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The Modern Battle Tanks Of Asia

July 29, 2014

Iraq Army MBT M1 Abrams

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 is the so-called global supply chain. This allows manufacturers to acquire parts from an international pool of  suppliers who meet their needs. The result is access to dual-use technology and reverse engineering foreign weapon systems is easier than ever.

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 a variant of the German Leopard 2, the Type 90, led to a completely new tank in the 2000s. This is the Type 10.

Type 90 MBT

Type 90 MBT

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  120mm 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 based on the T-72. The image above may or may not be the Songun-Ho, an MBT whose specifications resemble a Russian T-72 imposed on a T-62 chassis. 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 14.5mm KPV machine gun above the commander’s hatch serves as an anti-aircraft countermeasure. The main armament is a 125mm gun. There is no proof the Songun-Ho uses an autoloader, although it’s possible.

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.

South Korean MBT K2

(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 120mm smoothbore L55 gun, thereby reducing 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.

Furthermore, 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 125mm 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 780 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 inducted into 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 Type-96 tanks have ended up with the Sudanese army.

It was only in 2016 when the Type 96B caught up with its potential rivals. Equipped with a new 1,000 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.

Chinese Norinco MBT-3000

(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 125mm 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 12.7mm 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 does conform to Western specifications 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.

But if the MBT 3000 is the latest version of the for-export MBT 2000 then the onboard electronics stays the same and the difference is found in the armor protection.

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 99, 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 32o 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 1,500 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 Serbian M-84

(Uralvagonzav0d) T-72

The T-72 is the most prolific third-generation MBT. (Some sources refer to it as a second-generation platform, however, making it a peer of the US M60, the French AMX-30, and the British Chieftain.)

Although its original model with its composite steel armor and poor suspension is inferior to current MBTs in the West, manufacturers around the world are finding ways to improve it.

Russian tank maker Uralvagonzavod, a state-owned firm at the forefront of the country’s rearmament, is offering the 46-ton T-72 Modernized or T-72B as an export product. Featuring a new 1,000 hp engine and optional upgrades–a remote controlled turret machine gun and armor plating–the T-72B3 is already the de facto interim tank of the Russian Army before its replacement in the near future.

Even more impressive, countries like Belarus,  China, Czech Republic, India, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Poland, and Ukraine are either building or upgrading their own variants of the T-72. Legacy clients such as Iraq, Serbia, Syria, and Malaysia, on the other hand, still consider the T-72 the vanguard of their ground forces.

Russian T-90 MBT

(Uralvagonzavod) T-90

The T-90 is the successful descendant of the T-72.  Although marketed for export and already sold to India, Algeria, and Azerbaijan, limited numbers of the T-90 are used by the Russian Army. This doesn’t mean the T-90 is neglected. On the contrary, the T-90 is being made deadlier:

The T-90S Modernized MBTs most obvious difference from its siblings is the extensive RELIKT armor on its front and sides. Protection is increased by stand-off slats on its engine exhaust and behind the turret.

The engine wasn’t spared an upgrade either, being the V-92S2F, producing 1,130 hp that propels the tank at 60 km/h across the battlefield. Previous T-90 models are powered by the older B-92C2 diesel engine. The V-92S2F is considerably more powerful than the ‘standard’ T-90s, which is fundamentally a T-72 with T-80U parts when it was first introduced 17 years ago. Despite the increased performance, the T-90S Modernized MBT is still touted as lightweight, totaling a modest 48 tons.

The biggest alterations for the T-90S Modernized MBT is the turret. Gone is the conventionally operated 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun that has been a mainstay of Russian armor for several decades. In its place is an elevated, remote controlled 7.62mm machinegun next to a commander’s sight.

Other than these add-ons, the turret’s expanded layout has more in common with squarish, angular Western design—the rear end is extra storage for additional 125mm shells. In total the T-90S carries 40 125mm rounds for its 2A46M5 main gun along with AT-11 anti-tank missiles.

Via Russian Ministry of Defense

Via Russian Ministry of Defense

(Omsktransmash) T-80

It’s the most advanced tank Russia doesn’t need. With a thin combat record despite being mass-produced the T-80 and its derivatives now face an existential crisis.

On paper, the T-80 is an excellent third-generation MBT and the last produced by the Soviet Union before it collapsed. Incorporating features of the T-64 and equipped with better technology than the T-72, the T-80 uses the same weapons suite as its peers. These include a 125mm 2A46M main gun that can fire ATGMs and tandem machine guns, a turret mounted12.7mm NSV and coaxial 7.62mm PKT.

A collar of add-on armor surrounds the front of its turret, with separate rows of four smoke grenade dischargers installed on either side.

The T-80 is believed to have entered service between 1976 and 1978. The original T-80’s most impressive features were its computerized ballistic computer and powerful 1,100 hp gas turbine engine. A dozen variants emerged in the ensuing 20 years. The most prolific were the T-80U and T-80UD. The latter was manufactured in Ukraine and used a diesel engine. During the 2000s it evolved into the T-84 Oplot that was sold to Thailand. Some argue the Oplot is superior to the Russian T-90S.

Unspecified numbers of the T-80U are in service with the Russian Army today. More are believed kept in storage. The T-80 enjoyed limited export success. Its largest foreign user is Pakistan, who acquired 320 Ukrainian T-80UD’s during the mid-1990s.

Iranian Zulfiqar MBT

(Shahid Kolah Dooz Industrial Complex) Zulfiqar

The Zulfiqar is arguably the world’s most problematic tank program.

What began as an attempt at reverse engineering the T-72 with aspects of the US-built M60A1 has morphed into an M1 Abrams knockoff.

The little information available on the Zulfiqar doesn’t lend it much credibility. Even its current shape hardly makes sense. Since Iran lacks access to Honeywell’s AGT 1500 engine the Zulfiqar certainly can’t reach the 70 km/hr top speed of a Western tank. Thus, having seven road wheels and a larger chassis seems counterproductive.

More importantly, its main gun’s actual caliber–whether 120mm or 125mm–and fire control system is dubious. Likewise its protection, since without sufficient metallurgical know-how Iran’s state-owned factories have to make do with composite steel armor, with Russian ERA as the next best alternative.

Whether the Zulfiqar is a genuine tank or not 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 provide pointers based on the K2. 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.

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 gunner and commander plus two remote controlled machine guns. The main armament is a manually loaded 120mm L55 gun and missile system with pre-installed hunter killer software–this allows the Altay to fight while moving.

Since Hyundai Rotem was instrumental in its decade-long R&D, it’s unclear whether the resulting Altay is a licensed-built K2 or a 100% indigenous model. Either possibility could be false. Beyond its origins, little else about the Altay is top secret. Should it enter production in the next few years the Altay replaces 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 the British Centurion and the American M48, the Merkava has 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 electronics. 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.

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