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Asia-Pacific , Ground

China's Deadly Armour; How Capable Are the PLA's Tank Divisions and Why They Matter

July 19th - 2018

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Ground Force fields the second largest tank force in the world. While under a third the size of neighbouring Russia’s tank divisions, the PLA Ground Force's armoured units include some of the most capable systems in the world and modernisation of these units has taken place at a far greater pace than it has in neighbouring Russia. Chinese tank technologies continue to advance at a pace which seriously threatens the country’s adversaries, and a number of its tank designs have been widely exported. With the main focus of China’s military having been the Pacific theatre, where vast waters separate the country from its potential adversaries and battle tanks are of limited use, the development of such ground weapons have drawn relatively little attention. Weapons systems applicable to a conflict in the South and East China Seas or the Taiwan Strait such as air superiority fighters, aircraft carriers, attack drones and 'carrier killer' anti ship missiles have drawn far more attention - but the modernisation of Chinese ground forces still remains worthy of mention. Indeed, while attention is currently focused towards the Pacific, the People’s Liberation Army is still tasked with protecting fourteen land borders which include the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan and India . With China having pledged to support North Korea in the event of a hostile attack on the country, facing U.S. troops and a growing Islamic State presence in Afghanistan, and seeing growing tensions on its border with India, battle tanks could very soon become extremely relevant to China’s defence.

By far the most numerous battle tank in Chinese service, making up the majority of its units, is the Type 96. With over 4,500 in service, the platform represents an extensive modernisation of the Type 88 - using a Soviet style chases and incorporating reverse engineered technologies from both Soviet and Western designs. Much as the Soviet and Russian T-90 represented an evolution of the T-72 design, so too did the Type-96 prove to be a potent modernisation based on the Type 96. In service since 1997, the platform continues to be modernised - with the Type 96A and Type 96B enhanced with cutting edge systems including modular amour, explosive reactive armour, improved fire control and main guns, thermal imaging, new enhanced engines, electro optical jammers and laser defence systems. Much like the Russian T-72B3 and T-90MS, the new variants of the Type 96 represent highly modernised platform unrecognisable from the capabilities of the original tanks which in many ways exceed the capabilities of far newer third generation designs.

While the Type 96 is China’s most numerous tank, it is hardly the most advanced. China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Force First Inducted the Norinco Type 99 third generation main battle tank in 2001. The platform today remains the most potent of all Chinese tank designs, and one of the most advanced in the world. With over 600 in service the Type 99 can outrun both the American M1 Abrams and the Russian T-90 - within its fifty ton weight putting it between the notoriously heavy Abrams and the lighter T-90. Unlike the Type 96, the Type 99 is not available for export and has been reserved exclusively for China's defence needs. It makes use of composite armour and explosive reactive armour - a system made to detonate incoming shells prematurely and thereby increase the tank’s survivability. The tank also comes equipped with some of the world's most sophisticated laser defence systems including a laser warning receiver and a dazzler laser designed to tap enemy laser and infrared guided missiles.

While the U.S. M1 Abrams tank previously suffered from poor survivability, equipping the platforms with the Israeli Trophy active protection system has made its survivability comparable with the Type-99. The Chinese platform nevertheless retains significant advantages in mobility, range and firepower - as well as being significantly lighter and easier to transport. Indeed the only significant advantage of the U.S. platform is numerical, with the U.S. Army fielding well over 5,000 Abrams tanks - the only battle tank in its inventory. Transporting these platforms to meet Chinese tanks in an offensive, whether to Afghanistan across Pakistani or Russian territory or to the Korean Peninsula where all incoming ships and aircraft are highly vulnerable to attack, remains a constraining factor which limits this advantage - particularly with U.S. forces stretched across multiple major fronts in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere which make deployment of even a fraction of its armoured might against China unlikely.

The Type 99 platform represents a lower profile yet significant field in which China has overtaken or at the very least matched competitors with longstanding dominance in the armoured warfare. While its technologies are matched and in many ways surpassed by Russia’s T-14 Armata, South Korea’s K2 Black Panther and possibly even the Japanese Type 10 - the world’s only three fourth generation battle tanks in service at present, the Type 99 nevertheless represents what is very likely the world's foremost third generation platform. Indeed, at the rate the China’s defence industry is advancing and considering the PLA’s efficient use of the country’s vast defence budget for research and development, China is highly likely to develop a fourth generation battle tank well before leading Western producers such as the Untied States and Germany. 

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