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Every Chinese Infantry Platoon Have This Recoilless Rocket Launcher

June 2, 2019

Via China Military Online.

The English-language news website run by China’s PLA recently shared photos of soldiers belonging to the “73rd Group Army” training with anti-tank weapons. Seen above are PF-98 rocket launchers whose 120mm high explosive projectiles are able to strike within a maximum distance of 400 meters. The PF-98 is the second largest portable recoilless anti-tank weapon in the world after the enormous Russian-made RPG-28 that’s armed with a 125mm tandem warhead.

Unlike most unguided rocket launchers today the PF-98 is reloadable with the canister holding its rocket plugged into its breech. PF-98’s are assigned to each PLA infantry unit at the platoon level where trained gunners carry it on their backs using a strap. A lightweight folding tripod comes with each launcher but in the photo the soldiers are using a collapsible monopod.

Armies equipped to NATO standards will balk at the sight of PLA infantry platoons. Aside from their standard issue rifles, specialists are given the cumbersome PF-98 and its spare rockets as an anti-material and anti-tank direct fire weapon. If this seems excessive, each platoon is trained to deploy at least one 12.7mm machine gun along with maybe two QLZ-97 automatic grenade launchers. These are in addition to the designated squad automatic weapon/s such as the QBZ-95-1 bullpup LMG or the Type 88 light machine gun and perhaps a portable 60mm mortar. Another weapon system unique to PLA infantry engineers is a 62mm multiple rocket launcher for destroying fortifications and obstacles. Of course, the Type 69 rocket grenade launcher (a Chinese derivative of the Soviet RPG-7) and the PF-89 lightweight single use rocket launcher are available too.

The PF-98 entered service in the late 1990s as a replacement for the aging Type 65 recoilless rifle and the Type 69 rocket grenade launcher. While the PLA do have a habit of storing older weapons, and sometimes keeping them in use alongside newer equipment, the PF-98 is now its most identifiable anti-tank weapon. The PLA airborne, mechanized infantry brigades, the Hong Kong garrison, and the PLAN marines all have the PF-98 in significant quantities. From 2019 onward external improvements were made to the PF-98 for better ergonomics and accuracy. As a portable direct fire weapon a new monopod replaced the old folding tripod mount. Some PF-98’s also received foregrips in front of the trigger assembly so that the operator doesn’t have to grasp the launch tube when aiming. There’s also evidence of a new digital multi-mode sight to replace the older optics.

As a product of the Chinese military’s sharp turn away from non-Eastern Bloc technology, the PF-98’s appearance and function are closer to some belated NATO infantry rocket launchers. During the 1960s, for example, the M20 Super Bazooka issued to US GIs fighting the Vietnam War (1965-1973) came in two halves. When preparing the weapon, the steel launch tube and the live rocket in its container were joined. The same principle was adopted by the French LRAC (89mm) whose production was shared with the former Yugoslavia, resulting in the M79 rocket launcher. Shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons featuring launch tubes and separate ammunition canisters spread farther during the 1980s; Israel produced its own short-lived B-300 (82mm) followed by South Africa with the FT5 (94-95mm) and, surprisingly, the Soviet Union came up with the RPG-29 (105mm) that has since earned a fearsome reputation wherever it appears.

The PF-98 does resemble the French APILAS and to a lesser degree, the 120mm Serbian M90, even if the three are incompatible; the latter models are single use anti-armor rockets with weird ergonomics. (The PLA did adopt a variety of French or French origin weapons and vehicles in the 1980s and 1990s.) As for the PF-98, the launch tube made of high strength material is equipped with a pistol grip (now with optional foregrip), a mount for its optical sight or day/night laser rangefinder, and a large carrying handle. The weapon is armed by inserting each rocket canister inside the breech and once spent, the next canister is loaded. Considering the PLA ground forces have 900,000 plus soldiers organized under a brigade-centric structure, and with PF-98’s assigned to platoons, then its production numbers should at least be in the five digit range. This makes the PF-98 the most successful contemporary recoilless rocket launcher yet.

An export variant of the PF-98 is available for armies who need anti-material weapons bordering on handheld artillery. Yet its fiercest competition remains the RPG-7 and its multitude of clones and derivatives. One weakness of the PF-98 compared to the RPG-series and single use rocket launchers is the limited ammunition types available for it. Another drawback to its reputation are the different shoulder-fired missiles with better range and punch and none of the excess weight–Israel’s Spike-SR is a startling example. Now that armored vehicles have broader protective features available to them, be they modular panels or laser-powered countermeasures, a standard HE round is becoming inadequate. Given its size, improvements to its accuracy, and range plus varied ammunition calibers can do a lot to enhance the PF-98’s effectiveness.

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