An Introduction To The PF-98 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher
It’s perhaps the deadliest rocket launcher used by the world’s largest army. But so little is known about the PF-98, or PF98, a company- and battalion-level weapon for destroying armor and fortifications. With cumbersome flyover or top attack missiles hogging so much attention these days, it’s easy to dismiss the huge strides made by rocket launchers since the advent of the original Bazooka–an improvised weapon for the most part.
Footage and images from recent conflicts, be it in Donbass or Syria, are proving beyond doubt that rocket launchers are the battlefield’s great equalizers. The Chinese PLA understand this and have stuck to equipping their ground forces with various light weapons that don’t have analogues in the West, i.e. NATO and the US.
Aside from Chinese-made lightweight grenade launchers and superb assault rifles, the cumbersome PF-98 should be worrying military leaders in various capitals. It’s a 120mm recoilless rocket launcher with impressive range and accuracy. It can be shoulder-fired or, in the Soviet fashion, mounted on a tripod and concealed in a fixed position ready for ambush.
The PF-98 is recognizable for its olive green launch tube. It features a distinctive ribbed carrying handle that appears to be made of steel and bakelite. Underneath its launch tube is a squarish mount for an RPG-type pistol grip. The PF-98 often comes with a detachable optical sight. Prior to being fired a disposable rocket cylinder is loaded onto the breech in the same manner as the Israeli B-300 and French LRAC.
Unlike other rocket launchers–be it the popular AT4 or the menacing RPG-29–the PF-98 uses a digital fire control system. Most distressing for China’s enemies, however, is its rocket. The PF-98 fires two kinds of 120mm rounds: a high explosive (HE) bunker buster and a tandem HEAT warhead for hitting armor at ranges between 25 and 1,800 meters (1.8 kilometers). This is well beyond other weapons of the same type.
Yet compared to the attention directed at other PLA weapons the amount of scrutiny and reliable literature on the PF-98 is disappointing. The most accessible pocket bio for an English-literate audience is from the Small Arms Defense Journal. In 2014 the writer Gordon Arthur published a guide to PLA infantry weapons and included a rundown on the PF-98.
Manufactured by Norinco it was introduced in the late 1990s as a replacement for old recoilless rifles. It’s alleged the PLA’s Macao garrison were the first to receive it in 1999.
As mentioned earlier the PF-98 fires either a tandem HEAT round that can penetrate 800mm of armor (easily most tanks and APCs) or a HE round for demolishing bunkers. The entire weapon system weighs 29 kilograms or just 64 pounds when loaded and ready for action. Its maximum effective almost reaches 2 km.
The critical bit of insight from Arthur is a scoop on its fire control system. Apparently, there are separate ones used for the battalion and company PF-98’s. The former has an optical sight with night vision, a laser rangefinder, and an LED display. The latter has an optical sight with just night vision.
In 2010 an improved variant called the PF-98A was revealed with a new FCS and a lengthened launch tube.
Another somewhat authoritative profile of the PF-98 comes from Globalmil.com, a dual language independent news site about the PLA, who published it in 2013 using text borrowed from a defunct Sinodefence.com web page. It contains the same facts about the PF-98’s characteristics and function that later spread across the web.
Globalmil.com does furnish additional details. The battalion-level PF-98 uses an optical sight/FCS whose range is good for 500m. The company-level PF-98 uses an optical sight whose night vision is good for 300m.
A single person can operate the PF-98 although it’s often deployed by a three-man team comprising an operator and two loaders. A well-trained team can launch six rounds-per-minute. The only discernible flaw of the PF-98 is its enormous back blast when fired. Further details on the PF-98 are scarce beyond whatever open sources can be perused. Hence its combat record and actual capabilities are question marks.
Even if a tandem HEAT round from the PF-98 could penetrate 800mm of armor–superior to any rocket launcher in existence–the PLA have no shortage of anti-tank weapons, be it the Type 69 RPG-7 knockoff, the single-shot PF-89, and the lethal Red Arrow ATGM along with various tank destroyers. So why do they need the world’s largest rocket launcher?
This is another aspect of the PF-98’s mythology that is inaccessible. One can speculate perhaps the PLA recognized the threat posed by third-generation MBTs and wanted a guaranteed countermeasure available for its soldiers.
If true then why weren’t RPG-29’s (capable of disabling the M1A1 Abrams) purchased from Russia and then reverse engineered? Or why not just attach an ATGM unit to each company?
Could the PF-98, in typical Chinese fashion, be a clone of a foreign weapon system? Snooping around online brings to light what could pass for evidence. Tank destroying rocket launchers have evolved dramatically over the years, enhancing their firepower and appearance. The French APILAS from the 1980s was a 112mm recoilless launcher with modest range. Its muzzle brake and and breech do resemble the PF-98’s.
But the PF-98 and the APILAS are incomparable in every other aspect.
Another clue is found in the Balkans where two companies, Eurokompozit and Sloboda, manufacture the obscure M90. The M90 is a contender for the largest infantry rocket launcher ever made. Its appearance and characteristics are suspiciously compatible with the PF-98.
Both fire 120mm HEAT rounds with a minimum range of 25m and a sighting range of 250m. The maximum range of the M90 is 1,960m or 1.96 km; close enough to the PF-98’s. The M90 launch tube is longer at 1,300mm compared to the PF-98A’s 1,250mm.
The crucial difference is the M90 is a non-reusable single shot rocket launcher. Was there ever a point when Norinco acquired the M90 and combined it with its technology, creating a hybrid weapon?
It’s unknown how many PF-98’s have been manufactured since the 1990s and if it’s available for export. Small Arms Defense Journal and the military news aggregator Defenseupdates mention Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have acquired it. Indonesia is also cited in the client pool. Unfortunately there’s no evidence to corroborate these claims.
A thorough examination of the PF-98 leaves too many questions unanswered. This doesn’t hurt its reputation as the PLA’s premier rocket launcher and it’s better than whatever the West uses. At least for now.