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The Chinese PLA Have An Incredible Light Tank

June 22, 2020

Via Chinese state media.

There’s now a concerted effort by Chinese news agencies to showcase the PLA’s technological advantages as it faces off against India in a disputed border. This has brought some attention to the latest equipment used by the ground forces such as the Type 15 “lightweight MBT” (pictured above) that entered service a few years ago. This tank weighs less than 40 tons and is armed with a 105mm main gun fed by an autoloader. Its external appearance suggests a protection level that doesn’t encumber the vehicle and affect its mobility–the front of the hull is covered in reactive panels and the hull is formed by a combination of the same and spaced armor.

Since photos of the Type 15 went viral five years ago many have speculated about its role in the PLA’s vast tank fleet. It took exposure provided by Chinese media to craft the tank’s selling points such as being air transportable; two Type 15’s can fit inside the Y-20 heavy transport, which is the PLAAF’s equivalent of the C-17 Globemaster. The export variant of the Type 15 is also part of Norinco’s land systems portfolio and designated the “VT5/VT-5” but with a different protection suite on its hull. Compared to the Type 15, the VT5 has spaced panels covering the front of the turret and cage or slat armor around the back of the turret. An optional secondary armament for the VT5 is a remote weapon station for an automatic grenade launcher.

To recognize the Type 15 means noticing its most obvious characteristics. This can start by looking for six small road wheels on either side of the hull, whose rear compartment is larger than the front since this is where the engine is installed. Unlike other PLA tanks the Type 15’s engine exhaust isn’t located on the side of the hull but found at the back and are recognizable as two small black dots. The Type 15 is able to mount two spare fuel drums at the back like on Russian tanks. As for the turret, the Type 15’s is a small affair with two distinctive storage bins on either side formed by the spaced armor. The secondary armament on a Type 15 is a single remote controlled 12.7mm heavy machine gun.

The PLA’s adoption of the Type 15 adds yet another model to its tank fleet whose composition is divided among four classes. The largest is the Type 99/99A that’s only deployed in small numbers. The most numerous PLA tank is the Type 96/96A that’s best known as China’s contender in Russia’s annual tank biathlon. There are still unconfirmed quantities of aging and obsolescent Type 59/59-II, Type 62, and Type 80/88 tanks in service. The arrival of the Type 15 could see these older models retired and replaced in the coming years. Although Norinco has the expertise to upgrade its outdated tanks the Type 15 offers an advanced fire control system and a promising service life (lasting decades) with untold modular improvements available.

Readers might be tempted to draw comparisons between the Type 15 with either US or NATO tanks. This isn’t helpful since NATO armies have long eschewed light and medium tanks in favor of MBTs with standardized armaments and mobility. The PLA’s own doctrine, with its focus on “informatized” operations, sees the naval and space domains as the real theater against the US and its allies rather than a ground war. For this reason it’s China’s neighbors, especially those with land borders, who must contend with the Type 15 and its heavier siblings. Its 105mm main gun may seem modest but the tank itself manages to travel in almost any geographical region, which is what Chinese media are keen to advertise.

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