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China Has The Best Cheap Tanks For Africa

January 12, 2022
Type 59G tanks in N’Djamena. Via Chadian state media.

The vast region called the Sahel in Central Africa is the stage of a historic struggle between weak governments and insurgencies. It’s not incorrect to assume that cycles of coup d’etats and violent power grabs are the timeworn means for political change in countries like Chad, which borders Niger in the West and Sudan in the East, whose leader was killed defending the capital N’Djamena from a rebel onslaught in the summer of 2021. Although the late President Idriss Deby’s loss was honored by his country the transition it forced on the regime exposed its secretive arsenal: A lot of Chinese-made weapons.

When Chad marked its independence day on August 11, 2021, the army held a fitting parade whose contents showed they’ve kept much of their old equipment in working order while acquiring newer weaponry when they could. Norinco’s upgraded Type 59G, also known as the “Type 59G-125” or VT3 medium tank, appeared together with its siblings in a single column. The Type 59G is impressive for the layers of armor added to the turret and hull. It also boasts a 125mm main gun fed by an autoloader, but the crew is still four, with the commander and loader seated together. Secondary armaments are a coaxial machine gun and a heavy machine gun (usually a DShK) on the gunner’s hatch.

How many Type 59G’s are in service with the Chadian army is unknown, however, they do possess a sizable arsenal of weapons supplied by China–these include 6×6 wheeled APCs, along with the variant mounting a 105mm gun, and diverse small arms. The Chadian armed forces are highly regarded in the Sahel for their role in quashing local rebellions. But Chad has gone through its fair share of civil strife and the late Pres. Deby himself was a strongman who held on to power since 1991.

Although sophisticated Chinese-made arms used to be scarce in Africa this slowly changed from the 1990s onward when Sudan built its military-industrial sector with assistance from China and Iran. Sudan’s military received Norinco’s Type 69’s and Type 85-II’s as well thanks to Khartoum’s reputation at the time as a dependable oil supplier. Tanzania’s army are known operators of the Type 59G and the VT2–the medium tank better known as the Type 96–while Morocco purchased VT1 tanks–better known as the MBT 2000–to bolster its armored fleet. Nigeria is the latest African country to acquire Norinco’s combat vehicles such as the VT4 and the ST1 wheeled assault gun.

If the reader is confused by the naming system of Chinese-made tanks this is understandable because Norinco began expanding its “land systems” portfolio at a rapid pace in the 1980s and never slowed down. The original Type 59 is a medium tank resembling the Soviet vintage T-55. Its descendants are the Type 62 light tank, the Type 63 amphibious tank, and the Type 69 medium tank. Norinco’s combat vehicle engineering advanced further with the Type 80/88 and the Type 85 then reached its current zenith with the Type 96, Type 99, and the Type 15. To serve its bottom line Norinco has assembled a new selection of exportable tanks based on its existing technology and these are the VT1, the VT2, the VT3, the VT4, and the VT5. A chart below tabulates the armaments and features of these tanks as a useful reference.

Chinese-made tanks and combat vehicles are understandably attractive for African militaries when alternatives from NATO countries and even Russia are out of reach. Trying to purchase third-generation main battle tanks such as the Leopard 2 can be very problematic for their cost, the export controls the supplier may have to follow, and the long-term maintenance. On the other hand, Chinese-made tanks are sound investments for costing less and having interchangeable spare parts. Pakistan’s own experience with using Ukrainian-made engines on its Al Khalid/Al Khalid I tanks is illustrative of this advantage.

Other combat vehicles China is supplying to African militaries are the Dongfeng EQ2050 that resembles the US-made HMMWV; Type 90 tracked APC; VN2 wheeled APC; the SR5 rocket artillery system; and the AR1 long-range rocket artillery system. There’s a growing trend of Chinese aircraft and drones sold to African militaries whose impact on a vulnerable regime’s internal security is considerable.

CrewWeightArmamentClassOther Name
VT1348 tons125mm gunMBTMBT 2000
VT2/2B344 tons125mm gunMBTType 96/96A
VT3440.5 tons125mm gunMedium TankType 59G-125
VT4352 tons125mm gunMBTMBT 3000
VT5335 tons105mm gunLight TankType 15

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