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Norinco Is Exporting A Hybrid Wheeled Tank

November 13, 2021
Via Chinese media/Norinco.

Over the years the aerospace exhibition in Zhuhai has given an ever increasing amount of floor area to the land warfare portfolios maintained by China’s biggest military-industrial enterprises. Not surprisingly, Norinco’s offerings are the broadest and most diverse and this makes it difficult keeping tabs on all the technology they are allowed to export. Norinco also enjoys the privilege of an outdoor demonstration where its vehicles run circuits to impress a live audience and potential foreign end users. A rare surprise at this year’s Zhuhai, or Air Show China 2021, was a new wheeled combat vehicle that didn’t get enough publicity.

During the 2010s Norinco offered a “tank destroyer” called the ST1 that combined a turret with a 105mm main gun and the hull of a well-known 8×8 APC known as the ZBL-08/09 in PLA service or as the VN1 as an export product. The VN1 has made successive appearances at Zhuhai, which is held every two years but was postponed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has proven to be a true multirole wheeled armored vehicle. Examining Chinese media coverage of Air Show China 2021 reveals Norinco has streamlined its VN1 variants to 13 separate vehicles adapted to unique roles. The standard VN1 APC mounts either a small turret with a 30mm cannon for its main armament or an unmanned turret for a 35mm cannon and optional anti-tank missiles. Non-combat variants of the VN1 are a bridgelayer and a reconnaissance vehicle. The newest member of the same family is a generational improvement over the ST1 called the ST3. (Pictured above.)

Unlike the ST1, the ST3 has a turret whose best feature is a main armament that qualifies as a gun/howitzer. This means it’s able to conduct direct and indirect fires depending on the mission requirements. For indirect fires the 105mm main gun can be elevated to a high angle for reaching targets beyond the turret’s line of sight. According to Chinese media, this firing mode allows the ST3 to triple its effective range and overcome challenging terrain such as cliffs, gorges, hills, and mountain sides. When the main gun is elevated, the standard direct fire range of three kilometers extends to 10 km. It’s a fascinating improvement to an exportable wheeled combat vehicle the PLA aren’t using; variants of the ZBL-08/09 that are in service are a fire support vehicle with a tank turret mounting a 105mm main gun and a wheeled artillery piece mounting a 122mm howitzer.

The layout of the ST3 is similar to NATO wheeled APCs such as the Pandur and the Piranha. When configured as a “tank destroyer” it’s comparable to the Italian-made Centauro or the Japanese-made Type 16 where the engine compartment remains in front beside the driver and the turret is mounted over the passenger compartment. What sets the ST3 apart is the turret it uses is similar to the turret of the VT5 light tank except the main gun is loaded manually, giving the vehicle a crew of four–the driver is up front and the commander, gunner, and loader are all inside the turret. The magazine holding high explosive ammunition is probably on the vehicle’s floor and the bustle, which is the compartment at the back of the turret. An obvious shortcoming of the ST3 is its armor level and protective countermeasures are unremarkable. The hull only has add-on or applique panels at best. Nor is it amphibious although its ground clearance and size can allow water crossings. The turret is equipped with a few smoke grenades and secondary armaments are limited to a small coaxial machine gun and a remote controlled heavy machine on the roof.

The intended clientele of the ST3 are countries whose ground forces are looking for an alternative to their aging tanks that’s cost-effective and won’t require a heavy duty truck for transporting it over great distances. With a combat vehicle like the ST3 an army can send these into theater using public roads accompanied by other APCs. The ST3’s gun/howitzer allows commanders a lot of flexibility by using it as a wheeled light tank or a self-propelled artillery piece. Countries that acquire the ST3 and its siblings for their ground forces have a complete family of vehicles based on a common model. This streamlines the infrastructure needed and maintenance required by such a fleet.

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