective the Altay could be heavily marketed to foreign customers.

Israeli Merkava 4

(IDF Ordnance Corps) Merkava 4

The cumbersome Merkava is the only third-generation tank to offer both superior crew protection and incredible firepower. As a hybrid of features taken from Israel’s colorful tank fleet, the Merkava evolved into a formidable platform that can incorporate various upgrades.

The expensive Merkava 4 unveiled in 2010 is the pinnacle of an esteemed lineage. Beyond additional armor along its side skirts, front, and turret, the Merkava 4 uses the Trophy APS that foils incoming anti-tank missiles alongside its de rigueur machine guns. Further improvements like a 1,500 hp diesel engine from General Dynamics provides greater mobility compared to earlier Merkavas.

Most impressive about the Merkava 4 are its tanktronics. Aside from the Trophy APS, a computerized magazine allows the loader to select from four types of rounds. The same magazine is designed not to endanger the crew with secondary explosions if penetrated.

A battle management system made by Elbit and front/back visibility via camera for the driver ensures the Merkava 4 is well-adapted to asymmetrical combat. But for the past 20 years the Merkava program has been in danger of cancellation thanks to spiraling costs and political pressure. Only 560 Merkava 4’s are expected to be in service with the IDF until 2020.