The Chinese Type 99 Tank: Rapidly Closing the Gap

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

Compared to the most prominent armament producers worldwide, the Chinese tank construction sector is still in its infancy. The Chinese government has explored all possible avenues to create copies of the world’s most sophisticated armaments and military hardware. Because imitation is the only strategy that is likely to be successful during the process of establishing a new market, this behaviour is not shameful. 

The main battle tank (MBT) ZTZ 99, also known as Type 99, is the crown jewel of Chinese tank manufacturing. In 1999, China displayed the Type-99 main combat tank based on a failed variant of the Type-98 tank. The design was based on the Soviet T-72 tank. In contrast to most other tanks of the third generation (according to a different classification, fourth), the Chinese were able to produce about 1000 ZTZ 99 tanks, a significant number. The 99s are being upgraded to the ZTZ-99A now.

General Characteristics

The ZTZ-99A is comparable to the Russian T-90M Breakthrough, the German Leopard 2A6M, the Israeli Merkava Mk.4M, the South Korean K2 Black Panther, and the American M1A2 SEP “Abrams” in terms of performance and battle characteristics. The Type 99 tank combines a hull resembling an extended T-72 with a turret of Western design inspired in part by the German Leopard 2. The Chinese MBT weighs 54 tons and is protected by combination armour, JD-3 active, and dynamic protection. The tank is powered by a German MTU diesel engine MB 871 Ka-501 with 1,500 horsepower, enabling the tank to reach 80 km/h on the highway and 60 km/h on rough terrain. On asphalt and without additional fuel tanks, the tank travels at least 450 km. The tank’s specific power is 27.8 horsepower per tonne.

Fire Control System

The fire control system of the tank is comprised of a gunner’s sight that has a built-in laser rangefinder and a thermal imaging channel, a commander’s panoramic combined sight (the image from the thermal imager is displayed on both displays), a 2-plane weapon stabiliser, a digital ballistic computer, and a set of sensors. Additionally, the fire control system has a bunch of sensors that can detect and analyse a variety of environmental factors. 


The Type 99 tank’s armour construction matches the Soviet T-80 and T-90 tanks. Between two layers of steel, it consists of a composite material layer (Fiberglass, corundum, or other).

The armour protection of the frontal projection of the newest series of tanks is strengthened by installing dynamic protection blocks atop the turret in a “corner” on top of the main armour. In addition, the tower’s sides are also secured by dynamic protection set on top of the lattice basket. According to Chinese specialists, dynamic protection is multilayered and protects against cumulative and armour-piercing subcaliber bullets.

The tank’s laser active protection system is unique to the “99.” It comprises a laser warning system LRW (mushroom sensor behind the commander’s hatch) and a quantum generator ZM -87 (box housing behind the gunner’s hatch).

Laser Countermeasures

The ZM-87 laser countermeasures system is on the turret roof’s left aft portion. The complex can detect hostile optical observation systems by receiving a signal reflected from the optical elements of the opponent’s optical observation systems. Laser irradiation is used as a countermeasure against hostile observation equipment, causing its destruction or blinding the observer. Reportedly, the ZM-87 complex can affect human vision at a range of 1-2 km; this distance grows to 5 km when a 7x zoom device is utilised. In addition, short-term “flash blindness” may be created at a distance of 10 km. The dome-shaped strut in the centre of the turret roof is supposedly the laser warning system’s onboard receiver. Interestingly, this receiver also serves as a laser communication system between tanks.


The combat vehicle’s weaponry is fitted with a 125-mm ZPT-98 smoothbore cannon, a non-licensed copy of the Soviet 2A46M tank gun. Despite the apparent plagiarism, the Chinese gunsmiths went in the opposite direction: first, they learned the metallurgy required for casting gun barrels, and then, entirely independently, they perfected the technology of casting gun barrels. Some sources claim that the Chinese worked on a metal containing a specific alloy that provides the tool with great thermal conductivity and resilience to wear. The tank can fire more shots without replacing the cannon, and the gun’s firing range along a flat trajectory is 15–20 percentage points higher than that of international competitors. China aims to put a 140 mm cannon on the Type 99 tank, even though the gun barrel was damaged during preliminary testing. 

According to some accounts, work is ongoing to upgrade the Type 99A2 tank with HJ-12 (Red Arrow) anti-tank missiles, permitting the tank crew to launch long-range missiles from confined fire positions.

Automatic loading was another feature borrowed from Soviet tanks; however, Chinese ammunition was designed following their strategy. (Allegedly) In collaboration with Israeli experts who had previously worked on armour-piercing sub-calibre shots for the Merkava tank, Norinco created new armour-piercing sub-calibre ammunition from depleted uranium. Its velocity is estimated to be close to two kilometres per second, making it between 40 and 50 per cent quicker than equivalent projectiles produced in other countries.

One of the additional armaments included a duplicate of the Soviet Reflex ATGM and a pair of machine guns QJC-88 2.7 mm and 7.62 mm. 

The Type-99 tank lacks distinguishing features compared to Russian or American tanks. This is a relatively drab machine, a true workhorse in a land fight, “lacking in flamboyance.” Although it has not been exported or used in combat, a legitimate export opportunity is now available for the Type-99 tanks.


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