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The Evolution Of Modern Chinese Tanks

March 16, 2015

Chinese tank column Tiananmen

China was the only country to unveil a brand new main battle tank (MBT) in 2014. First teased as a scale model in exhibitions, and then on state-owned defense conglomerate Norinco’s website, the MBT 3000 was given a fitting public debut during the 2014 Zhuhai Air Show. Norinco now offers largest selection of exportable tanks in the world with varying armament and weight classes.

The development of Chinese MBTs in the last 25 years is nothing short of incredible. When the Communist Party cracked down on the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, the PLA deployed scores of Type 59’s, an obsolescent model compared to the third-generation MBTs used by NATO and the ailing Soviet Union.

The next quarter century would be a game of catch up. The PLA together with powerful state-owned enterprises copied and adapted their way to near-equal status with Western technology. The irony is, despite a rising defense budget, the PLA still maintains unknown numbers of its older tanks even if their armament and electronics have been upgraded. When tank inventories around the world are shrinking the PLA continues to field new variants for its combat brigades.

Here is a chronological survey of Chinese MBTs from the 1950s to the present.


Chinese Type 59 120mm gun

In this undated photograph scoured from the depths of Google a Type 59 equipped with a massive 120 mm gun is advertised. Aside from a Type 85 12.7 mm machine gun and a radio antenna on the turret, no other improvements are visible, which suggests the tank’s dismal armor protection is intact.

Type 59

The Sino-Soviet split in 1960 doomed the Chinese economy, and the PLA by extension, to technological backwardness.

Despite having thousands of tanks, including the Type 59 with its 100mm rifled gun and 520 horsepower engine, the Cultural Revolution’s excesses and the resulting decline in China’s industrial output meant the PLA’s modernization wouldn’t be realized for the next 20 years. (It’s rumored the PLA did have a not-so-secret heavy tank project in the 1960s.)

A high estimate of Type 59 production numbers could reach 10,000. If the Type 59 enjoyed any success, it would be as an export to third world customers like Albania, Bangladesh, Iran, North Korea as well as several African countries. The tank is also a symbol of Beijing’s repression during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre where its upgunned variants quashed a pro-democracy uprising.

Chinese Type 62 light tank

Type 62

It remains a mystery what kind of requirement inspired the Type 62’s production. Perhaps the mountainous and uneven terrain in China’s far-flung provinces demanded a tracked fighting vehicle weighing less than 30 tons. Not to be confused with the Soviet T-62, which served as a stepping stone to current Russian MBTs, the Chinese Type 62 weighed approximately 21 tons. Or as much as a contemporary wheeled infantry fighting vehicle. Its meager armament consists of an obsolescent 85mm main gun and a customary 12.7mm DShK on the turret.

The role the Type 62 used to occupy has now been supplanted by several vehicles like the wheeled ST1 with its more powerful 105mm main armament and the cutting edge Type 15 light tank.

Chinese Type 63 amphibious tank

An undated photo of the original Type 63 during exercises, presumably in the 1980s.

Type 63

Obviously introduced during the first half of the 1960s, the Type 63 serves the same role as the Soviet PT-76. This is why its original version featured a large hull mounting the dome-shaped turret of a Type 62 light tank. It enjoyed some export success with North Korea being its largest foreign operator. Scores of Type 63’s were also delivered to Myanmar and Vietnam.

It must be emphasized that the Type 63 is an amphibious tank and not a troop carrier, a role fulfilled by the PLA’s modern IFVs like the ZBD-04. Along with much of the PLA’s capabilities, its combat record is thin, if nonexistent. The Type 63 has beaten the odds, however, and continues to serve the PLAN’s marine infantry with a new angular turret and a 105 mm smoothbore gun. It’s now being replaced by the ZTD-05 amphibious tank.

Bangladesh Type 69 MBT

Type 69 tanks of Bangladesh’ army.

Type 69

When China’s state-owned factories successfully developed an indigenous MBT it still copied an existing model (the original T-55) and trailed behind its peers. By the late 1960s air-conditioning, main gun autoloaders, NBC protection, laser rangefinders, and computerized fire control systems were mandatory among tanks.

The Type 69 lacked all these and its improvements were superficial, like an external infrared spotlight and rubber side skirts, the latter marking the start of what is now a tradition among Chinese MBTs. The Type 69 was slowly improved over the years and represented a peculiar watershed in Chinese tank engineering. This model was exported to willing countries in massive quantities. From the 2000s on Bangladesh and Pakistan adopted Type 69’s with significant improvements.

In Bangladesh’ case, a Chinese 105 mm main gun is installed in the turret now hardened by add-on armor plating. An imported 1,000 hp Ukrainian diesel engine boosts its speed by a small margin. Owing to its affordable price for third world defense budgets, the Chinese Type 69 is a veteran of several regional wars in the Middle East and Africa.

Chinese Type 80 MBT

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Type 80

With the US and China’s growing rivalry over the Asia-Pacific a fact of life today it almost sounds ludicrous that the two world powers used to enjoy cordial relations.

So much so that once upon a time, during the 1980s the US planned on selling arms and dual-use technology to Beijing, ergo the PLA and its branches. This blossoming partnership was terminated by a UN arms embargo in 1989, which made China a huge customer for the late Soviet Union and later Russia instead.

The brief US-China dalliance had a considerable impact on the PLA. Not only were two dozen Sikorsky Blackhawk’s delivered to the air force, a US-style 105 mm gun suddenly appeared on Type 59 and Type 69 tanks. Now about the Type 80.

Never built in vast numbers, the Type 80 is remarkable for its hull’s six road wheels and larger dimensions. Aside from obvious external differences from preceding models, its various subsystems and crew equipment are unknown. But it does bear a shocking resemblance to Egypt’s short-lived Ramses II tank and Romania’s TR-85 tank.

After undergoing further upgrades the Type 80/88 proved a success in the long run since it was used as the basis for the Type 85 and later the Type 96.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Type 85

The arrival of the Type 85 signaled a new era for the PLA’s ill-equipped ground forces. It might be convenient to compare the Type 85 to the Russian T-72 but upon closer inspection, both tanks share specific features but are very different.

For the Type 85, the hull of the earlier Type 80 was used to support an angular rather than circular turret armed with a 125mm gun patterned after the ubiquitous Soviet 2A46. Having acquired the means to produce autoloaders for main guns, the Type 85 packed a real punch. Like the Soviet T-64 and the T-72, it supported a crew of three.

A new fire control system, smoke grenade dischargers, NBC protection, and a 730 hp engine–not to mention the familiar rubber side skirts–brought the Type 85 closer to its Western rivals. The tank was originally delivered to Pakistan as the Type 85-IIM but it was never adopted in large numbers.

As the Type 85 progressed, a new lightweight 12.7mm machine gun on the turret replaced the old-fashioned DShK clone preferred by the PLA. Sudan was the only other international customer of the Type 85 and renamed them the Al Bashir.

Via China Military Online.

Type 96

The most advanced MBT fielded by the PLA marks the final evolution of the Type 80, which became the Type 85 that was improved with the Type 85-IIM and the short-lived Type 90 until the Type 96 arrived in the mid-1990s. (Its export designation is “VT2/VT-2”.)

The single thread connecting these vastly different tanks is a convenient external feature: the driver’s hatch to the left of the main gun. And the rubber side skirts. Exactly why Norinco maintained the driver’s position is unknown, but it’s compelling proof that the PLA are keen on constantly improving their legacy systems.

The enhanced Type 96A, with its strengthened turret armor, is a genuine third-generation MBT with a critical weakness. During a tank biathlon in Russia, the Type 96A ran an obstacle course but was outperformed by rival T-72B’s. Why?

According to the PLA’s English-language media outlet:

The type-96A tank’s innate defect in weak maneuvering power is also fully exposed during this competition. But it must be pointed out that the current power of 780 hp is already the upper limit of this type of engine. [Emphasis by 21AAR.] If a larger engine is installed, the power cabin in the tank has to be expanded, which is a big “operation”…Since the price of three type-96 tanks is the same as that of one type-99 tank, the type-96 series highlights fair price and good quality.

The commentary on the Type 96 was written by Wang Hongguang, an officer in the Nanjing Military Area Command. His point was the PLA only has access to smaller 780 hp engines and that building a lot of  Type 96’s is more economical. An estimated two thousand Type 96/96A’s are believed to be in service with the PLA in China’s southern provinces.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Type 99

Also designated the ZTZ-99, the younger sibling of the Type 96 marks a fresh start for Norinco in its quest to build a world class third-generation MBT.

The Type 99 isn’t an improvement over the Type 96. It’s actually a better variant of the experimental Type 98 that borrows features from second and third-generation Soviet T-series tanks. Having an angular turret and a broad front arc allowed additional layers of composite armor to be fitted, which brings its combat weight to almost 55 tons.

The Type 99’s main difference from earlier models is its hull. Ignoring the mandatory side skirts covering the upper half of the tracks, the Type 99’s road wheels have a curious alignment that suggests a larger engine. The driver’s hatch is also centered or located beneath the 125mm main gun like on a third-generation Russian tank. The Type 99 and Type 99A are considered the most advanced MBTs in service with the PLA. Each is equipped with thermal sights, a digital fire control system, NBC protection, air conditioning, GPS, a “laser dazzler” protection system (APS) and a powerful 1,500 hp engine whose exhaust is on the left side of the hull.

The Type 99’s main armament is believed to be a gun-missile system. Owing to its hefty unit price, the Type 99 is available in limited numbers. Some sources claim there are more or less than 500 Type 99/99A’s with the PLA and the number is still growing. Type 99’s aren’t approved for export.

Chinese Norinco new light tank

Type 15

In early 2015 undated images of a “new” PLA tank emerged. Some writers speculated it’s meant for China’s rugged northwest where it shares a vast mountainous frontier with several countries.

It can’t be ascertained if this so-called “ZTQ” was R&Ded from scratch. Side skirts are absent but an elevated rear compartment indicates a larger engine, probably a 1,000 to 1,200 horsepower turbo diesel model. A driver’s hatch is visible beneath the main gun–a 105mm judging by the fume extractor’s position on the barrel–and the turret’s shape and contours reveals extensive spaced armor, a digital fire control system, and smoke dischargers mounted at the rear.

Apparently, the tank is now being promoted for export as the “VT-5” whose secondary armament consists of a grenade launcher and a machine gun on a single remote weapon station. The VT5/VT-5 received international exposure during the 2016 Zhuhai Air Show and was a highlight at the Norinco Armor Day in 2017 where it ran an obstacle course in front of an audience. The variant adopted by the PLA, which took part in its grandiose October 1 parade in 2019, mounts a different turret.

The Type 15 appears destined to join the PLA in Tibet and Xinjiang, where it could replace hundreds of old Type 59’s still being used by mechanized formations.

Pakistani Army MBT Al-Khalid 02

The Al Khalid manufactured by Pakistan’s Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) boosted the MBT 2000’s profile. Deliveries are now being made, or have been completed, to Myanmar and Morocco, while Norinco sold an additional 44 MBT 2000’s to Bangladesh.

MBT 2000

Having well-established markets for its arms industry, third-generation Chinese MBTs are a growing presence in various foreign arsenals. The MBT 2000 is the export version of either the short-lived Type 90 or Type 98 from the 1990s and is notable for the turret’s configuration, with ERA panels flanking the main gun and caged or slat storage bins in the rear.

The noticeable differences between the MBT 2000 and the Type 99/99A are the armor layout–there’s less on the former–and the engine exhaust located at the back of the hull rather than the side. The MBT 2000 has enjoyed considerable success and is built under license in Pakistan as the Al Khalid. The passage of time has diminished the Al Khalid’s advantages, however, as it now requires a comprehensive armor upgrade matched with a protective system against missiles.

Via Chinese media.

MBT 3000

Exactly why Norinco developed a new tank for export is hard to understand. But perhaps growing demand for tanks among emerging markets inspired the MBT 3000’s production. (Its export designation is “VT4/VT-4”.)

The MBT 3000 is the pinnacle of Norinco’s vast experience designing tracked combat vehicles. A large angular turret wrapped in armor panels rests on the hull of an MBT 2000. The MBT 3000 can be equipped with a remote control 12.7mm machine gun behind the commander’s hatch (pictured above) and provides excellent visibility when the crew is buttoned down.

For the first time in a long while the side skirts protecting the tracks or treads are made of sheet metal that can be layered with ERA. The storage rack behind the turret may have a secondary use as cage armor versus shaped projectiles.

Judging by the picture above, the MBT 3000 runs on a large power plant giving it commendable mobility over any terrain. The MBT 3000 is making slow progress in the world’s main battle tank market where the Russian T-90S and Leopard 2A5/A6 are enjoying robust demand. So far the armies of Nigeria and Thailand have ordered small batches to upgrade their mechanized firepower. But it’s apparent that Chinese armor has finally arrived on the world stage.