Neighbour’s Envy

China makes steady strides in firepower and mobility

Prasun K. Sengupta

Although China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) boasts of having about 7,600 main battle tanks (MBTs), only about 700 of them — ZTZ-99As and ZTZ-99Bs — can qualify as being fourth-generation vehicles. The remaining 6,900 are all derivatives of the Soviet-era T-55s and T-72M.

ZTZ-96A MBT of Tibet Military District

Consequently, as of today, the PLA’s operational MBT fleet comprises about 700 fourth-generation, 1,500 third-generation, 400 second-generation, and 5,000 first-generation units. In comparison, back in 1997, the MBT inventory comprised about 6,200 first-generation and 1,600 second-generation MBTs. The first-generation MBTs include the ZTZ-59 (clone of the T-54), 37-tonne ZTZ-59II (clone of the T-55 and exported to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan) and the ZTZ-59D (whose export version is the 36.7-tonne Type-69MII that was exported to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand), all powered by 580hp water-cooled 12150L7 diesel engines. The 400 second-generation MBTs currently in service are the ZTZ-79 and ZTZ-88/ZTZ-88 MBTs (derived from the T-72’s design), while the ZTZ-96A/ZTZ-96B models belong to the third generation.

China secured a lucky break in the late Seventies when Israeli companies like Israel Military Industries, El-OP and Tadiran succeeded in teaming up with the state-owned China North Industries Corp (NORINCO) for upgrading the second-generation ZTZ-79 and ZTZ-88 MBTs through the incorporation of 105mm rifled-bore cannons (capable of firing armour-piercing, fin-stabilised discarding sabot or APFSDS rounds), hunter-killer fire-control systems, combat net radios, intercoms and automatic fire extinguishers.

However, only 700 ZTZ-79 and 200 ZTZ-88 MBTs were produced by NORINCO between 1980 and 1988 and they were all deployed along the then Sino-Soviet border in Xinjiang. These were the PLA’s last MBTs to be operated by a four-man crew. The 39.5 tonne ZTZ-88A (about 80 of which were exported to Myanmar in the early Nineties) used a Type-212 fire-control system and Type-83-I cannon with 48 rounds in storage, while the powerpack used a 730hp 12150L-7BW water-cooled diesel engine.

The PLA’s first third-generation MBT model was the ZTZ-96, which was an outgrowth of the export-oriented 41.5-tonne Type 85II and 46-tonne Type 90II (MBT-2000), both of which were exported to Pakistan. Only 500 ZTZ-96s were produced by NORINCO’s Baotou-based production plant (617 Factory) in Inner Mongolia the mid-Nineties and all of them were powered by six-cylinder 12150ZL-7BW engines that produced 730hp. The ZTZ-96 featured an angular welded steel turret armed with a 125mm smoothbore ZPT-98 cannon (cloned from the Soviet-era 2A46 Rapira) that was fed by an autoloader carousel. The frontal hull armour was 380mm thick, while the frontal turret armour measured 440mm thick.

Since the hull was made of welded composite steel panels, it offered 600mm in thickness against high explosive anti-tank rounds, while the turret cheeks–or arc–had an 850mm thickness. The PLA began fielding the improved ZTZ-96A in 2005 and its glacis was covered in a layer of locally-developed explosive reactive armour (ERA) plates, while the turret got reinforced with spaced panels. These were rectangular wedges on either side of the cannon that had either plastic or ceramic inserts for blunting direct hits by APFSDS rounds. Another ingenious countermeasure was the installing of ERA tiles over the storage racks, thereby creating a protective belt on the turret’s sides that doubled as containers for non-essential gear. The rubber skirts for protecting the thinly armoured hull were retained.

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