PLAGF has inducted the 33-tonne ZTQ-105 to prevent wet-gap crossings
Prasun K. Sengupta
Since late 2019 China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF) has been giving high-publicity to the service induction of the 33-tonne ZTQ-105 medium battle tank (MBT), which is presently undergoing service induction within both the Tibet Military District (TMD) and the South Xinjiang Military District (XMD) of the Western Theatre Command, as well as in the Eastern Theatre Command. In addition, the PLA Marines have begun receiving their ZTQ-105s. Claimed by the PLAGF to be capable of firing armour-piercing APFSDS projectiles out to a distance of 3km and supposedly penetrating 500mm of rolled homogenous armour, the ZTQ-105 is arguably the most recognisable component of the PLAGF’s equipment modernisation.
Developed by China North Industries Corp (NORINCO, the ZTQ-105 is thus a good case study to illustrate the direction of the PLAGF’s hardware upgrades. It was tailored for operations in hostile environments such as altitudes over 4,500 metres above sea level and soft muddy terrain. Its V8 engine with a bore diameter of 132mm, stroke length of 145mm, and maximum RPM of 2,600, and output of 660kW of maximum continuous power gives the MBT a power-to-weight ratio of 20kW/tonne. To overcome the thin air of the Tibetan Plateau, the engine is equipped with a two-stage turbocharger that minimises power loss. It is also equipped with a warmer to facilitate quick ignition in extremely cold weather. The engine is coupled to a hydro-mechanical automatic transmission together as a powerpack that can be replaced within 30 minutes. The suspension is a semi-active torsion bar system sporting electronically controlled viscous dampers with adjustable orifices that are narrowed or widened in real-time depending on sensor readings, thereby providing a smoother ride and reducing crew fatigue—important in the oxygen-sparse atmosphere. If the system breaks down, it simply becomes a passive viscous damper that still provides decent ride quality.
Due to its unique operating environment of highly adverse and isolated terrain where resupply and replacements have great difficulty reaching, the ZTQ-105 is designed with multipurpose functionality to get as much bang for the buck as possible. Its digital fire-control system (FCS) is integrated with both direct and indirect fire modes, allowing the ZTQ-105 to stand in for field artillery howitzers if needed. This is achieved by equipping the MBT with high-precision inertial measurement gyros and Beidou GPS receivers connected via a CAN databus to a central computer. This allows its position and orientation in space to be precisely known so that the Battalion or Brigade Fires Director can construct an accurate spatial representation of shooters and targets in 3-D and accurately plan indirect fires. Another feature enabled by constant position and orientation awareness is that a ZTQ-105 can hand over prosecution of a target to another ZTQ-105 in the network if it is unable to prosecute the target itself due to, say, a damaged gun or lack of ammo; essentially remote-controlling someone else’s gun to shoot whatever it is looking at even if the target is obscured to the shooter vehicle. This is possible because every vehicle in the network knows its position and orientation relative to everyone else, and if one MBT knows the position of the target in a 3-D space, everyone does.
Many of ZTQ15’s features such as FCS automation, digital information displays, high-power-density diesel engine, and networked fleet-based combat lay the foundations for the PLAGF’s next-generation MBT. The PLAGF’s current in-service FCS on its MBTs already automates target range-finding, tracking, and leading. This leaves the gunner responsible for target acquisition, firing, and damage assessment. When not engaging a target, the gunner is also responsible for scanning the highest-threat sector where the turret is pointed, usually frontal. Further refinement of automation technologies in the next 10 years could mean that the gunner only has to spot or confirm an enemy and the FCS will do the rest. The commander’s communications and scanning functions have also been automated to a large degree. Recent developments in wearable displays and augmented reality technology promises even greater improvements in this field for both the gunner and commander. Drivers, too, have an increasingly easy time as old unassisted tillers turned into steering wheels while transmissions became smoother and then fully automatic. Vehicle parameters that required driver attention have gradually come under the stewardship of electronic control units, freeing up drivers to pay greater attention to their surroundings.
It is thus being seriously considered by the PLAGF to merge the gunner and commander into one position and expand the driver’s role to include communications and forward-sector scanning for the next-generation MBT. The resulting two-man crew can each have an 80cm-wide workspace and be protected by a healthy amount of side-armour without the vehicle exceeding 3.5 metres overall width or be any heavier than existing MBTs. The unmanned turret can be lightly armoured, cutting turret weight by more than 10 tonnes, which can then be devoted to more armour for the crew. More refined automation and seamless integration and presentation of imagery and data from on-board and off-board sensors will allow the next-generation MBT to have situational awareness superior to today’s MBTs despite a reduction in crew size. The ZTQ-105’s extensive use of networked vetronics and new information terminals should give NORINCO’s MBT designers hard data and operational experience that will help them identify promising approaches for the next-generation MBT. However, successful development of informationisation and automation to a degree sufficient for a two-man crew in a reasonable timeframe is not guaranteed and it is very possible that the PLAGF’s next-generation MBT will retain a three-man crew. Regardless, the ZTQ-105 is a good indicator of the direction that the PLAGF is taking with its new equipment.
Over the past two years, the PLAGF has been evaluating the ZTQ-105’s ability to prevent the Indian Army’s mechanised formations from conducting wet-gap crossings within the Tibetan Plateau, which has many rivers and their tributaries that any offensive military force must cross to continue a land campaign. The PLAGF would need to stop these wet-gap crossings to achieve battlefield success. The following is one possible way that the PLAGF may attempt to prevent an enemy from crossing a major river and defeating it. The PLAGF will prepare to destroy an enemy wet-gap crossing by using deliberate plans and actions. It will use cover, camouflage, concealment, and deception in an attempt to mislead the enemy on the best location to conduct a deliberate river-crossing. The PLAGF will attempt to time its attack on the wet-gap crossing when the enemy units crossing the river are most vulnerable. It is likely that the PLAGF will allow a small number of the lead enemy units (like a Battalion) to stage and cross the obstacle, then close passage points/crossing sites, and then defeat the isolated enemy units on the near bank, destroy designated points/sites, and finish the enemy units grouped on the near and far bank areas.
The PLAGF will distribute its forces in the defence to destroy enemy river-crossing operations in the first defensive zone of its near bank. Its ground forces on the near and far river-banks will report on enemy movements while defending their own positions. Special Purpose Forces (SPF) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will conduct surveillance and track the enemy’s logistics areas and engineering capabilities in the PLAGF’s security zone. On order, the PLAGF will attack selected high-value targets (HVT) with the intent of destroying key enemy assets such as rocket artillery, tube artillery, and mortar systems before these units are deployed and fully integrated into the defence of the crossing sites. PLAGF observation posts on the river’s far bank will monitor the build-up of the enemy’s bridging and assault crossing material in engineer equipment parks and unit holding areas. The PLAGF can also be expected to detain local citizens among its battle positions as a shielding technique to preclude enemy massed fires. The PLAGF counter-reconnaissance detachment will attempt to defeat the enemy’s ground and low-altitude reconnaissance attempts, while security elements will screen the river’s near-bank and replace mines in areas previously cleared by enemy reconnaissance engineer parties. PLAGF indirect fires will attempt to disrupt the far bank enemy actions to establish bridges, but purposely will not prevent the emplacement of some limited bridging assets and a few units from crossing the wet-gap. Long-range fires will suppress support areas with observation by the SPF making the calls for fire. Once lead enemy units have crossed the river and are forming to continue their attack, designated PLAGF precision fires will shift to other HVTs, while the crossing sites will continue to receive massed indirect fires. PLAGF electronic warfare (EW) and signals reconnaissance units will attempt to locate the enemy’s main command post or targetting it with multiple rocket-artillery fire-assaults to temporarily neutralise command-and-control of the crossing areas and support units. The indirect fire-assaults will also hit passage lanes and far bank entry areas to close some of the bridge-crossing sites. Enemy assault boat crossings will likely stall when dismounted soldiers enter the re-mined areas on the near bank.
The PLAGF’s electronic information warfare campaign will attempt to portray a gap in its defences and convince the enemy to reinforce the attacking forces on the near bank in what appears first as a successful crossing. The enemy’s main effort will attack into the first PLAGF defensive array and attempt to envelop the defensive force as other enemy forces continue their assaults. The PLAGF will assume that the deception campaign has been effective and will lure the enemy along the desired route. The PLAGF commander will attempt to keep his reserves uncommitted. PLAGF EW, reconnaissance, SPF, and the deception campaign will attempt to suppress the enemy’s situational understanding of the river crossing site and support timely PLAGF tactical decisions. The PLAGF will also use lightly defended security outposts, simple battle positions, decoy battle positions, and conduct a planned delay by combined-arms elements to falsely indicate limited enemy manoeuvre success. Designated PLAGF forces will not engage the attacking ground forces that have reached the near-bank, will remain undetected, and will allow enemy lead forces to bypass their units into designated kill zones in the first defensive array. As more enemy force gets committed to this fight from the near-bank exit points, the first echelon defensive array will isolate and destroy the lead enemy forces in the kill zones. Other enemy forces supporting at the near-bank will be destroyed in detail. The PLAGF ground commander’s intent will be to make the attempted enemy wet-gap crossing fail and force the enemy to return to the far side of the river and possibly even retreat further in order to avoid observation by the PLAGF reconnaissance and SPF elements, as well as harassment by indirect fire weapons. The PLAGF commander will continue to improve his defensive positions in preparation for the next river-crossing or to lead a counter-attack against the enemy.