No country today has as many tanks as China’s bloated armed forces. But as it struggled to modernize its tracked fighting machines across three decades of rapid technological change, a peculiar eclecticism gripped its vast arsenal. In 2016 Chinese state media revealed with utmost certainty that of “more than 7,000 tanks in active service” less than half were considered up to date. These comprised 2,000 Type 96 and Type 96A tanks and 600 Type 99’s.
This is problematic because it leaves the PLA stuck with so many old medium tanks designed after World War 2 mixed with incompatible “third-generation” substitutes. At the forefront of this colorful assemblage is an untested model that relies on constant upgrades. This isn’t the Type 99A/99A2 leading annual parades but the humble Type 96 or ZTZ 96–the racing tank that took on Russia’s T-72B’s in 2014 and 2016.
So why does the Chinese army want it as the “backbone” of its armored corps?
China’s tank production commenced in 1958 when its main armor factory began assembling the Type 59–copied from the Soviet T-54/55–and its subsequent variants. The conglomerate known as Norinco kept its plant in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, running at peak capacity for the next 20 years but this plummeted by the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping launched an era of foreign investment and economic growth.
It was during the same period when new influences took hold of Chinese armor engineering and pulled it away from the template epitomized by the Type 59. First was the Reagan administration’s ambitious policy to build an alliance with Beijing as a counterbalance against Moscow’s “Evil Empire.” This meant a lot of US patents were shared with Chinese state-owned manufacturing enterprises between 1980 and 1988.
A secondary influence was China’s renewed ties with Western Europe and Japan. Although commercial in nature and focused on licensing consumer goods for China’s huge domestic market, there’s little doubt this marked the beginning of the PLA’s addiction to reverse engineered kit.
A third, and wholly speculative, influence on China’s armor technology was the Iran-Iraq War from 1979 to 1988. Beijing had no qualms selling weapons to both sides and earned billions from Saddam Hussein’s regime, whose appetite for artillery, fighter jets, and thousands of tanks nourished China’s military-industrial complex at a time when its order books were almost bare. The eventual annihilation of Iraqi forces in Kuwait no doubt served as an important lesson for the Chinese on building stronger tanks for export.
How these trends manifested in Chinese armor design aren’t readily apparent, but the PLA’s tanks did begin to change. By the mid-1980s the Type 69’s participating in annual commemorative parades were armed with 105mm main guns. Photos of a new mystery tank with the same armament later emerged and was identified as the Type 80. It had an elongated hull that ran on six, not five, road wheels and served as a portent of changes to come.
Origins and Development
During the 1990s China and Pakistan were collaborating on a new tank design. Islamabad began importing Type 59’s in the late 1960s and amassed thousands of these tanks over the years. But Indian production of licensed T-72’s compelled a change in priorities from medium to main battle tanks. Rather than settle on a “Western” model the Chinese Type 80 was used as the basis for a hybrid weapon system that borrowed from second-generation Soviet tanks like the T-64 and T-72. The resulting Type 85/85-IIM looked like a poor copy of a Soviet tank, with its low profile and prominent main gun fed by an autoloader.
While China delivered a few hundred Type 85-IIM’s to Pakistan in the 1990s the tank garnered little enthusiasm elsewhere, with war-torn Sudan the sole customer outside of Asia. Apparently Norinco retained the Type 85/85-IIM and sought to improve on it, with the resulting prototype being designated the Type 88C. This coincided with a separate effort at copying the T-72 which begat a model known as the Type 90/98 that first appeared during a parade in 1999. The confusion among analysts and scholars was understandable but has since been resolved with hindsight.
In 1997 the PLA adopted a 41 ton model based on the Type 85/85-IIM. This became the original Type 96. Its heavier and more expensive sibling, now called the Type 99, was an “elite” tank made in small numbers. A production license for it was shared with Pakistan, whose Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) delivered the first Al Khalid tanks to the army in 2002.
Meanwhile, from the 2000s onward the PLA embraced both the Type 96 and the Type 99, whose current iterations make them look indistinguishable. To tell them apart, the fastest way is checking the driver’s hatch on the glacis. For the Type 96, the hatch is left of the main gun. The Type 99, on the other hand, has it directly underneath the main gun.
The foundation of the Type 96 is a hull meant to fit a larger engine. This allowed the designers and engineers responsible for its development to add parts copied from Soviet T-series tanks. So the Type 96 used the same torsion bar suspension, planetary drivetrain, and engine type. Multiple pieces of equipment inside the tank were copied from the Soviets as well, such as the air conditioning, fire control system, NBC protection, and sighting complexes for the crew.
The original Type 96 ran on a six cylinder 12150ZL V12 engine that produced 730 horsepower. This power plant was a Chinese innovation combining German technology with an engine similar to the Soviet V-54 used on its medium tanks. A key feature of the tank’s power plant were its two circular exhausts on the hull that, like its Soviet cousins, could spew out a smoke screen for concealing the tank from enemy gunners.
The Type 96 is recognizable for its angular welded steel turret armed with a 125mm smoothbore ZPT-98 main gun copied from the first iteration of the Soviet 2A46. This is an important detail to take note of because it reveals Chinese tank gun manufacturing was a generation behind Russia’s. It hasn’t been ascertained yet if the ZPT-98 is a gun-missile system or if the Type 96 carries 125mm anti-tank missiles in its magazine.
Secondary weapons included a coaxial 7.62x54mm PKT machine gun and a 12.7 x 103mm DShK on the commander’s hatch. Other distinct external features are the stowage racks behind the turret, the horizontal splash guard across the glacis, and the serrated rubber skirts protecting its tracks and the thin armor behind them.
A Type 96 can be found on a pedestal outside the PLA Tank Museum in Beijing. It was the best protected model ever produced in China up until that point. Some estimates indicate the Type 96’s frontal armor was 380 millimeters thick and impervious to most kinetic energy rounds while the frontal armor on the turret measured 440mm thick. Since the hull was made of welded composite steel panels, it offered 600mm in thickness against high explosive anti-tank rounds while the turret cheeks–or arc–had an 850mm thickness versus the same.
The reader should take these figures as informed guesstimates for the moment since exact measurements of the Type 96’s armor isn’t available in the public domain.
The PLA began fielding the Type 96A between 2005 and 2010 as this latest variant offered numerous marginal improvements. The glacis was covered in a layer of locally made explosive reactive armor that may have been copied from Soviet Kontakt-5 ERA and the turret got reinforced with spaced panels. These are rectangular wedges on either side of the main gun that had either plastic or ceramic inserts for blunting direct hits by kinetic rounds.
An ingenious countermeasure on the Type 96A was installing ERA bricks over the storage racks, creating a protective belt on the turret’s sides that doubled as containers for non-essential gear. The rubber skirts for protecting the thinly armored hull were retained on some Type 96A tanks but these are absent in others. Like its predecessor, the Type 96A can drive and fight with external fuel tanks to feed its larger engine.
Other changes included the commander’s machine gun being replaced with the newer W85 while a digital thermal sight was installed in front of the gunner’s hatch for a new but unspecified fire control system. The Type 96A was the closest to a genuine third-generation MBT in the PLA and thousands rolled out of Baotou within a few years.
The Pressure of Winning
The Type 96A faced an existential crisis after competing in the 2014 tank biathlon with Russia and other countries. The tank’s performance in the tilt revealed the limitations of its engine type, a fact the PLA admitted to the following year. The pressure of another biathlon in 2016 forced Norinco to almost overhaul the Type 96. The result instead was the Type 96B with a larger 1,200 horsepower diesel engine that some suspect was copied from the Ukrainian 6TD-2.
In 2016 the PLA’s own media hailed the Type 96B as the champion of the tank fleet. The following year Norinco debuted a Type 96B in front of foreign delegates along with several new armored vehicles. This time the tank had a caramel digital camouflage scheme and a remote controlled heavy machine gun mounted behind the turret. A minor, yet crucial, improvement on the Type 96B are its treads patterned after those used in Western tracked vehicles.
The reason why the PLA chose the Type 96 over the more advanced Type 99 is never officially explained but following the tank’s progress over the years does suggest why.
China’s geography is the single greatest factor influencing the PLA’s armor doctrine. The Type 96/96A/96B’s weight and size are ideal for the country’s varied terrain compared to a tank weighing above 50 tons. Except for Inner Mongolia’s dust plains, the PLA have to contend with hills and jungle in China’s southern provinces, the forbidding Tibetan plateau in the southwest, and the mountains and desert wastes of Xinjiang. Large “Western” tanks are too encumbered in these regions, which is why the PLA keeps using so many older models. The estimated two thousand Type 96’s in service are assigned to PLA units south of the Yangtze River while the Type 99’s are reserved for units in the northern provinces.
It’s tempting to imagine the Type 96/96A/96B going into battle against the M1A2 Abrams or any third-generation Western European tank. But the chances of a major ground engagement between the PLA and US forces are dim and China doesn’t consider any European country a threat. If Beijing had to fight abroad it’s the PLAN’s agile marine units with light vehicles, rather than PLA armored brigades, who receive the marching orders.
If there’s one foreseeable conflict where the Type 96/96A/96B can fight in it’s a near future assault on Taiwan. The prevailing consensus on the PLA’s war plans is a multi-pronged offensive launched from its eastern and southern theater commands. The opening stages involve a naval blockade of the entire island, followed by surgical strikes on its defenses and infrastructure with missiles, and then air superiority is imposed over Taiwan. Once the ground invasion begins, LST’s and hovercraft deliver Type 96 tanks ashore together with thousands of PLAN marines.
Without the advantage of helicopter gunships armed with Hellfire missiles, Taiwan’s ground forces risk being overwhelmed within days. Limited stocks of TOW-2A/B’s and Javelins won’t be able to blunt multiple landings across Taiwan. The less than 500 M60A3 tanks the army can muster are outmatched by the Type 96/96A/96B and won’t survive any engagement where PLA marines can use their own anti-tank weapons. To make matters worse, aside from the Type 96/96A/96B there are gun and missile armed tank destroyers, amphibious tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles like the ZBD-04/08 and the ZBL-09 to contend with.
The Type 96/96A/96B are formidable tanks in the context of East Asian armor, where challenging terrain and weight restrictions shape how tracked fighting systems are built. Until the PLA and its compliant manufacturing base embrace automation and unmanned systems on a clean sheet design, the Type 96 looks destined for a long and fruitful career. It’s precisely the tank China’s army needs and wants.
*The data below was collected from open sources and comparative estimates with similar Soviet T-series tanks.
|Type 96||Type 96A||Type 96B|
|Armor-Glacis||380mm composite steel||380mm+ERA||380mm+ERA|
|Armor-Turret||450mm||450mm+spaced panels+ERA||450mm+spaced panels+ERA|
|ERA Panels||None||ERA on glacis and turret||ERA on glacis and turret|
|Active Protection System Y/N?||N||N||N|
|Height||3.3 m||3.3 m||3.3 m|
|Hull Length||6.95 m||6.95 m||6.95 m|
|Weight (t)||41 tons||42.5 tons||43 tons|
|Primary Armament||125mm ZPT-98/2A46 copy||125mm ZPT-98/2A46 copy||125mm ZPT-98/2A46 copy|
|Maximum Effective Range||3 km||3 km||3 km|
|Secondary Armament||12.7mm DShk/7.62mm PKT||12.7mm W85/7.62mm PKT||12.7mm W85/7.62mm PKT|
|Magazine||42 rds.||42 rds.||42 rds.|
|Digital Fire Control Y/N?||N||Y||Y|
|Thermal Imaging Y/N?||N||Y||Y|
|NBC Protected Y/N?||Y||Y||Y|
|Engine Type||730 hp V12||800 hp V12||1,2000 hp 6TD-2 copy(?)|
|Power to Weight Ratio||18.4 hp/ton||18.7 hp/ton||18.8 hp/ton|
|Top Speed||57 km/h||60 km/h||65 km/h|
|Range||500 km||500 km||600 km|
|Suspension System||Torsion Bar||Torsion Bar||Torsion Bar|
|Fording w/o Preparation||1.4 m depth||1.4 m depth||1.4 m depth|
|Fording w/ Preparation||5 m||5 m||5 m|
|Ditch Crossing||2.7 m||2.7 m||2.7 m|