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China Keeps Evolving Its Best APC

June 3, 2022
Via Chinese state media.

Recent footage of mobility tests for the PLA’s largest wheeled troop carrier, known as the ZBL-09 and given the export designation “VN1,” showed a redesigned hull where the roof over the passenger compartment is elevated. A remote weapon station for a 12.7mm heavy machine gun made by Norinco was added and next to it is what looks like a pivoting EO/IR sight wrapped in fabric that’s likely controlled by a separate operator. Two small square hatches behind these mountings suggest where the operators are seated behind their control panels. The PLA ground force operate as many as 2,000 of these 8×8 APCs alongside older tracked models such as the Type 63, the Type 85, and the Type 86 (BMP-1) infantry fighting vehicles or IFVs. The heaviest troop carrier and IFV of the PLA is the ZBD-04/08 that’s analogous to the Russian-made BMP-3.

The original variant of the ZBL-09 that entered service by the late 2000s had a large turret whose armaments included a 30mm 2A72 cannon encased in a sleeve for mitigating its recoil, a coaxial light machine gun, and two externally mounted HJ-73 anti-tank missiles. The last type of weapon represents a perplexing choice by the manufacturer as it’s copied from the outdated Soviet vintage 9K11 Malyutka (the NATO designation is AT-3 Sagger) but with a slightly bigger warhead. Cost might have influenced the rationale to arm it with HJ-73’s, which are mass-produced by Norinco, since more advanced missiles are plentiful. Don’t forget there’s an overabundance of ATGMs made by Chinese manufacturers today that can be added to the ZBL-09’s turret.

Via Chinese state media.

These choices are laid out for end users who can acquire as many as 200 VN1 APCs–the export variant of the ZBL-09–in a single order. The exact product details for the VN1 APC in particular have been online for years now and there are Chinese trading companies that are allowed to handle its sale abroad. It’s a 20 ton wheeled APC with the same armaments (30mm cannon, machine gun, and a single HJ-73 ATGM) but in a different turret shape. If comparisons are needed it resembles the Patria AMV and the GDELS Pandur II. The VN1 seats 13 in total, including the driver and commander, with a top speed of 100 kilometers per hour and 8 km/h on water since it’s fully amphibious. The engine model is a 440 horsepower Deutz BF-6M 1015CP and overall protection is rated at STANAG V although the armor layout is kept vague. Remarkably, given how versatile it is and a price point that competes with an upgraded M113A2 APC, the sales record for the VN1 is limited and only Thailand and Venezuela are its confirmed foreign operators. (Estimated price per unit during the 2010s varied from $2,000,000 and $3,000,000.)

Norinco kept improving the VN1 and since 2021 have 13 variants available to end users looking for universal combat vehicles. The ST1 “tank destroyer” even helped enhance the Nigerian army’s combat vehicle fleet when a few were delivered together with at least a battalion of Norinco’s well-known MBT-3000/VT4 main battle tanks. The three most dangerous variants of the VN1 are the ST3, whose main armament is a 105mm gun for direct and indirect fires, and then the VN1 armed with either eight NLOS missiles or eight short-range anti-aircraft missiles. Other large armaments on the VN1 are a 122mm howitzer in a fully enclosed turret–this is in service with the PLA as the PLL-09/PLL09–and a 120mm mortar installed inside the hull. It’s important to acknowledge there are many wheeled APCs offered by Chinese manufacturers in either 4×4, 6×6, or 8×8 configuration. The VN1 and its siblings are just the best known among them.

If it looks like a downgrade for the PLA to experiment with a ZBL-09 mounting just a single heavy machine gun it’s wort pointing out a lightweight remote weapon station has been missing on this APC model for years. Since entering service in the late 2010s a lone manually operated machine gun, sometimes inside a cupola, were put on non-combat variants such as recovery vehicles. An RWS for a W85 heavy machine gun on an extremely indispensable and versatile APC conforms to the PLA’s broader push for automation and “informatization” in all aspects of its work. This improvement will definitely be available for the VN1 family whose armaments are more diverse than those found on the original.

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