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Bangladesh Bought The Newest Chinese Tanks

February 25, 2023

A Norinco VT5 tank at the December 16 parade. Via BTV.

The last Victory Day parade in Dhaka, the capital of the densely populated South Asian state, had few surprises but did offer more proof Chinese armor has a loyal clientele. Seen at the December 16 event at the National Parade Ground were a formation of VT5 tanks accompanying their older siblings the VT1 or MBT 2000. The VT5’s are best described as Norinco’s most up-to-date light or medium tanks–the distinction is arguable–and separate variants of these are in service with the PLA ground force as the Type 15. Although its neighbor India was responsible for securing its independence from Pakistan in 1971 the country’s armed forces have embraced China as its main supplier.

Tanks with the characteristics of the Norinco VT5 are now scarce in the West where expensive third-generation MBTs have endured. Back in the 1980s there was a final spurt of development for scaled-down tanks by manufacturers such as Cadillac Gage and Vickers but neither effort found long-term success. In the same period China allowed its military-industrial sector to export abroad and reap profits and models such as the Type 69 and the Type 85 found many takers. Bangladesh’ army today fields five generations of Chinese-made tanks: the Type 62, the Type 59G (armed with a 125mm gun), the Type 69-IIG (armed with a 105mm gun), the MBT 2000, and the VT5.

The VT5 is unique for its armaments and modest proportions. After a quarter century developing main battle tanks or MBTs Norinco returned to the 105mm caliber main gun for its newest tank project. But unlike the rifled and manually loaded 105mm guns on the PLA’s outdated Type 59D’s the Type 15 and the VT5 use autoloaders fed by a magazine installed behind the turret. A surprising detail about the VT5’s delivered to Bangladesh are their secondary armament, which is a standard W85 heavy machine gun; it’s possible to equip the turret of the VT5 with a remote weapon station combining a machine gun and an automatic grenade launcher. The army received its VT5 tanks earlier in 2022 and it’s estimated only a few dozen were ordered.

The army ordered and fielded a small batch of Norinco MBT 2000’s in the 2010s. These used to be Norinco’s largest exportable tanks–another batch was delivered to Myanmar–and its armament is comparable to a Soviet or Russian T-72. The MBT 2000 has larger dimensions compared with either the T-72 or T-90 and has a different heavy machine gun on the commander’s hatch: a W85 rather than the ubiquitous NSV. The army’s maintenance of its MBT 2000’s became problematic, however, as its sole tank repair facility wasn’t equipped for the upkeep needed by the fleet. At the December 16 parade last year a formation of MBT 2000’s followed the VT5’s that took part.

In quantity and value China remains the largest supplier to Bangladesh’ armed forces although Russia and the US are distant competitors. The locally assembled BD-08 rifle, which is the Type 81 assault rifle, is still the basic small arm for the army and the main anti-armor and anti-bunker weapon is the PF-98 recoilless rifle. Towed artillery pieces such as the 130mm Type 59-1 and the 122mm Type 83, along with 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft guns, are indispensable for the ground forces. The indigenous rocket artillery is of Chinese origin as well with the “Tiger” systems now extending from 122mm launchers to 300mm launchers. Chinese-made air defenses like the HQ-7B are the most advanced air defenses in service. The air force hasn’t decided to replace its F-7-series fighters and the navy sails with a Chinese-made fleet.

Norinco’s land systems enjoyed a resurgence in the 2010s and may have greater demand this decade as European and Russian production ebbs and US arms export controls are tightened to accommodate allies. The newest VT4/MBT 3000 tanks were sold to Nigeria and Thailand while full assembly was transferred to Pakistan. Opportunities abound in Central Asia, many parts of Africa, in the Middle East, and Latin America.

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