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Knowing The Difference Between Chinese Type 99 And Type 96 Tanks

June 29, 2020

The Type 99. Via Chinese state media.

With China and India almost going to war two weeks ago after a deadly border skirmish there has been an uptick of media depicting the former’s military strength. But the dazzling variety of Chinese military equipment can still leave readers confused. For example, just as the PLA sent additional mechanized units to the Tibetan plateau the accompanying propaganda reveals the contrasts in the ground forces’ inventory. When it comes to battle tanks not one but three models are suited for combat operations in high altitudes. The two most likely to be used in a full-blown conflict are the Type 99/99A and the Type 96/96A.

The PLA maintain several thousand operational tanks, giving it the largest armored fleet in the world, although the Russian army keeps almost twice this number in storage. But what the PLA have in service is a mixed fleet at best with a fair proportion of obsolescent models. The Type 99 and Type 96 were two separate efforts that entered service only a few years apart during the 1990s; the decade when PLA modernization wasn’t as fast-paced as today. While both tanks have the same main armament–125mm main guns fed by autoloaders, reducing the crew to three–their characteristics are only a partial match.

The Type 96A. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It may seem wasteful for a very large ground force such as the PLA to maintain varied battle tank models. The reason why is China’s geography requires combat vehicles in different classes. It makes no sense for the Type 99/99A’s meant for the northeastern theater to be deployed in the southern provinces where hills and valleys will just diminish their mobility. This is why the Type 96/96A now comprises the bulk of PLA armor since it’s easier to build, maintain, and transport. With the adoption of the Type 15 light tank the PLA have an even better option for operations in rugged high altitude areas. When rapid deployment and direct fire in any climate are essential, the ST1 wheeled assault vehicle is another option.

The Type 96 is best described as a medium tank with almost identical performance as the Soviet vintage T-64A and T-72B battle tanks. When it was upgraded to the Type 96A in the mid-2000s the tank had reactive armor installed on its turret and over the glacis at the front of the hull. The Type 96B that participated in the Tank Biathlon four years ago featured a larger engine but isn’t joining the PLA’s fleet anytime soon. As for the Type 96’s bigger sibling the Type 99 the key difference is size and mass; the Type 99 is 13 tons heavier than the 42 ton Type 96 and its dimensions almost match those of third-generation NATO battle tanks.

Similarities between the Type 96/96A and the Type 99/99A may be easier to notice–the layout of their turret armor is identical–but telling them apart isn’t too difficult either. One simply has to determine five external characteristics of the Type 99A:

  1. The driver’s hatch of the Type 99 is located beneath the main gun but on the Type 99A it was relocated to the left; on the Type 96/96A it’s to the left of the main gun.
  2. The distribution of reactive armor on the Type 99/99A’s glacis is separated between the upper and lower half.
  3. There are five smoke grenade launchers on either side of the Type 99/99A’s turret; the Type 96/96A has six.
  4. The head lamps on the Type 99 are circular but the head lamps on the Type 99A are squares.
  5. The Type 99/99A has a large engine compartment at the back with a single round exhaust port on the side; the Type 96/96A has two round exhaust ports on the right side of the hull.

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