The Chinese military machine has been growing at a blistering pace. With the development of state-of-the-art stealth aircraft and naval vessels, the country has come close to the United States regarding technological prowess. However, it is about more than just catching up for China. Some analysts see the dragon outpacing the US in the hypersonic missile race and even developing anti-ballistic ship missiles. Yet, experts have noted that although it is striding forward in developing strategic weapons, China has a chink in its armour!
This weak point is the country’s tanks. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a range of tanks- while some features showcase extensive hardware capabilities, many are designed with one fatal flaw- critical areas of several of the dragon’s tanks have only naked steel-plated armour to defend them. This design leaves them vulnerable to attack by weapons as old as 1960s-era high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warheads.
This has often led some observers to question whether the seeming design flaw stems from the lack of know-how, a paucity of funds, or is perhaps the result of a very different military doctrine compared to other major military powers like the US and Russia, for example. But before exploring the Achilles’ heel of these metal powerhouses, it is important to understand what kind of firepower China possesses regarding tanks.
The Dragon’s Scales
China sports a myriad of tanks in terms of quantity and type.
The most widespread of these are Type 59D- the oldest tank in the inventory of the PLA. It is modelled after the Soviet era T-54A, although with some upgrades. One significant modification is that the tanks are protected by China’s indigenous FY series of explosive reactive armour (ERA). ERA features a sheet or slab of high explosive positioned between two metal plates. The explosive detonates when penetrated by an object (likely a weapon), thus forcing the metal plates apart and damaging the attacking object. The ERA on Type 59D, while able to protect against HEAT-shaped warheads to some extent, can not protect against kinetic warheads.
Another modification is that the Type 59Ds come equipped with a bigger 105-millimetre gun instead of the 100 mm rifled gun. The fact that the gun can deploy armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS)- a kinetic energy penetrator ammunition, combined with the night vision optics that enhance the tanks’ operational capabilities ensure that the rounds fired by the Type 59Ds have high efficacy against armoured vehicles. However, they remain useless against modern Main Battle Tanks (MBTs).
China currently operates close to 3000 Type 59Ds. It is in the process of phasing them out as Beijing eyes new MBTs.
Extensive Firepower: The Chinese MBTs
Regarding China’s MBTs, Type 96 is one the most prevalent. The PLA has approximately 2,500 of these in its armoury. This tank has three primary versions: Type 96, Type 96A and Type 96B. The base is armed with the ZPT98, a large 125 mm smoothbore gun with a Russian-styled autoloader system. These allow for a higher level of sustained fire compared to manually loaded guns. The armour on the Type 96s front hull and turret is steel and composite. However, the armour is weaker on the lower frontal hull plate because it is made of steel only. The tank’s 730 horsepower engine does not suit its weight and adversely impacts its manoeuvrability.
The Type 96A features significant modifications, like the arrow-shaped modular armour installed on the tank’s frontal turret. It has the newer, more advanced FY4 ERA on the frontal upper glacis and an engine that provides 800 horsepower. This tank’s power-to-weight ratio is still lacking when compared to modern tanks. Type 96A features the ZPT 98 125 mm smoothbore gun, which can also use Russian-made Anti Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM). The tank is also fitted with a first-generation thermal imaging system, allowing it to spot hostile tanks as far as two kilometres away.
The technical specifications of the Type 96B variant are relatively scarce. Yet, a few updates, such as the 1130 Horsepower engine, are noticeable. This upgraded version also features a new transmission chassis ventilation and a second-generation thermal imaging system that increases nighttime detection. The armour appears to be somewhat better, too.
Beijing also has tanks that are a class above Type 96B. This mainly includes China’s third-generation MBT- Type 99, which is estimated to be present in the PLA arsenal in a number approximated at 1000. The base version is armed with a longer 50-calibre version of the ZPT 98 and fires the same ammunition used by the Type 96. Its base armour is believed to be an improvement over the still vulnerable Type 96. This is the courtesy of the newer FY series of ERA.
The Type 99A has a new 1500 horsepower engine, an active protection system designed to protect against HEAT, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and a laser warning receiver. It also boasts an improved gun with a new APFSDS projectile called the DTC10 125. This round touts a penetration power of anywhere between 650 to 800 mm at 2 km, nearly at par with the American military’s sophisticated kinetic rounds. The tank also has automatic target tracking with a ‘Friend of Foe’ identification system. Furthermore, it is equipped with a new ballistics computer.
Leveraging Light Tanks
In addition to these heavy tanks, the dragon also operates light tanks. Type 15 is a prominent one in this category. It is equipped with a 105 mm gun with an autoloader system. The weapon can shoot APFSDS and ATGMs, the former of which, although not as effective as the country’s MBTs, can still be used to counter China’s immediate adversaries, who presently use significantly older tanks. A light tank is strategically important as it can access areas where the deployment of bulkier tanks would prove to be extremely difficult. Such a capability is something that China must especially consider, given the fact that the topography of its regional rivals, such as India, Vietnam, and Taiwan, ranges from mountainous regions to sandy beaches.
The One Persisting Weakness
From the technical description of the tanks that Beijing possesses, it is clear that these vehicles have some undeniable merits. Yet, despite having certain uber-sophisticated pieces of military hardware, basic design flaws, the most important being the simple steel plate armour on the side hull of the Type 96s and Type 99s, make the vehicles especially vulnerable to asymmetric attacks. This is a glaring concern for the PLA as even armed guerilla groups with the most rudimentary RPGs could penetrate the armour and put the tank out of commission on the battlefield.
This is not just a theoretical possibility or speculation. The past two decades of urban warfare are a testament to this structural vulnerability. Tanks deployed in Iraq and Syria have been taken out by attacking them from particular side angles on numerous occasions. Analysts believe similar urban warfare tactics could take place in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. That possibility becomes prominent because Taipei is fully aware that it will be outnumbered by invading forces sent by Beijing and would need to avoid head-on engagement if it wants to retain any chance of survival. A prolonged engagement may only increase guerrilla tactics, such as using RPGs to immobilise tanks.
Other limitations of PLA tanks include the lack of satellite navigation display which forces them to rely on maps like their Russian T-72 counterparts and China’s dependence on a significant number of obsolete Type 59Ds. These tanks, as already mentioned, are likely to lose in any combat situation when pitted against any modern tanks.
Why Does The Issue Persist?
The armour issue is a recurring theme with Chinese tanks. What causes it to persist?
One of the most obvious reasons could be the lack of know-how in building these vehicles. The other potential cause could be the focus on power projection that needs to be sustained on a limited budget. It would then make sense for China to continue making inferior quality, offence-oriented tanks to ensure an elaborate show of power in numbers could be achieved with constrained financial resources.
Another important aspect that must be considered is the difference in military doctrines. How an armed force visualises the usage of a particular resource has a direct bearing on design. Chinese military doctrine, long believed by analysts to be designed for conventional warfare and conflict between states, does not foresee its forces to be deployed in a counter-insurgency environment. In such a scenario, the visualisation is likely to be of a tank-on-tank battle where the possibility of an attack from angles where the side hull can be damaged would be low. Here, offensive capabilities are likely to be prioritised. This could explain, to some degree, the improvements in the gun and the engine, but not the armour. Add to that China’s historical usage of overwhelming numbers- of soldiers and equipment- to its advantage, and the logic seems to become much clearer.
Indeed, the line of thinking adopted in the Chinese doctrine seems to overlook the likelihood of a non-state actor ambushing a Type 96 with an RPG, for instance. Engagements with tanks like Taiwan’s M60 are perhaps considered much more probable.
Yet another explanation could relate to the role of MBTs in modern warfare being called into question. MBTs are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ATGMs and other mines. While countermeasures like advanced composite armour active defence systems and other developments have been made keeping in mind modern battlefield threats, the R&D into the same comes at an exorbitant cost, leading China to channelise its resources elsewhere where it can get more bang for its buck. Modern tanks are far more sensitive and require tremendous maintenance, and in the event of combat, while most of the crew survive, that tank is often rendered unsalvageable- not to mention the additional burden of risking human lives to destroy the ruins so as not to let it land into enemy hands.
Armour No More The King Of Battle?
With new revolutions in military affairs (RMA), the PLA may have predicted that MBTs have reached the fag end of their combat value. Recent developments seem to reinforce this notion. The US, for instance, scrapped their M1 Abram replacement, supposedly owing to budget constraints. Russia’s T-14s have also experienced setbacks; while Israel has scaled down their armoured forces, the United Kingdom tossed their Challenger 2 replacement; meanwhile, Germany and France scrambled for vehicles with similar capabilities but not necessarily MBTs.
China’s rapid developments of uber-advanced stealth fighter jets, aircraft carriers and hypersonic weapon systems indicate that the country does not lack technical skills. The level of strategic weapons systems that are developed trumps the technological know-how required to produce tanks. The priority of developing these strategic weapons has been seen as a way to keep the US on the back foot in the western pacific whilst giving China the requisite time to bolster its lagging land forces.